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

Conflict over Park Development

The "conservation" aspects of the Civilian Conservation Corps were indeed utilitarian, oriented toward what was in effect "wise use" of the national parks' scenic resources through accommodating public use and enjoyment. Virtually all of the CCC's park development and much of its direct manipulation of natural resources were in one way or another intended to address such utilitarian concerns. The CCC and other New Deal park programs thus represented a continuation of the Service's traditional goals and values. With funds available in unprecedented amounts, it was possible to implement much of the park development envisioned in master plans prepared during Mather's and Albright's directorships. By one estimate, during the New Deal the Service was able to advance park development as much as two decades beyond where it would have been without Roosevelt's emergency relief programs. [28]

For the first time, wildlife biologists became involved in decisions on development, which previously had been the responsibility of landscape architects, engineers, superintendents, and the Washington directorate. Yet the biologists' role was mainly advisory. They reviewed and commented on details such as alignment of roads and trails and placement of facilities, calculating the impacts of development on fauna and flora, and recommending means of keeping impacts at a minimum.

Moreover, the biologists had limited involvement in updating park master plans. Writing to Cammerer in February 1934 on the need to include wildlife management in the plans, George Wright had argued that involvement would help "more than any thing else" to focus attention on wildlife issues. [29] As the biologists' influence reached its peak in late 1935, Wright had reiterated to the director the need for the master plans to include natural resource information—rather than "contemplated and completed physical development only." For example, Mount Rainier's plan should include a "fish sheet," describing the "kinds and distribution of native fishes" before their being affected by modern human activity. It should also comment on the advisability of stocking native or exotic fish species and whether or not the park truly needed a fish hatchery. This kind of information would, Wright asserted, provide help "which the master plans could, but do not, give," and thus would protect against the "honest but sometimes misguided zeal" of superintendents who had to manage the parks without such information. [30] Despite his pleas, there is no indication that the biologists achieved substantial involvement in the Service's master planning process.

The biologists reviewed a variety of park development projects. For instance, reporting from Death Valley National Monument in September 1935, biologist Lowell Sumner recommended approval of a number of proposals, including road and trail construction, campground expansion, and water well and water pipeline development. He consented to a proposed road construction project by noting that it did not appear to endanger bighorn sheep, and urged his fellow biologists to conserve their energy for "curbing less desirable projects." In the same report, Sumner recommended that biologists not only review project proposals, but also closely monitor actual construction whenever natural resources were particularly vulnerable.

Significantly, the wildlife biologists' criticism of development that they considered inappropriate tended to stress ecological factors—a different focus from concerns about visual intrusion into park landscapes. Among the less desirable projects in Death Valley, for example, was the proposed road improvement in Titus Canyon, to which Sumner strenuously objected because it would threaten wildlife habitat—rare plants grew in the canyon and an important watering hole for bighorn sheep lay at the end of the existing primitive road. Such arguments would have been heard rarely, if at all, before the wildlife biologists became involved with project review. Sumner also claimed that it was unsafe for humans to frequent the canyon and pleaded that it remain "unvisited and undisturbed." Declaring that Death Valley was being developed at a rate that "has never been paralleled by any national park or monument," he warned that the park could lose its remaining pristine areas. Instead of road improvement, he urged that the Titus Canyon area be designated a "research reserve," to be set aside for research purposes only, a recommendation that apparently was ignored. [31]

In a report from Glacier National Park in 1935, biologist Victor Cahalane opposed the park's sawmill operation, used to dispose of dead trees considered fire hazards. With an ecological orientation similar to Sumner's, Cahalane recommended against the sawmill and argued for adhering to the Service's stated policies rather than to "a purely utilitarian viewpoint." He concluded with a rhetorical question and a blunt injunction: "Is it not more in keeping with our ideals to leave the dead trees standing than to instigate a logging operation in a national park? The project is not approved." The Wildlife Division regularly received strongly worded field reports like Sumner's and Cahalane's. Following review by Wright and his Washingtonbased staff, the reports were forwarded to the directorate with comments, some of which did not concur with the field scientists' recommendations. [32]

Sharp conflicts inevitably arose over the reviews, probably exacerbated by the fact that the wildlife biologists were newcomers to the project review process, which was the traditional territory of superintendents, landscape architects, and engineers. Responding to Cahalane's objections to construction of a shelter for campers at Grand Canyon's Clear Creek, Superintendent Minor Tillotson wrote to Director Cammerer in October 1935 that Cahalane's views were "not only far-fetched but picayunish." Tillotson argued that because a trail had been built, provision should be made for use of the primitive area to which the trail led: "objections to the development as proposed . . . should have been voiced before all the money was spent on the trail." Stating that he was "always glad" for the wildlife biologists' advice, the superintendent chided that in this case they had "gone considerably out of their way" to find something to criticize. [33]

Of all national park development, roads—both their initial construction and their improvement to allow increased use—definitely constituted the most severe intrusion. Probably most of the park roads newly constructed during the 1930s were primitive, intended to provide access for firefighting only. But they penetrated the backcountry, inviting further development as tourist roads (for instance, in Titus Canyon) and diminishing wild qualities and biological integrity, as Sumner feared. Thus roads became a major focus of debates over development in the parks. Conflicting attitudes toward national park roads began to crystallize during the 1930s—attitudes that would typify the dichotomy in Park Service thinking for decades.

Improvement of the Tioga Road through Yosemite's high country sparked conflicts in the 1930s (as it would again in the 1950s). During realignment of the road in the mid-1930s, Lowell Sumner objected to plans to use a small unnamed lake along the road as a borrow pit, brusquely depicting the plans as an example of the tendency of road builders to "slash their way through park scenery." Engineers, he wrote, wanted to straighten roads and reduce grades "to spare the motorist . . . the necessity of shifting out of high gear." Such construction practices resulted in more cuts and fills and therefore more borrow pits. [34] In this instance, Sumner objected as much to the "disfiguration" of park scenery as to the impact on natural resources per se.

R. L. McKown, Yosemite's resident landscape architect, reacted angrily to Sumner's barbed comments, writing to the top Park Service landscape architect, Thomas Vint, that such remarks were "derogatory of our Landscape Division" and that Sumner was "misinformed" about the division's principles. McKown claimed the division went out of its way to prevent slashing through scenery. The pressure to straighten park roads came, he asserted, not from the landscape architects but from the Bureau of Public Roads, which was responding to the public's desire for "high speed motor ways in our national parks" similar to what they found elsewhere. McKown also noted that if the lake were not used for borrow, the materials would have to be found at least four thousand feet farther along the route, and to him the added cost seemed unwarranted. [35]

Sumner apologized to McKown, granting that the Landscape Division was actually seeking to reduce the road's intrusion. The division was, in Sumner's words, "the prime guardian of the natural in our parks"—a remark that seemed to contradict the role the Wildlife Division was assuming for itself. Sumner then commented that "even the most skillful camouflaging in the interest of landscaping cannot altogether prevent it from being an intrusion on the wilderness," an indication that he may have believed that the landscape architects' work indeed mostly amounted to camouflaging. [36]

Sumner recognized that limiting visual intrusions into wilderness areas did not necessarily mean that the areas' natural resources would remain free from serious harm. Reflecting on the construction of the Tioga Road, he wrote in October 1936 that it illustrated the "complex, irrevocable, and perhaps partly unforeseen chain of disturbances" resulting from roads. The Sierra Club would later describe road development in national parks as being "like a worm in an apple." Sumner himself characterized park roads as an "infection," bringing on further, gradual development of an area, with gasoline stations, lodges, trails, campgrounds, fire roads, and sewage systems —until the "elusive wilderness flavor vanishes, often quite suddenly." This he feared was happening along the Tioga Road and in other park areas where the superintendents were under unrelenting pressure to develop. [37]

In fact, the potential for greater use of an area subsequent to road improvements was clearly indicated in a final construction report on a portion of the Tioga Road. The report anticipated that the Tuolumne Meadows, through which the road passed, would soon become one of the park's more heavily used recreational areas, particularly attractive for hiking, nature study, fishing, and horseback riding. With each summer season, the report stated, more people were using the area, and a "large increase of cars pulling trailer houses has been especially noticed." Furthermore, the road improvements were likely to attract a substantial amount of transcontinental traffic simply crossing the mountains. [38]

Quite representative of the wildlife biologists' attitudes, Sumner's remarks on the Tioga Road revealed a cautious, pessimistic view of development. He feared widespread park development stemming from New Deal relief and conservation programs, believing that such "improvements" could ultimately lead to the national parks' ecological ruin. In early February 1938, Sumner wrote to his mentor, Joseph Grinnell, expressing concern that true wilderness in the parks would soon vanish if the Service did not halt development. He lamented that although the Park Service should be the leader in wilderness preservation, it "has been more at fault than many other agencies" in destroying such natural values. [39]

In another statement prepared in 1938 and entitled "Losing the Wilderness Which We Set Out to Preserve," Sumner warned against exceeding the "recreational saturation point" in parks with roads, trails, and development for winter sports and other activities. Concerned about modifications to natural resources, he argued that ground impaction affected even minute soil organisms active in maintaining porosity and soil nitrogen—the thinking of Park Service scientists had moved well beyond management's traditional preoccupation with scenic landscapes and large mammals. [40]

With the wildlife biologists questioning traditional practices, Park Service leaders made an earnest effort to rationalize national park development, at times using park preservation as the principal justification. For instance, Director Cammerer declared in a 1936 article for the American Planning and Civic Annual that park roads could be used as an "implement of wilderness conservation." Noting that the Service opposed grazing, mining, hunting, and lumbering in parks, the director wrote that the "core" national park idea is "conservation for human use." So, he asked, what forms of park use should the Service permit? His answer was to build sufficient roads so that the public could use and enjoy the parks as called for in the Organic Act. Espousing a utilitarian rationale for preservation in the national parks, Cammerer stated that the Park Service must provide an "economically justifiable and humanly satisfying form of land use, capable of standing on its own merit in competition with other forms of land use." He strongly opposed allowing roads to penetrate all areas of a park; but by building roads in a "portion" of a park area so that the public could enjoy it, the Service could save large undisturbed areas for the "relatively few who enjoy wilderness." He commented perceptively that unless "bolstered by definite, tangible returns" such as public use and enjoyment made possible through roads, the preservation of national park wilderness would fall before the onslaught of pragmatic economic needs. Cammerer added that roads were a "small price" to pay, and that they could potentially "make many friends" for the remaining park wilderness because people do not "know what a wilderness is until they have a chance to go through it." [41]

Thomas Vint put forth arguments similar to Cammerer's. In 1938, with the national wilderness preservation movement under way, Vint published an article (also in the American Planning and Civic Annual) that clearly tied park development to backcountry preservation. In "Wilderness Areas: Development of National Parks for Conservation," he wrote that the time comes when "it is worthwhile, as a means of preservation of the terrain, to build a path." And with increased traffic, a path must be "built stronger to resist the pressure." There followed a progression of development and improvement: Vint depicted this progression, beginning with paths for foot traffic, then paths for horses and wagons, and ultimately roads for automobiles, which in turn go through "various stages of improvement." [42]

Vint then asked a question fundamental to national park management: at what point does park development "trespass on the wilderness or intrude on the perfect natural landscapes?" Closely restricted development, he believed, was the key to preventing trespass of park wilderness—development that would accommodate people and at the same time control where they went. The lands remaining untouched (in Vint's words, "all of the area within the boundaries of the park that is not a developed area") would be saved as wilderness. [43] Reminiscent of Albright's earlier assertions about roads and wilderness in Yellowstone, Vint's comments evidenced a tendency to equate undeveloped areas with adequately preserved wilderness —a perspective that Ben Thompson had challenged a few years before, and that differed substantially from Lowell Sumner's view of roads as "infections," ultimately contaminating large corridors of the parks. [44]

From 1916 on, Park Service leaders had overseen the initial construction or improvement of hundreds of miles of park roads, often through the heart of primitive backcountry. Yet they also opposed road construction in instances when they believed, as Vint put it, that the "trespass on the wilderness or [intrusion] on the perfect natural landscapes" was excessive. A clear example of this came in the 1930s with Superintendent John White's protracted opposition to the "Sierra Highway," proposed to cut through Sequoia National Park's remote backcountry. [45] Giving strong support to White, Acting Director Demaray in 1935 wrote Secretary of the Interior Ickes (himself not enthusiastic about national park roads) that the proposed road was "an unjustifiable and destructive invasion of a great national resource, the primitive and unspoiled grandeur of the Sierra." The highway, he continued, would "destroy the seclusion and a large part of the recreational value of every watershed, canyon, valley, and mountain crest which it traversed"; the proposal was "psychologically wrong and physically wasteful." [46] These words sounded much like Lowell Sumner's; and, indeed, the planned Sierra road was defeated. All the same, such a position stood in contrast to the Service's aggressive promotion of other road projects, such as Glacier National Park's Going to the Sun Highway, Rocky Mountain's Trail Ridge Road, Mt. McKinley's road system, and the Tioga Pass Road in Yosemite. [47]

The wildlife biologists' cautious approach to park development was in accord with ecological concerns, but threatened to inhibit the spending of large amounts of New Deal funds to develop parks. With abundant park development funds available at a time when the wilderness preservation movement was emerging, the rationale that development fostered preservation appears to have been particularly useful to Service leadership.

It is important to note that the idea that national parks must be made accessible for public use in order to secure public support clearly had legitimacy. As Mather and his successors thoroughly understood, the public was hardly likely to have supported undeveloped, inaccessible national parks. National parks were originally intended to be public pleasuring grounds; and proponents of the Organic Act had evidenced an unmistakable interest in the accessibility and enjoyment of park landscapes—as reflected in the act's wording and amplified in, for example, Secretary Lane's policy letter of 1918. In a clear indication of support for the Service's emphasis on recreational tourism in the parks, Congress provided millions for park roads and other development, with funding reaching unprecedented levels during the New Deal era.

The concept of development as a means of ensuring preservation provided the Service with a rationale for believing that it could meet the congressional mandate to provide for public use while leaving large portions of the parks unimpaired. Nevertheless, while park development continued apace, the number of wildlife biologists available to provide an ecological perspective diminished—and dissenting opinions of the remaining wildlife biologists continued to encounter formidable, entrenched Park Service tradition.


Preserving Nature in the National Parks
©1997, Yale University Press
sellars/chap4b.htm — 1-Jan-2003