Preserving Nature in the National Parks
A History
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Chapter 3
Perpetuating Tradition: The National Parks under Stephen T. Mather, 1916-1929

Deletions and Additions of Park Lands

In many instances, development considered inappropriate was in fact allowed to take place when Congress simply revised national park boundaries to exclude the proposed development from parks. An ambitious early effort to adjust a park's boundary had come in the 1880s with the attempt by mining interests to remove from park status a huge tract in the northeastern part of Yellowstone, through which they wished to build a railroad to mines near Cooke City, Montana. This attempt proved unsuccessful; however, a similar effort succeeded with the removal in 1905 of several hundred square miles from Yosemite National Park. The Yosemite deletions involved lands with many inholdings and with potential for timber and mineral production. [70] Such tradeoffs occurred on a smaller scale during the Mather years. For example, in Rocky Mountain National Park lands in several areas near the park's boundary and including private holdings were desired for irrigation reservoirs and thus legislatively removed from the park. In one instance the Service divested itself of an entire park-Sully's Hill, located in eastern North Dakota and deemed unworthy to be in the national park system. The area was turned over to the Biological Survey as a game preserve in 1931. [71] Although such deletions meant the loss of lands and natural resources, they also meant that the parks proper would not be impaired by the proposed development, which would occur outside the adjusted park boundary-thereby effectively sidestepping the protection issue.

In contrast, at the time of Mather's resignation in early 1929 the Service was seeking boundary extensions for Sequoia (the Kings Canyon area), Yellowstone, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Rocky Mountain, and Glacier national parks. [72] In proposing changes to park boundaries, the National Park Service was in effect demarcating the resources it wished to manage-the lands it hoped to leave "unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations." These efforts constituted a fundamental form of natural resource management in that they helped determine whether certain lands would be managed under national park policies or under the more consumptive policies of other land management bureaus or private interests.

The Service's efforts to determine which lands it would manage involved the larger question of supporting or opposing new park proposals-and the factor of scenery influenced decisions in all instances. The Lane Letter encouraged extensions of existing parks to complete their "scenic purposes." It mentioned in particular the High Sierra peaks bordering Sequoia National Park, and stated that expansion to include the Teton Mountains represented Yellowstone's "greatest need." [73] In this vein, Albright later recalled that when he and Mather first viewed the Tetons in 1916 they remarked that they had "never seen such scenery" and that they were "flabbergasted." During this initial visit they agreed that the "whole magnificent area" should become part of Yellowstone National Park. (In 1929, the Tetons-but very little of the Jackson Hole valley just east of the range-were established as a park separate from Yellowstone.) [74]

For new parks, the Lane Letter advised the Service to seek only those areas of "supreme and distinctive quality or some natural feature so extraordinary or unique as to be of national interest and importance"-only "world architecture" should be included in the national park system. As with the Tetons, Albright's enthusiasm for Utah's spectacular Zion Canyon was instantaneous. Before visiting Zion, he had heard it described as "Yosemite painted in oils"; and during his first visit to Zion he quickly determined it should become a national park. Shortly after seeing the area, he telegraphed Mather to tell him of its incredible beauty and to urge that they "do something about it." [75] Similarly, "world architecture" had been an obvious factor in the February 1917 establishment of Mt. McKinley National Park, the first national park created after the advent of the Service. Not only did the park include the highest mountain in North America, but it also was seen as a "vast reservoir of game," including caribou, Dall sheep, bear, and moose. More than with other early national parks, the spectacular wildlife was the chief motivating factor behind the park's creation, which Mather and Albright aggressively sought. [76]

During Mather's directorship, the Service gained some of the most spectacular national parks in the system-not only Mt. McKinley, Zion, and Grand Teton, but also Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon. Moreover, the establishment of Acadia, Great Smoky Mountains, Shenandoah, and Mammoth Cave national parks meant that the park system (and thus the Park Service) gained greater representation in the more populous and more politically powerful eastern states-a factor of considerable importance to Mather. [77] In addition, presidential proclamations created numerous national monuments, including two vast natural areas in Alaska: the Katmai volcanic area at the top of the Alaska Peninsula, and Glacier Bay, a region of immense glaciers in southeast Alaska. All of these units added enormously to the Park Service's reputation as protector of places of majestic natural beauty throughout the country. [78]

Although the Service was highly successful in expanding the system during Mather's tenure, it also fought against proposals that it believed did not meet its standards. And the question of "national park standards" (that is, which areas had clear qualifications to become national parks) became a significant issue. Most outspoken was the National Parks Association, which, even though it generally did not criticize the Service's management practices once a park was established, nonetheless sought to keep "inferior" areas out of the system. This concern intensified in the early 1920s when Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall proposed the "All-Year National Park," a group of small areas in southern New Mexico (close to some of Fall's own ranch land) that the association believed would make decidedly inferior national parks. With strong opposition from the association and the Park Service, and with Fall's political disgrace in the Teapot Dome Scandal, the proposal did not succeed. [79]

At about the time Mather left the directorship, Horace Albright reported that Congress was considering more than twenty bills for new parks, but that most of these "lacked merit." He noted further that there were "few worthy candidates for parkhood remaining"-a statement that did not anticipate the later growth of the park system. [80] The Service's chief objection invariably seemed to be the lack of sufficient scenic qualities. For instance, Mather opposed creating a park out of the colorful, eroded lands of southwestern North Dakota (much later to become Theodore Roosevelt National Park) because, echoing the Lane Letter, he believed they lacked the "quality of supreme beauty required by National Park standards."

Mather recommended that the area in North Dakota instead become a state park-a recommendation the Service made frequently for areas it did not want in the system. [81] Indeed, largely as a means of relieving pressure on the national parks, Mather convened a conference on state parks in 1921 to encourage growth of these local systems. Advocating a "State Park Every Hundred Miles," the National Park Service agreed to assist the states in their park programs. [82] The 1921 conference signaled a significant step toward involvement with affairs external to the national parks, which efforts would grow dramatically during the New Deal era.


Preserving Nature in the National Parks
©1997, Yale University Press
sellars/chap3d.htm — 1-Jan-2003