Preserving Nature in the National Parks
A History
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Chapter 4
The Rise and Decline of Ecological Attitudes, 1929—1940

Park Service Leadership and the Wildlife Biologists

In addition to efforts to make tourism development harmonious with scenic park landscapes, the Service during the Mather era tended to measure its success in leaving the parks unimpaired by the degree to which it restricted physical development. The undeveloped areas (the vast backcountry of the parks) were considered to be pristine, evidence that park wilderness had been preserved. For example, in the fall of 1928 Yellowstone superintendent Horace Albright (soon to succeed Mather as Park Service director) published a Saturday Evening Post article entitled "The Everlasting Wilderness," in which the absence of physical development was equated with pristine conditions. Responding to fears that the Service might "checkerboard" the parks with roads, Albright noted the relatively small percentage of lands impacted by road and trail construction in the parks. He argued that Yellowstone's roads affected just ten percent of the park, leaving the remaining ninety percent accessible only by trail—a huge backcountry of "everlasting wilderness" with flourishing wildlife and excellent fishing streams. Comparable statistics were given for Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Mount Rainier, and other parks. All national parks, he wrote, were to be "preserved forever in their natural state," and the vast majority of Yellowstone's lands remained as "primeval" as before the area became a park. [2]

Albright notwithstanding, virtually the entire scientific effort within the National Park Service during the 1930s contradicted such thinking. A clear and concise statement of the scientists' perceptions came in a 1934 memorandum from Ben H. Thompson, one of the Wildlife Division's biologists, when he wrote to Arno B. Cammerer (who succeeded Albright as director in 1933) about setting aside supposedly pristine park areas solely for scientific study. Thompson bluntly declared that no "first or second class nature sanctuaries are to be found in any of our national parks under their present condition." He cited factors such as the parks' limited size; even a park as large as Yellowstone could not provide "protection and habitat unmodified by civilization" for carnivores and large ungulates.

Thompson then detailed some of the changes that had occurred. He declared that cougar, white-tailed deer, wolf, lynx, and perhaps wolverine and fisher, were most likely "gone from the Yellowstone fauna." Rocky Mountain National Park's "carnivore situation" was much the same, except that it had also lost its grizzly population. At Grand Canyon feral burros had "decimated every available bit of range" in the canyon, and domestic livestock had taken a "heavy toll from the narrow strip of South Rim range." Moreover, Grand Canyon's cougars were "almost extirpated," and bighorn sheep "greatly reduced," while the "entire ground cover and food supply for ground dwelling birds and small mammals" had been altered by cattle grazing. Yosemite National Park had lost its bighorn and grizzly populations, and its cougars were "almost gone." In Glacier the grizzly were "very scarce," the trumpeter swan and bison were missing, and game species in general were "seriously depleted because of inadequate boundaries." Finally, Thompson commented that there was "no need to repeat the story for the smaller parks." [3]

Thompson's views of park conditions were in striking contrast to Albright's depiction of the parks as "preserved forever in their natural state." Albright's ideas arose from essentially romantic perceptions of the majestic landscapes, equating the parks' undeveloped and unoccupied lands with unimpaired conditions—a perception almost certainly shared by Park Service officials and by the public.

But the new cadre of wildlife biologists judged the same landscapes in ecological terms. Although roads and other development had not penetrated many areas of the national parks, other activities had, such as predator control, cattle grazing, and suppression of forest fires. As Thompson indicated, these interferences had greatly altered natural conditions, affecting backcountry well away from developed areas.

The wildlife biologists thus became a minority "opposition party" within the Service, challenging traditional assumptions and practices—in effect reinterpreting in scientific terms the Organic Act's mandate to leave the parks unimpaired. Throughout the 1930s they urged that the Service concern itself not just with scenery and public enjoyment, but also with careful, research-based management of natural resources so as to leave the parks in a condition as near to pristine as possible. Events of the 1930s would reveal the Park Service's response to this new perception of its mandate.

The continuity between the administrations of Stephen Mather and Horace Albright has been seen as remarkably strong. [4] Indeed, Mather's constant reliance on Albright's support and advice resulted in a virtually seamless transition between the two directorships. Albright too was a promoter, builder, and developer of the national park system. As Mather's chief assistant and then as director, he greatly expanded the park system and managed the parks to ensure public enjoyment.

Albright's directorship was brief—January 1929 to August 1933. Reversing the direction taken by Mather, who left mining to work for the national parks, Albright resigned from the Service to become an executive of the United States Potash Company. Throughout the rest of his long life, however, he kept exceptionally close watch on Park Service activities, continually passing judgment on the Service's operations and speaking out with firmly held opinions. As director, he supported the survey and the Wildlife Division—yet he no doubt failed to anticipate the management implications of the wildlife biologists' new policies. A dedicated proponent of recreational tourism in the parks, Albright would remain steadfastly loyal to most management practices of the Mather era, which often would place him at odds with the wildlife biologists. At times, he proved one of their most vocal adversaries and critics.

Albright could criticize with authority. He had been one of the principal founders of the Park Service, Stephen Mather's closest confidant, superintendent of Yellowstone, and the Service's second director. After leaving the Park Service and joining U.S. Potash, Albright relocated from Washington to another hub of power, with an office in midtown Manhattan, high in the new complex known as Rockefeller Center. There he maintained close contact with national park benefactor John D. Rockefeller, Jr.—a relationship of enormous importance to National Park Service interests.

Arno Cammerer, Albright's successor, had been in the Service's directorate since 1919. Although much less dynamic than Mather and Albright (and less prominent in the annals of Park Service history), Cammerer effectively led the bureau during a period of rapid change and expansion. His tenure as director lasted until 1940, when for reasons of poor health (probably exacerbated by his protracted difficulties with Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes) he stepped down to become regional director in the Richmond, Virginia, office. As Park Service director during the New Deal era, Cammerer took advantage of many opportunities, using New Deal money and programs to develop the parks and move the Service much further along in the direction set by Mather and Albright. [5]

Establishment of the Service's scientific programs under Albright and Cammerer marked an important break in continuity from the Mather era. Yet the programs emerged only in a fortuitous, opportunistic way. In more than a decade of ever-expanding operations and expenditures, the Service had not felt it necessary to commit funds for scientific studies to improve its knowledge of natural resources and provide guidance for park management. Had George Wright not offered to fund a survey, the Service might well have waited many more years before initiating its own science programs. Moreover, wildlife biology is the only major management program in the history of the National Park Service to have started as a privately funded endeavor within the Service.

The Service's initial response to Wright's offer reflected the bureau's traditional approach to natural resource matters. For instance, Assistant Director Arthur E. Demaray (acting for Mather in September 1928) suggested that the survey be done not by the National Park Service but under the auspices of the Biological Survey, in keeping with the Service's established practice of using other government bureaus to do "special work of this kind," as Demaray phrased it. Demaray initiated informal talks with the head of the Biological Survey to implement this proposal. The Park Service directorate was persuaded otherwise, however, most likely by Wright, who was donating the funds and strongly believed that the Service itself should assert responsibility.

In favor of the wildlife survey, yet adhering to traditional Service attitudes, Albright emphasized the benefits that Wright's proposal would bring to national park educational programs aimed at enhancing public enjoyment and appreciation of the parks—the Service's chief concern. [6] In March 1929, two months after becoming director, he reported to the secretary of the interior on the Service's need for scientists—that they should be "attached to the educational division," which could "gather data for museums, for all other educational activities, and for the other divisions as needed." Albright also reported that there were no regularly appropriated funds for scientific research, yet he did not ask the secretary to provide such funds. Still, he approved of the scientific survey that Wright was funding, as did Ansel Hall, head of the Education Division, who saw the survey as urgently needed for both education and wildlife management. [7]

The wildlife survey was, in fact, assigned to Ansel Hall's Education Division, located on the University of California campus in Berkeley, where Wright had studied zoology and forestry. With the encouragement of Mather and Albright (themselves University of California alumni), the university was becoming a center of Park Service activity that included education, forestry, and landscape architecture, in addition to wildlife management. Wright's mentor, Joseph Grinnell, head of the university's Museum of Vertebrate Zoology and a longtime proponent of scientifically based management of the national parks, was close by. Also, Ben Thompson and Joseph S. Dixon, the biologists who had joined Wright on the wildlife survey team, were graduates of the university and former students of Grinnell. [8]

Particularly interested in Yosemite and other Sierra parks, Grinnell was an important figure in the promotion of scientific research in the national parks. In 1924 he and Tracy Storer had elaborated on their earlier thoughts on national parks in an article entitled "The Interrelations of Living Things," stating that the more they studied the parks the more they were aware that "a finely adjusted interrelation exists, amounting to a mutual interdependence" among species. They perceived that each species "occupies a niche of its own, where normally it carries on its existence in perfect harmony on the whole with the larger scheme of living nature." For wildlife management they urged the Service to take into account such habitat-related matters as food supply, shelter from predators, and secure breeding places. Throughout his career, which ended with his sudden death in 1939, Grinnell championed an ecological approach to national park management, and he regularly communicated with the wildlife biologists and Park Service directorate. [9]

Grinnell's ecological views reflected the evolving concepts of nature and natural systems that marked a significant scientific advancement during the period when Wright and his fellow Park Service biologists were launching their careers. Biologists were gaining an increased comprehension of the role of habitat in the survival of species; and an understanding of the importance of the overall environment in which different species existed melded animal and plant ecology and led to studies of food chains, predator-prey relationships, and other interrelationships of animal and plant life. [40] New ecological ideas underlay the growing academic interest in game management, and largely through Grinnell and his students new theories began to be applied to natural systems in the national parks.

Following preparatory work, Wright, Dixon, and Thompson began their field survey in May 1930. By the following spring they had completed a report of more than one hundred fifty pages, including brief analyses of most of the large mammals in the principal natural parks. Formal publication came in 1933, under the title Fauna of the National Parks of the United States: A Preliminary Survey of Faunal Relations in National Parks (referred to as Fauna No. 1, since it was planned as the first in a series of wildlife studies). A landmark document, Fauna No. 1 was the Service's first comprehensive statement of natural resource management policies, and it proposed a truly radical departure from earlier practices. The biologists proposed to perpetuate existing natural conditions and, where necessary and feasible, to restore park fauna to a "pristine state." Achieving this goal would require not only thorough scientific research but also, the report noted, "biological engineering, a science which itself is in its infancy." [11]

The wildlife biologists recognized a fundamental conflict in national park management: that efforts to perpetuate natural conditions would have to be "forever reconciled" with the presence of large numbers of people in the parks, a situation in land management that, they observed, had "never existed before." This conflict had contributed to a "very wide range of maladjustments" among park fauna. Identified as additional contributing factors were human manipulation of lands prior to park establishment and the "failure" to create parks as "independent biological units" with vital year-round habitats for the larger mammals. [12] To correct the maladjustments, the biologists proposed a number of actions. For example, those species extirpated from certain parks should be restored when feasible. And the species whose populations had been reduced to the "danger point" should receive management's special attention. Similarly, where park habitats had been seriously altered, they should be restored.

In confronting the impacts of public use of the parks, the team remained loyal to traditional attitudes, stating that public use "transcends all other considerations." Still, foretelling the concerns of Park Service scientists in decades to come, they urged that the "most farsighted administrative policy" was to "minimize the disturbance of the biota as much as possible." Alternative development solutions should be sought "even if a larger expenditure of money is thereby involved." [13]

Of all their proposed solutions, the survey team most frequently emphasized the need to expand boundaries to include year-round habitats for protection of wildlife that migrated out of the high-mountain parks during winter. It was, the biologists noted, "utterly impossible" to protect animals in an area they occupied only part of the year. With annual migration patterns having been of no concern in the initial establishment of park boundaries, the parks were like houses "with two sides left open," or like a "reservoir with the downhill side wide open." [14]

Fauna No. 1 recognized that nature had always been in a state of flux; thus, there "is no one wild-life picture which can be called the original one." Yet the biologists identified the "period between the arrival of the first whites and the entrenchment of civilization" in areas later to become parks as the point of reference for purposes of wildlife management. They believed that little could be determined regarding changes that had resulted from earlier, American Indian uses, adding that "the rate of alteration in the faunal structure has been so rapid since, and relatively so slow before, the introduction of European culture that the situation which obtained on the arrival of the settlers may well be considered as representing the original or primitive condition that it is desired to maintain." [15]

The report concluded with a series of recommendations entitled "Suggested National-Park Policy for the Vertebrates," which would, in fact, soon be declared official policy. Two recommendations were fundamental: the Service should base its natural resource management on scientific research, including conducting "complete faunal investigations . . . in each park at the earliest possible date"; and each species should be left to "carry on its struggle for existence unaided" unless threatened with extinction in a park. The remaining recommendations in effect qualified or elaborated on these two basic tenets, with specific statements on concerns such as protection of predators, artificial feeding of threatened ungulates, preservation of ungulate range, removal of exotic species, and restoration of extirpated native species. [16]

As an official policy recommendation from within a government bureau, Fauna No. 1's proposal for perpetuating and even restoring natural conditions was unprecedented in the history of national parks, and in all likelihood in the history of American public land management. George Wright acknowledged the limitations on such a proposal when he told the 1934 superintendents conference that the wildlife biologists realized the impossibility of keeping "any area in the United States in an absolutely primeval condition," but added that "there are reasonable aspects to it and reasonable objectives that [the Service] can strive for." [17]

Fauna No. 1 stands as the threshold to a new era in Park Service history. Its conception of "unimpaired" in essentially ecological terms marked a revolutionary change in the understanding of national parks by Service professionals. Recommendations for scientific research, ecological restoration, protection of predators and endangered species, reduction or eradication of nonnative species, and acquisition of more ecologically complete wildlife habitats were among the many farsighted aspects of this report.

Although he would later take serious issue with some of their proposals, Director Albright lent support to the early work of the wildlife biologists and indicated a broadening concern for their programs, beyond educational purposes alone. Although his policy limiting predator control in the parks (enunciated in the Journal of Mammalogy in May 1931) reflected pressure from outside the Service, it almost certainly was also influenced by the wildlife biologists, who would in Fauna No. 1 strongly recommend ending predator control. Very likely the biologists themselves drafted detailed commentaries such as Albright's 1932 "Game Conditions in Western National Parks," an account of various wildlife problems confronting the Service. In a June 1933 article in Scientific Monthly, entitled "Research in the National Parks" (again probably drafted by the biologists), Albright stated that it had been "inevitable" that scientific research would become part of national park management. Research, he observed, served not only education in the parks, but was "fundamental" to the protection of their natural features, as required by national park legislation. [18] Albright thus endorsed science as an important element in the Service's management of nature—a position he had not previously taken.

In addition, Albright began to provide fiscal support for the scientists. In July 1931, two years after the wildlife survey had gotten under way, the Service undertook to assume half the survey costs, with the other half still funded by George Wright. [19] And two years later, on July 1, 1933, the director formally established the Wildlife Division, with Wright as division chief and Dixon and Thompson as staff biologists. At this time the Service began to pay all costs. Headquartered at the University of California, the division was made part of the newly created Branch of Research and Education (successor to the Education Division) and placed under Harold C. Bryant, another student of Joseph Grinnell's.

With the Wildlife Division, the Service began to develop its own cadre of scientists who were "park-oriented," as Park Service biologist Lowell Sumner later recalled. Reflecting on the emergence of biological research and management in the 1930s, Sumner also observed that Fauna No. 1 soon became the "working 'bible' for all park biologists." In March 1934, Director Arno Cammerer endorsed Fauna No. 1's recommendations as official National Park Service policy. In a memorandum to the superintendents, Cammerer, who had recently succeeded Albright, pledged the Service to make "game conservation work a major activity." He admonished the superintendents that Fauna No. 1's policy recommendations (quoted verbatim in his directive) were "hereby adopted and you are directed to place [them] in effect." [20]

Cammerer's directive reiterated a recommendation Albright had made two years before, that the superintendents appoint rangers to coordinate wildlife management in each park—"preferably," as Albright had put it, men with "some biological training and native interest in the subject." (He was, in fact, endorsing a procedure already being used to select wildlife rangers.) Cammerer instructed the rangers to conduct a "continual fish and game study program" in each park, and to assist the wildlife biologists when they were in the field. [21] The biologists also received some support from the park naturalists, who, although busy with the growing educational programs, collected plant and animal specimens and provided other field assistance.

In addition to working with biologists, however, the wildlife rangers' natural resource management efforts included established programs such as controlling predator, rodent, and mosquito populations; assisting the foresters in fighting insects and fires; and working with fishery experts to stock park waters. [22] Consistently contradicting Fauna No. 1, these ranger activities represented traditional management practices that did not, as the biologists saw it, preserve natural conditions. Allied with the foresters, the wildlife rangers would quickly find many of their established practices strongly opposed by the biologists.

The biologists' efforts gained momentum with the advent of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal emergency relief programs, which made money and manpower available to the Park Service. The Service obtained increased support for park development from several relief programs, including the Works Progress Administration, Public Works Administration, and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Of these, the Civilian Conservation Corps most affected the Wildlife Division and the national parks themselves. Authorized by the Emergency Conservation Act of March 1933, the CCC put unemployed young men to work on public land conservation and reclamation projects. Soon becoming one of the New Deal's most acclaimed programs, it remained active until World War II. [23]

Quick to realize the potential of the New Deal programs, Director Albright aggressively sought CCC money and manpower for developing the national parks. However, CCC projects such as road and trail construction, administrative and visitor facility construction, and water and sewage development resulted in the extensive alteration of natural resources. Much of the CCC work conflicted with Fauna No. 1's call for "farsighted" policies to "minimize the disturbance of the biota." Living in camps of two hundred or more men, the CCC crews sometimes vandalized areas and harassed park wildlife. [24] In addition to extensive park development work, the CCC crews undertook many highly manipulative natural resource projects, such as assisting the wildlife rangers in mosquito control, firefighting, and removal of fire hazards.

In June 1933 Albright cautioned his superintendents that the CCC crews must "safeguard rather than destroy" the resources of the national parks. He suggested that the "evident dangers to wild life" resulting from CCC work might be kept at a minimum through consultation with the Wildlife Division. [25] Given such concerns, and at George Wright's urging, the Park Service used CCC funds to hire additional wildlife biologists to monitor CCC and other work in the parks. By 1936 the number of professionally trained wildlife biologists had grown ninefold, from the original three-man survey team to twenty-seven biologists. Most were stationed in the parks or in field offices. [26] Thus, Fauna No. 1 provided policies and the CCC provided funds for the Park Service to develop its own more scientifically informed natural resource management.

Still, overall commitment to the wildlife biology programs was limited. Just as the Park Service had begun its own scientific efforts only when Wright provided money from his personal fortune, it also took special New Deal funding (rather than the Service's regular annual appropriations) to finance most of the wildlife biology programs in the 1930s. Of the twentyseven biology positions, the Park Service's annual appropriations (which gradually increased during the Depression) paid for only four; the rest were funded with CCC money. [27] Ironically, then, with most of the Wildlife Division's money and positions coming from the CCC, the bulk of the Service's increased scientific effort was tied to park development programs —which resulted in considerable alteration to the very natural resources that the wildlife biologists sought to preserve.

In 1935, given the growing complexity of the division's work and its need to coordinate activities with other Park Service operations, Director Cammerer transferred the Wildlife Division to Washington, D.C. In its new headquarters and with an expanded staff of biologists located in key parks, the Wildlife Division reached its apex. Then, in February 1936, the Service's wildlife management programs suffered a severe setback with George Wright's sudden death in a head-on automobile accident east of Deming, New Mexico. Although not fully apparent at the time, the loss of Wright's impressive leadership skills marked the beginning of the decline of National Park Service science programs. Through the remainder of the decade the number of wildlife biologists would decrease, thereby diminishing their influence even before they were transferred to the Biological Survey in January 1940.


Preserving Nature in the National Parks
©1997, Yale University Press
sellars/chap4a.htm — 1-Jan-2003