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

Biological Research

At their 1929 conference, the national park naturalists had noted that scientific data on the parks' natural history were "almost infinitesimal." This disheartening situation had begun to change that very year, as field research for Fauna No. 1 got under way, then continued under the Wildlife Division. Lowell Sumner later estimated that during the 1930s about half of the biologists' work involved research and wildlife management, while the other half was devoted to review of and comment on proposed development projects. He calculated that prior to World War II the biologists had produced perhaps a thousand reports. Having joined the Service in 1935, Sumner estimated that he himself had prepared about 175 reports before the war began. [48]

Research focused on subjects such as bison, elk, and bird life in Wind Cave; white-tailed deer and winter birds in Shenandoah; grazing mammals in Rocky Mountain; and deer and bighorn in Glacier National Park. Park naturalists contributed further to the gathering of information, as in Great Smoky Mountains, where specimens of about two thousand plant species were collected by the mid-1930s. [49] Given the large number of documents prepared and the limited number of biologists in the Park Service, only a few of the reports were truly comprehensive. [50]

An important element of the biologists' programs during the 1930s was the establishment of "research reserves," areas within national parks designated to be used for scientific study only. Probably at the urging of the Ecological Society of America and leading biologists such as John C. Merriam of the Carnegie Institution, who feared the disappearance of all unmodified natural areas in the United States, the Park Service in the mid-1920s had gradually begun to develop a research reserve program. In 1927 Yosemite National Park designated approximately seven square miles of high mountain country north of Tuolumne Meadows as a "wilderness reserve," later termed a research reserve—the first of its kind in the national park system. [51]

The park naturalists discussed the reserves at their 1929 conference, advocating that the areas be permanently set aside primarily for scientific study. They were to be, as the naturalists phrased it, "as little influenced by human use and occupation as conditions permit." Park Service director Horace Albright followed up in the spring of 1931 by issuing a research reserve policy to "preserve permanently" selected natural areas "in as nearly as possible unmodified condition free from external influences." In effect, the areas would help meet Fauna No. 1's recommendation for each species to "carry on its struggle for existence unaided." The reserves were to be entered only in case of emergency or by special permit; as a further means of protection, their location was not to be publicized. [52]

The research reserves emerged in the 1930s as the most preservationoriented land-use category the Park Service had yet devised—an important philosophical and policy descendant of the congressional mandate to leave the national parks unimpaired, and much more restrictive than the traditional policy of allowing park backcountry to be developed with horse and foot trails. [53] In George Wright's view, the greatest value of the reserves lay in providing scientists with the opportunity to learn what certain portions of the parks were like in their original, unmodified condition. This "primitive picture" would provide a basis of knowledge to benefit all future research. He also believed that the reserves would not become "an actuality" until their flora and fauna had been surveyed. To Wright, setting aside the reserves was a "most immediate urgency," which should be accomplished before further biological modifications took place. [54]

The research reserves became an integral part of park management in March 1932, when Director Albright asked that they be formally designated through the cooperation of the park superintendents and naturalists and the Washington office. He requested that the superintendents indicate the location of the reserves in the five-year park development plans (master plans), and he assigned the wildlife biologists responsibility for gathering information and tracking the progress of the program. By 1933, research reserves had been designated in Yellowstone, Sequoia, Grand Canyon, and Lassen Volcanic national parks. Others followed, in Great Smoky Mountains, Glacier, Mount Rainier, Rocky Mountain, and Zion, as well as Yosemite, for a total of twenty-eight designations in ten parks. [55]

The research reserve idea worked better in theory than in practice, however. The wildlife biologists apparently did not participate in the actual selection of many of the reserves, probably because a number of the areas were designated while the biologists were busy completing Fauna No. 1 and because they had not been given a meaningful role in the master planning process. As late as February 1934, the Wildlife Division seemed poorly informed on the exact location and character of many of the reserves; and regarding those they knew something about, Wright noted that some of the areas were not worthwhile research areas—indications that the biologists had had limited input in selection of the reserves. A reserve in Lassen Volcanic National Park was no more than a strip of land threequarters of a mile wide and about five miles long, whereas two of Grand Canyon's reserves were so close to the park boundary that activities outside the park were certain to affect their biotic makeup. Observing the potentially serious external influences on the reserves, Wright advocated the establishment of "buffer areas" around the parks (including additional winter range for wildlife), rather than "withdrawing further and further within the park" to create reserves. [56] Like the parks themselves, the reserves were not satisfactory biological units.

Expressing deep concern about the reserve program, Victor Cahalane, Wright's assistant division chief, wrote in September 1935 about the problem of selecting research reserves in parks so "artificialized and mechanized." Cahalane believed that the difficulty of finding even relatively small unaltered research areas indicated the extent to which the Service had failed to meet its basic mandate to protect the parks' wilderness character. Reflecting biologist Ben Thompson's earlier comments about alterations to natural conditions in the parks, Cahalane wrote that Glacier National Park had no pristine area worthy of becoming a research reserve. This had occurred "not by reason of a network of roads" in Glacier, but because "all streams now contain exotic species of fish, because the wolverine and fisher have been exterminated from the entire park and the bison and antelope from the east side, and because exotic plants . . . have been carried to practically every corner of the park." Recognizing the existing problems with "pristine" areas in the parks, Cahalane called for a "show-down on this matter of preservation of the greatest resource of the National Park Service —the wilderness." []

Beyond the difficulty of identifying minimally altered natural areas to be designated as research reserves, these areas were the product of decisions made wholly within the Park Service and were therefore subject to administrative discretion and vulnerable to the sudden impulses of management. The reserves had no specific mandate from Congress. They could be protected, ignored, or, as happened with Andrews Bald research reserve in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, created and then summarily abolished. Indeed, the "show-down" that occurred over Andrews Bald went directly against the biologists' recommendations and reflected the Park Service's ingrained disregard for scientific research. The outcome was an ominous portent for the science programs overall.

Designated a research reserve in the mid-1930s, Andrews Bald was one of several such areas in Great Smoky Mountains intended to be strictly preserved so that "ecological and other scientific studies" could be conducted on a long-range basis, especially to determine natural plant succession. (The "grassy balds"—open, mountaintop areas of grasses and lowgrowing shrubs, and without tall trees—were one of the primary scenic features in the Smokies. They were then, and remain today, of special scientific interest.)

In early April 1936, a terrific windstorm killed hundreds of trees in and around Andrews Bald, precipitating a sharp debate in the Service over how to manage the area. Dead and dying trees, some still standing, littered the landscape and, in the minds of the superintendent and most of his staff, constituted a fire hazard that needed to be cleaned up. [58] Superintendent J. R. Eakin wanted a cleanup, as did the park's rangers and foresters; and in a letter to Park Service director Arno Cammerer, Eakin stressed the potential fire problems. Reflecting an ongoing disagreement over what to do with naturally killed trees, the superintendent noted that "again" the Wildlife Division and the naturalists were "not concerned with fire protection" and the danger that might arise if dead trees were left in place. Particularly concerned about scenery, Frank E. Mattson, the park's resident landscape architect, argued for cleanup of the windfall, stating that because the bald attracted so many sightseers, it should be treated "much as a trailside or roadside" area. [59]

By contrast, the wildlife biologists (supported by park naturalist Arthur Stupka) advocated special consideration for the reserves, so that scientific studies could "be started and continued thru the years to come." They urged that the trees be left untouched. Although acknowledging the fire prevention concerns, the biologists argued that the windstorm was a natural phenomenon and that cleanup of the area would "thwart the objectives" of Andrews Bald research reserve. Still, Superintendent Eakin believed the area constituted a serious fire hazard; in an exchange of correspondence with the Washington office, he insisted that the trees should be cleared. [60]

In a stinging reply to Eakin, Acting Director Arthur Demaray finally granted permission for clearance, but added that the Andrews Bald Biotic Research Area was thereby abolished. He further stated that "I wish to call your attention to several factors which you seem to have overlooked": the reserve had been approved by Eakin himself, it was included in the park's master plan, and preservation of such areas was "an established policy of the Service." In the acting director's view, the superintendent's insistence was forcing a change in the official use of the area from research and strict preservation to recreation: "The reason the research area is now abolished is that you have convinced us you made an error in approving its establishment. Its apparent proper use is primarily recreational." [61]

Andrews Bald illustrated the vulnerability of the reserves to administrative discretion and, too, the vulnerability of research in the national parks. An area committed to serve research purposes over a long period of time was subject to sudden modification as a result of internal decisionmaking. Indeed, the urge to clear the trees was not truly based on whim, but reflected the deep-seated, traditional allegiance of the superintendents, foresters, and landscape architects to preserving national park scenery and accommodating public use, while generally showing little interest in science.

Even though the research reserves were supported by the director's policy pronouncement of 1931 and represented the bureau's strongest commitment to preservation of natural conditions, the Park Service eventually disregarded the entire program. Certainly most reserves did not vanish in as confrontational a way as did Andrews Bald, yet Lowell Sumner later recalled that the research reserve program came to be largely ignored, beginning about the time of World War II. [62]

Although it may seem that ignoring the research reserve program meant that these areas would be left alone with no human interference, this was very likely not the case. With the program untended and the reserves in effect forgotten, these areas of special research value were subjected to alteration through such practices as fire protection (for example, the removal of trees from Andrews Bald), firefighting, forest insect and disease control, grazing, and fish stocking and harvesting. The neglected research reserves were subject to the kinds of modifications that concerned George Wright in the early 1930s when he stressed the "most immediate urgency" of establishing the reserves. [63]


Preserving Nature in the National Parks
©1997, Yale University Press
sellars/chap4c.htm — 1-Jan-2003