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


As with fish, the management of national park forests in the 1930s continued established practices. But the forestry policies were strongly challenged by the wildlife biologists. The conflict over forestry practices exposed fundamental differences between the biologists and much of the rest of the Park Service. The failure of the biologists' challenge to forest management demonstrated the weakness of their position within a traditional organization and, conversely, the considerable bureaucratic strength that the foresters were gaining.

National park forestry operations expanded tremendously during the New Deal, receiving far more funds and support from the emergency relief programs than any other natural resource management activity in the parks. The 1933 act creating the Civilian Conservation Corps specifically called for protection of the nation's forests from fires, insects, and disease damage—goals that matched perfectly those of most national park managers. So important did forestry become in the overall work of the CCC that the organization was at times referred to as Roosevelt's Tree Army. [113]

In his 1933 annual report, Horace Albright's comments on the initial work of the CCC foreshadowed the tremendous expansion of national park forestry. The director stated that the newly established CCC crews were accomplishing "work that had been needed greatly for years," but that had been "impossible" under ordinary appropriations.

Especially has the fire hazard been reduced and the appearance of forest stands greatly improved by cleanup work along many miles of park highways; many areas of unsightly burns have been cleared; miles of fire trails and truck trails have been constructed for the protection of the park forests and excellent work accomplished in insect control and blister-rust control and in other lines of forest protection; improvements have been made in the construction and development of telephone lines, fire lookouts, and guard cabins; and landscaping and erosion control [have] been undertaken. [114]

During the buildup of CCC-funded forestry programs in 1933, Director Cammerer designated John Coffman the Service's "chief forester," in charge of the newly created Division of Forestry, now separate from the Service's educational program. [115] The forestry management policies that Coffman and Ansel Hall had prepared provided guidance for the Park Service throughout the decade. Under these policies the forests were to be "as completely protected as possible" against fire, insects, fungi, and "grazing by domestic animals," among other threats. This comprehensive protection was to be extended to "all park areas" associated with "brush, grass, or other cover." [116] Backed by new policies and staffed by thousands of CCC enrollees, Coffman's forestry programs became an increasingly important force in national park operations during the New Deal era.

Significantly, although the Park Service had begun building a cadre of wildlife biologists, the bureau did not hire plant biologists or botanists per se. Rather, it hired "foresters," who were deeply influenced by the management practices of the U.S. Forest Service, particularly regarding control of forest fires, insects, and disease. With the foresters maintaining such traditional attitudes, the wildlife biologists were left with few allies to argue the case for ecological management in the parks. Central to the biologists' concerns were the various prefire protection activities—the very kinds of development Albright enthusiastically endorsed. They objected to building fire roads through natural areas and clearing hazardous dead trees and snags that contributed to the fuel buildup and increased the possibility of fire.

Indeed, the wildlife biologists were never in agreement with the forest management policies written by Coffman and Hall. Although forests were not the focus of George Wright's initial wildlife survey, preserving natural habitat, including plants, was recognized as fundamental to successful park management. In contradiction to ongoing Park Service forestry practices, Fauna No. 1 urged that park forests not be manipulated, stating, for instance, that "it is necessary that the trees be left to accumulate dead limbs and rot in the trunks; [and] that the forest floor become littered." [117] Nevertheless, the CCC programs provided funds and manpower for extensive clearing of forest underbrush and dead trees. This work increasingly alarmed the biologists.

Roadside clearing, a widespread practice in national parks, was intended as a fire protection measure but, in the words of a Park Service manual, was equally important as a means "to improve the appearance of the immediate landscape of the main drive" through parks. A conflicting view came from Wright, who wrote Director Cammerer early in 1934 of the need to consider "all sides of the question" regarding clearing of hazardous debris along park roadsides, including the concern for "wild life values." Wright realized that clearing dead limbs and trees affected habitat. He urged that the Service "reconsider" and determine "exactly under what conditions and in what parks roadside clean-up is a benefit and to what extent it should be carried on." He also told Cammerer that the biologists had discussed the issue with park superintendents and rangers, and that there was "anything but unanimity of opinion on the value of this work." Although some superintendents and rangers recognized the impact on natural conditions, others believed cleanup did not help prevent fires. [118] Nevertheless, clearing was widely accepted in the Service and remained a common practice in the parks.

An opinion even stronger than Wright's came from Adolph Murie in the summer of 1935, during an extended debate over whether or not to clear a twelve-square-mile area on Glacier National Park's west slope, just north of McDonald Creek, a forested area damaged in a recent fire. With many of the trees only partially burned, the tract seemed ripe for another fire, which could spread to adjacent, unburned forests. A meeting in the park in July provoked disagreement on the propriety of cutting and removing all of the dead trees, whether standing or fallen. The contentious debate reflected sharp divergence between the wildlife biologists and the foresters on fire protection and overall national park policy.

Following the meeting in Glacier, Murie reported to the Wildlife Division in Washington his intense opposition to the proposed clearing. In a lengthy letter, he wrote that the burned area was still in a natural condition and questioned the desirability of "removing a natural habitat from a national park." Requiring roads for trucks, bulldozers, and other equipment, the clearing operation would cause "gross destruction," which, he believed, would interfere with the normal cycles of forest decay and growth and create instead a "highly artificial appearance of logged-off lands." Removal of the trees would reduce the area's organic material and its soil fertility, and would cause drying of the soil and increased erosion.

Moreover, Murie argued, this large clearing project could be used to justify "almost any kind of landscape manipulation" in the future. "For what purposes," he asked, "do we deem it proper to destroy a natural state?" His answer was that almost no purpose justified such destruction. Murie concluded his argument with an opinion surely unheard of in national park management before the wildlife biologists began their work under George Wright: "To those interested in preserving wilderness, destroying a natural condition in a burn is just as sacrilegious as destroying a green forest. The dead forest which it is proposed to destroy is the forest we should set out to protect." [119]

Murie's remarks were quickly challenged. Lawrence F. Cook, head of John Coffman's forestry operations in the western parks, had also attended the meeting in Glacier. Cook found Murie's report "rather typical" and took a directly opposite position, fearing the long-term loss of green forests. "Nature," he commented, "goes to extremes if left alone." Despite the Service's best protection efforts, "gross destruction" had resulted from the fire. Beyond adequate detection, fire protection depended on "easy access" into the forests and the "reduction of potential fuel" through clearing— both of which would result from the proposed work in Glacier. Cook anticipated a rapid recovery of forest growth, but only if the area were cleared of dead trees so it would not be burned over by another, more damaging fire. Seeking to protect the beauty of the forests, he also recognized that this part of Glacier was intensively used; it was seen, he claimed, "by more travellers than any other in the park." Cook argued that the question was not whether to allow nature to take its course in the national parks, but to what extent the Service "must modify conditions to retain as nearly a natural forest condition as possible for the enjoyment of future generations." [120]

In a separate memorandum to Coffman, written the same day, Cook expressed concern that the Service's foresters had been accused of being "destroyers of the natural." Their construction of truck trails and fire lookouts and their clearing of damaged forests had been criticized not only by the biologists but by some superintendents, rangers, and landscape architects. Cook insisted that the foresters were seeking to preserve the "natural values" of the parks, while also providing for the "greatest use and enjoyment of the parks with the least destruction." He summed up his credo of national park management, and fire protection in particular: "The parks have long since passed the time when nature can be left to itself to take care of the area. Man has already and will continue to affect the natural conditions of the areas, and it is just as much a part of the Service Policy to provide for their enjoyment as it is to preserve the natural conditions. There is no longer any such thing as a balance of nature in our parks—man has modified it. We must carry on a policy of compensatory management of the areas." He added that "forest protection" is a "very necessary part of this management." Without protection the Service faced the destruction of "any semblance of biological balance, and scenic or recreational values, as well as the forests with which we are charged." Certainly Cook's views prevailed within the Service, and CCC crews cleared a vast area of the McDonald Creek drainage (such that even today, as a veteran Glacier biologist put it, negative effects "are still very evident on the land"). [121]

In truth, the Park Service's biologists and foresters all claimed they were seeking to preserve "natural values," which would allow for the "greatest use and enjoyment of the parks with the least destruction." But the two groups had fundamentally different perceptions of what constituted "natural values" and what constituted "destruction" in national parks. Adolph Murie opposed the extensive alterations that resulted from the Service's fire protection methods employed before, during, and after fires. His letter on the proposed clearing in Glacier concluded: "My feeling concerning any of this manipulation is that no national park should bear the artificial imprint of any man's action of this sort. We have been asked to keep things natural; let us try to do so." But Cook's philosophy of national park management reflected the official forestry policies; with funds and manpower coming from the CCC program, the Service continued its intensive protection and suppression activities, rejecting Murie's concepts. [122]

The conflicting approaches to national park management were evidenced in disagreements over other aspects of forestry. Continuing the practices of the Mather era as affirmed in the forest policies, both Albright and Cammerer supported aggressive war against forest insects and disease, regularly calling on the Bureau of Entomology and the Bureau of Plant Industry for expert assistance. In his last annual report (1933), Director Albright noted that "successful campaigns" had been waged against insects in park forests, ending or reducing several major epidemics. The Service, he added, had sought to eradicate infestations of the bark beetle in Yosemite and Crater Lake, and the mountain-pine beetle in Sequoia National Park. Both Glacier and Yellowstone faced insect infestations of such magnitude that studies were being made to determine if control efforts were even practicable. It seemed to Albright that the forests in the national parks were truly under siege from insects, as well as from disease. Among many threats, blister rust was "spreading rapidly," threatening the western parks. "Unless checked," Albright warned, it was "only a matter of time" before blister rust would invade the white pine forests of Glacier and the sugar and white pines of the California parks. [123]

As with fire protection, the CCC provided the Park Service with funds and manpower to wage intensive campaigns against forest insects and disease. Again the wildlife biologists challenged these efforts. George Wright wrote to Director Cammerer in August 1935 favoring use of the New Deal work relief programs, but cautioned against too much "zeal for accomplishment," particularly in insect and disease control. Generally the biologists accepted limited control in and around park development, directing their criticism toward more widespread control efforts. Wright would largely confine control to "heavily utilized areas" most frequented by visitors. The piñon pine scale infection in Colorado National Monument was, he pointed out, a natural phenomenon that seemed "best to leave undisturbed" outside developed areas. Similarly, reporting on CCC work in Grand Canyon during 1935, Victor Cahalane commented that the Wildlife Division "disapproves of insect control, outside of developed areas," unless a native plant was threatened with extinction. [124]

Much more critical, Adolph Murie lashed out at Park Service insect and disease control efforts after a 1935 visit to Mount Rainier. He acknowledged to Wright that "possibly some effort" was necessary to save "certain outstanding forests." But he opposed extensive control, emphasizing that in its forest management the Service should not "play nursemaid more than is essential." Especially alarming were efforts to kill off native beetle populations and to control the blister rust disease by eradicating ribes (native currants and gooseberries, which serve as an alternative host to the blister rust fungus). With both ribes and beetles native to the parks, Murie urged leaving them alone and "permitting natural events to take their course. . . . The cure is about as bad as the disease." Ribes was, in his words, "just as desirable in the flora as is pine," and he concluded that "justification for destroying a species in an area should be overwhelming before any action is taken." [125]

Predictably, arguments such as Murie's did not sway the foresters. In his letters to Coffman on fire management, Lawrence Cook rebutted the biologists' position, defending the Service's forest disease and insect control policies as an essential part of park management. As with fire suppression, the foresters believed that "some modification," including insect control, "is necessary to preserve for the future the living values of the parks." And, indeed, aggressive forest insect and disease control continued while CCC money and manpower were available. Late in the decade Director Cammerer reported on blister rust control and beetle eradication in a number of parks, noting the support of the Bureau of Entomology and dependence on the CCC program. [126] The termination of the CCC just after World War II began would drastically reduce the resources available to the Park Service for control work—but the policies remained in force, waiting for postwar funding.

The wildlife biologists had found a voice in national park policy and operations, but they frequently clashed with the foresters, who continued their practices despite the biologists' objections. Decades later Lowell Sumner reflected that "even George Wright was unable to make much progress" in establishing ecologically sound forest management. [127] The biologists' criticism of various forest practices had little effect on Service policies, a reflection of the support the foresters enjoyed from Park Service leadership. The policies on forest fires, insects, and disease were aimed at maintaining the beauty of the parks and enhancing public enjoyment, and were much more in line with mainstream national park thinking than were many of the ideas of the wildlife biologists.

In 1940, at the end of Cammerer's directorship and with the biologists' influence in decline, the foresters were truly in the ascendancy. The Park Service's official organizational chart, revised in mid-1941 (a year and a half after Interior secretary Ickes transferred the wildlife biologists to the Bureau of Biological Survey), showed the Branch of Forestry with no less than three divisions: Tree Preservation, Protection and Personnel Training, and Administration and General Forestry. [128] Also, foresters entering the Park Service continued to be influenced by the U.S. Forest Service. Many national park rangers who did not have the specific title of forester had nevertheless been schooled in forestry. In addition, the so-called ranger factory, just beginning at Colorado Agricultural and Mechanical College in the late 1930s (and which would flourish during ensuing decades), trained young men to become rangers under a park management program administered by the forestry school. [129]

Altogether, an alliance was building between the Park Service's foresters and its rangers (they would be combined organizationally in the mid-1950s). The influence of this alliance was bolstered by the fact that the two groups fed directly into leadership positions, in charge of national park policy and operations. With an increasing number of forestry graduates attracted to the Service, forestry evolved into one of the most powerful professions in the organization, attaining full "green blood" membership in the Park Service family. By the end of the decade the foresters' bureaucratic strength began to rival that of the landscape architects and engineers under Thomas Vint and Conrad Wirth. [130] Although not always in full accord, these professions, in alliance with the superintendents and rangers, formed the core of the Service's leadership culture and would dominate national park philosophy and operations for years to come.


Preserving Nature in the National Parks
©1997, Yale University Press
sellars/chap4g.htm — 1-Jan-2003