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

Ecological Concerns and Mather's Leadership

During the Mather years, objections to the Service's management of national park flora and fauna were infrequent (except for complaints from ranchers and others who basically opposed parks and wanted access to their resources). The Ecological Society of America's 1921 resolution against introduction of nonnative species was similar to resolutions by the American Association for the Advancement of Science adopted in 1921 and 1926. [149] Yet these statements hardly represented sustained criticism. The protest that built up in the middle and late 1920s against the killing of predators was perhaps the most severe criticism of the Service's natural resource management encountered during Mather's time. As was true of professional organizations, few individuals criticized the Service's treatment of nature in the parks. Joseph Grinnell, who had a special interest in Yosemite, may have been the most consistently vocal advocate for managing the parks on a more scientific basis. [150]

Probably the most penetrating critique came from biologist Charles Adams, who in his 1925 analysis of the parks urged that park management align itself with the emerging science of ecology. Adams' examination of such programs as fire, wildlife, and fish management led him to conclude that the Service must develop an ecological understanding of its natural resources. As he put it, if the Service is to preserve the parks "in any adequate manner... there must be applied to them a knowledge of ecology." He referred to the "theoretical" policy of maintaining the parks as wilderness-a policy to which the Park Service had "not adhered." The Service was not meeting what he believed to be its true mandate, the preservation of natural conditions in the parks. [151] Adams' critique was important as an early effort to promote ecologically based management of the national parks (and thus to interpret the Organic Act in that regard). Yet even more important was that it had little if any effect on national park policies: the Park Service under Mather was firmly set on a different course.

Adams noted also that naturalists in the parks were not "devoted to technical research, but in the main to elementary educational work with the park visitors." [152] Indeed, in addition to its manipulation of flora and fauna, the Service's natural history concerns focused on ensuring public enjoyment, not preserving biological integrity. Establishment of Ansel Hall's Education Division in 1925 confirmed the naturalists' duties as an important part of park operations. Hall, the chief naturalist, advised parks on museum planning and operation, and on hiring ranger naturalists and giving nature walks and evening campfire talks, among other programs. (The naturalist and education functions were forerunners of today's "interpretation" activities.) [153]

In the late summer of 1928, Hall's division rather suddenly moved toward generating a scientific base for natural resource management when Yosemite's assistant park naturalist, George M. Wright, an independently wealthy biologist, offered to fund a survey of national park wildlife. From his observations in Yosemite and other parks, Wright understood that the Service had no scientific understanding of its wildlife populations. [154] Presented with his proposal, the Park Service, after some deliberation, agreed to its first systemwide research designed to enhance management of natural resources. The project was to be conducted by an expanded educational division. Moreover, Wright's proposal prompted Albright's November 1928 suggestion to Mather that the Service develop its own scientific expertise, as it had already done with landscape architecture and engineering. As Albright saw it, the Service needed "a few specialists with scientific training who have strictly the National Park point of view." [155]

Under Mather the Park Service had established itself as a national leader in recreational tourism, but had done nothing in the way of research-based preservation of natural resources. Only at the very end of Mather's directorship-and with the promise of private funding-did the Park Service move to develop in-house scientific expertise to address natural resource management issues. Yet this shift toward ecologically informed management would have to contend with the emphasis on recreational tourism that Mather had firmly established, building on the policies of earlier park managers.

Little concerned about science and ecology, Stephen Mather was a promoter, builder, and developer of the national park system. Conservationists of later generations would question his devotion to tourism and the treatment of nature in the parks during his tenure, but his efforts greatly advanced the formation of a system of national parks that are today highly valued both for their scenery and for their biological richness. Assuming leadership at a propitious time in national park history and backed by highly placed conservation-minded friends, Mather made the parks an enduring feature of the American landscape and a source of national pride. He resigned as director effective January 12, 1929. Through fourteen years of extremely demanding work, interrupted by nervous collapses and culminating in a heart attack and a stroke, he sacrificed his health for what he saw as a truly grand cause. When Mather died in January 1930, a year after his resignation, tributes poured in from Congress, conservation groups, businessmen, officials, and friends across the country.

In organizing the Park Service and giving it direction, Mather imparted his vision of what national parks should be-ideas which the new bureau's emerging leadership readily accepted. In effect, Mather envisioned the national parks as "nature's paradise," a kind of rugged, mountainous version of peace and plenty. The Service sought to present the parks as a paradise of beauty and richness, free of fires and predators. Underlying Mather's vision were strong social concerns. He had thoroughgoing democratic and patriotic tendencies: to him, the national parks were places where American people, through "clean living in God's great out-of-doors," could renew their spirits and become better citizens. Furthermore, the parks were "vast schoolrooms of Americanism," where people could learn to "love more deeply the land in which they live." [156]

It is important to note that the management traditions firmly set in place by Mather and his emerging leadership cadres flowed quite logically from the founders' vision of the parks as scenic pleasuring grounds. Moreover, throughout Mather's career, Congress did not challenge his management and development of the parks. Rather, through creation of numerous new parks and through increased funding for development especially during his last years as director, Congress clearly indicated its approval of Mather's policies.


Preserving Nature in the National Parks
©1997, Yale University Press
sellars/chap3i.htm — 1-Jan-2003