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

Utilitarian Aesthetics and National Park Management

Mather and other supporters of the National Park Service have sometimes been identified as "aesthetic conservationists," concerned about preserving lands for their great scenic beauty-as opposed to the "utilitarian conservationists" exemplified by Gifford Pinchot and the Forest Service, who sought sustained consumptive use of natural resources. [157] Certainly, through its determined efforts to preserve the scenic facade of nature, the Park Service under Mather focused on aesthetic conservation. But as practiced during the early decades of the Park Service, the nurturing of forests and certain animal species that contributed most to public enjoyment had a strongly utilitarian cast. It was, to a degree, even "commodity" oriented, as with fish management and the ranching and farming types of operations intended to ensure an abundance of the favored large mammals.

Just as it was virtually impossible to separate the basic idea of national parks from tourism development and economics (a connection dating back to the Northern Pacific Railroad's support of the 1872 Yellowstone legislation), so too was it difficult to separate the treatment of specific park resources (bears, fish, and forests, for example) from the promotion of public enjoyment of the parks, which fostered tourism and economic benefits. In viewing recreational tourism effectively as the highest and best use of the national parks' scenic landscapes, and developing the parks for that purpose, the Service took a "wise use" approach to the parks-an approach reflected in the bureau's capitalist-oriented growth and development rhetoric. Through the promotion of tourism in the national parks, scenery itself became a kind of commodity.

The basic concept of setting lands aside as national parks, the development of the parks for tourism, and the detailed management of nature in the parks-none of these ran contrary to the American economic system. The establishment of national parks prevented a genuine free-enterprise system from developing in these areas and required a sustained government role in their management. But this was done in part as a means of protecting recognized scenic values, which through tourism also had obvious economic value. With regard to national parks, aesthetic and utilitarian conservation coalesced to a considerable degree; frequently the differences between the two were not distinct. The national parks, in fact, represented another cooperative effort between government and private business-notably railroad, automobile, and other tourism interests-to use the resources of publicly owned lands, particularly in the West. Through the Park Service, the federal government collaborated with business to preserve places of great natural beauty and scientific interest, while also developing them to accommodate public enjoyment and thereby creating and perpetuating an economic base through tourism.

With no precedents and no scientific understanding of how to keep natural areas unimpaired, the newly created National Park Service believed that it was truly preserving the parks. During Mather's time the Service seemed to define an unimpaired national park as a carefully and properly developed park. With use and enjoyment of the parks being unmistakably intended by the Organic Act, harmonious development of public accommodations became a means of keeping parks "unimpaired" within the essential context of public use.

In comparison with other public and private land management practices of the time that championed consumptive use of resources, the national parks stood almost alone in their orientation toward the preservation of nature. Generally perceiving biological health in terms of attractive outward appearances, the Service seemed to believe that it could fulfill what Mather called the "double mandate" for both preservation and public use. It could preserve what it considered to be the important aspects of nature while promoting public enjoyment of the parks. For instance, the 1918 Lane Letter, the principal national park policy statement of the Mather era, embraced these two goals without any suggestion of contradiction. It asserted that the parks were to remain "absolutely unimpaired," but also stated that they were the "national playground system." [158]

The Park Service's faith in the importance of development and its compatibility with maintaining natural conditions in the parks found expression on no less than the bronze plaque honoring Stephen Mather, cast shortly after his death and with replicas in many national parks and monuments. The plaque's inscription noted that in laying the "foundation of the National Park Service" Mather had established the policies by which the parks were to be "developed and conserved unimpaired" for the benefit of future generations (emphasis added). [159] This assertion-in effect a restatement of the Organic Act's principal mandate-affirmed the belief that developed parks could remain unimpaired. It would characterize Park Service rationale and rhetoric from Mather's time until at least the end of the first half-century of the Service's history. By that time (the mid-1960s) increased postwar tourism and an improved understanding of ecology would reveal much more clearly the inherent tension between park development and preservation.

Biologist Charles Adams recognized in 1925 that the U.S. Forest Service had been launched with the advantage of a forestry profession already developed in Europe in the late nineteenth century. In contrast, he believed that national parks were a "distinctly American idea," with European precedents limited to "formal park design rather than large wild parks" such as those in the United States. Adams noted also that there had been "no adequate recognition" that "these wild parks call for a new profession, far removed indeed from that of the training needed for the formal city park or that of the conventional training of the forester." [160] In effect, America's national parks required more than "facade management"-more than the customary landscape architecture and forestry practices of the Park Service.

Indeed, during the Mather era the Service built on precedents it found in landscape design and in tourism and recreation management to make the parks enormously inviting. Although operating under a unique and farsighted mandate to keep the parks unimpaired, the newly established bureau relied on precedents of traditional forest, game, and fish management. The Service practiced a selective kind of preservation, promoting some elements of nature and opposing others-altering natural conditions largely in an attempt to serve the other part of its mandate, the public's enjoyment of the parks.


Preserving Nature in the National Parks
©1997, Yale University Press
sellars/chap3j.htm — 1-Jan-2003