Preserving Nature in the National Parks
A History
NPS Arrowhead logo

Chapter 4
The Rise and Decline of Ecological Attitudes, 1929—1940

Expanding Park Service Programs

During the New Deal the Service sought (as stated in a 1936 internal report) to "enlarge its field of usefulness" through increasing the viability and the social utility of the national park system by expanding the system and making it more accessible to and popular with the public. [131] Extending from Roosevelt's inaugural to the beginning of World War II, the New Deal fostered vast expansion and diversification of Park Service activity and brought dramatic changes in the composition of the national park system. It placed new responsibilities on the Service (especially in the fields of recreation and assistance to state parks), brought different kinds of parks into the system (such as historic sites, reservoirs, national parkways), and accelerated physical development of the parks to provide for public use and enjoyment. Its leadership always possessed of a keen entrepreneurial bent, the Park Service had suddenly entered flush times. The New Deal would fund many programs that bolstered the Service's expertise in recreational tourism, such that it could lay strong claim to national leadership in that field.

Park Service leaders got virtually everything they could have hoped for from the New Deal. Even before Congress passed the act establishing the CCC, Director Albright recognized the legislation's potential. In early March 1933, approximately two weeks prior to the act's passage, Albright wrote to Assistant Director Arthur Demaray that the share of funds allotted to the national parks would depend on the Park Service's preparedness— how much it could demonstrate that it was ready to spend. As recalled by Conrad Wirth, the landscape architect who would ultimately take charge of the Service's many CCC programs, Albright was seeking "to justify a good, sound park program should the funds suddenly become available." The director quickly prepared estimates of $10 million for construction, including roads, trails, and other developments. He asked the park superintendents to assess immediately their ability to take advantage of the new funds, and called for an updating of national park master plans to prepare for the infusion of New Deal money. With Roosevelt's emergency relief programs the Service was, as later recalled by Arno Cammerer, poised to "absorb . . . a large segment of such work and to benefit greatly therefrom." [132]

Albright also contacted state park authorities around the country, advising them that the CCC would become involved with state as well as national parks. Of all CCC activities, assistance to the states in recreational planning and development most expanded the Park Service's operations. Funded by the CCC and given solid encouragement from the very first by the Service's directorate, the state parks assistance program began in 1933 and gained momentum rapidly under the leadership of Conrad Wirth. Wirth was named assistant director for recreational land planning—bureaucratic status that indicated the importance placed on these programs. His principal aide was Herbert Evison, former secretary of the National Conference on State Parks, the organization that Mather and Albright had helped found in the early 1920s in their efforts to encourage a stronger nationwide park system. [133] Wirth quickly built an impressive, far-reaching program, developing proposals for creating new state parks and overseeing the planning, design, and construction of the facilities necessary for state parks to accommodate public use.

Soon employing thousands of CCC workers in state park projects, the Service constructed roads, trails, cabins, museums, campgrounds, picnic grounds, administrative offices, and other state park facilities—work that replicated the CCC projects Wirth was overseeing in national parks. [134] Through assistance to the states, the Service's expertise in intensive physical development of parks extended far beyond national park boundaries. Also, in both state and national park construction, the Service's architects and landscape architects of the 1930s directed CCC craftsmen toward a harmonious blending of new construction with the surrounding park landscapes. Following the traditions of rustic architecture established earlier in the national parks, CCC laborers created many structures that later generations would praise for their beauty and craftsmanship. Altogether, the focus of CCC development was overwhelmingly in support of public recreational use of parks, thus reinforcing within the Service this aspect of park management.

Added to the Park Service's state programs was a national survey of potential recreational lands that could help meet public needs. The survey came about as a result of Park Service lobbying while it was participating on the National Resources Board, established by Roosevelt in 1934 to study the nation's natural resources and land uses. As recalled in an internal document, the Park Service submitted an "urgent" recommendation to the board that there be a study to determine recreational needs. [135] Late in 1934 the Service completed such a survey, but one that it viewed as only preliminary. It quickly began campaigning to expand the survey and to institutionalize existing cooperation with the states by gaining full congressional sanction for activities that theretofore had been only administratively authorized. The lobbying paid off. The resulting Park, Parkway, and Recreational Area Study Act of 1936 permitted the Service to make a comprehensive national survey of park and recreational programs and to assist states in the planning and design of parks. [136]

This act constituted a decisive political and bureaucratic commitment to the recreational aspects of park management and to all levels of parks, from state and local to national. Using mostly CCC funds, Wirth promptly implemented the act, building on the 1934 preliminary survey to detail the nation's park and recreational needs in a report entitled A Study of the Park and Recreation Problem of the United States, published in 1941. A comprehensive document, the study argued for the expansion of recreational facilities throughout the country. Furthermore, in cooperation with the Park Service, forty-six states worked on statewide surveys, with thirtyseven of the reports ultimately completed, and twenty-one published. In addition to these studies, the Service undertook a survey of seashores and major lakeshores in the United States, identifying numerous areas eventually to be included in the national or state park systems and in many cases to be put to intensive recreational use. [137]

The Service's development of parkways for "recreational motoring" furthered its leadership role in national recreational programs. Even before the New Deal began, the George Washington Memorial Parkway, Colonial Parkway (connecting Yorktown and Jamestown, Virginia), and Shenandoah National Park's Skyline Drive were under construction as part of the national park system. Major additions to the parkway program came later in the decade with authorization of the Blue Ridge and Natchez Trace parkways. All of these new scenic highways received massive amounts of New Deal emergency relief funds. They also received staunch support from Park Service leadership, which regarded them as perhaps the most "spectacular new phase of national park planning and development during recent years." [138]

As part of its nationwide recreational work, the Park Service urged authorization of the "recreational demonstration area" program, another type of park planning and development to accommodate intensive use. The Service recognized the potential for acquiring marginal agricultural lands located near urban centers, with the lands to be converted into recreational areas—a concept promoted in 1934 by Wirth while serving as Director Cammerer's representative on a presidential land planning committee. Intended to become state or local parks, the demonstration areas were to be developed for picnicking, hiking, camping, boating, and other similar uses. Having, as Wirth saw it, "unanimous approval and support" from within the Park Service, the program began in 1934, with the Federal Surplus Relief Administration purchasing the lands and the Park Service supervising their conversion into park and recreation areas. Most of the areas, as Cammerer noted in 1936, were meant to serve "organized camp needs of major metropolitan areas." In time, forty-six demonstration areas were established, requiring a substantial Park Service commitment in planning, design, and construction to develop the areas for public use. [139]

Almost all of the recreational demonstration areas were eventually turned over to state or local governments, although some became extensions of existing units of the national park system—for instance at Badlands, Acadia, and Shenandoah. In addition, several demonstration areas were authorized as new units of the park system, including Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park in North Dakota and portions of Catoctin Mountain Park in Maryland. [140]

Most of the development that the Park Service supervised in recreational demonstration areas and state parks was undertaken with CCC funds. These monies financed not only the labor (including the enrollees' housing and meals, provided in camps) but also the National Park Service's own professional staff involved in these programs. In addition, major developmental funds came from the Public Works Administration for projects such as electrical and sanitation systems, and road and building construction. Beyond the New Deal's crucial support to state park development, the Park Service recognized the relief programs as "invaluable" to the national parks themselves, making possible the completion of "a wide variety of long-needed construction and improvements." [141]

The Park Service expanded into additional fields during the New Deal era, most notably the management of historic and archeological sites, which theretofore had had no coordinated federal oversight. During the administration of President Herbert Hoover, Director Albright had unsuccessfully sought, by authority of the Antiquities Act of 1906 and other acts, to gain control of historic and prehistoric sites managed by the departments of war and agriculture. Among these sites were Gettysburg, Antietam, and Vicksburg battlefields (managed by the War Department) and archeological areas such as Tonto and Gila Cliff Dwellings national monuments (managed by the U.S. Forest Service of the Department of Agriculture). Immediately on Franklin Roosevelt's taking office, Albright proposed to the new secretary of the interior, Harold Ickes, that the President transfer the numerous historic and prehistoric sites from other departments to National Park Service jurisdiction.

Convinced that the Organic Act provided authority for involvement in historic preservation, Albright also believed the Service could provide the best management of these sites. It already managed Mesa Verde National Park and a number of other prehistoric areas in the Southwest, plus three historic areas in the east: Morristown National Historical Park, and Colonial and George Washington Birthplace national monuments. But Albright also hoped to strengthen the Park Service against its veteran rival, the U.S. Forest Service, by establishing authority in programs alien to the rival bureau. And he wanted to build the Service's political strength in the eastern United States, where most of the sought-after historic areas (mainly Civil War and Revolutionary War sites) were located, and where very few national park units existed. [142]

This time Albright succeeded. In June 1933 Roosevelt signed two executive orders effecting transfer on August 10 of numerous sites to the national park system, thereby substantially reorganizing the federal government's historic preservation activities. The Service had campaigned for and gained a huge new program, with forty-four historic and prehistoric sites coming into the system along with twelve natural areas. Among the new natural areas were Saguaro and Chiricahua national monuments. The new historic areas included many battlefields, plus public parks and monuments in Washington, D.C., such as the National Mall and the Washington and Lincoln monuments—the Park Service's first major venture into urban park management. [143] Two years later, with the Service's encouragement, Congress passed the Historic Sites Act of 1935, which authorized cooperation with state and local governments in identifying, preserving, and interpreting historic sites. [144] With this act the Park Service increased both its historic preservation responsibilities and its already substantial involvement in state and local surveys and planning.

The reorganizations made early in the Roosevelt era entailed two changes the National Park Service did not want, however. In 1933 it was given responsibility for managing federal buildings in Washington (except for judicial and legislative buildings); along with this, the Park Service suffered a name change: it became the Office of National Parks, Buildings, and Reservations. Management of buildings in Washington added significantly to the demands on the Park Service. Initially, it entailed about fifteen hundred additional employees, a figure that escalated rapidly in the ensuing years. By the mid-1930s the Park Service was in charge of approximately 20.5 million square feet of space in fifty-eight government-owned buildings and ninety rented buildings in and around the District of Columbia and elsewhere—for example, the United States courthouses in Aiken, South Carolina, and New York City. [145] In 1934 the Park Service managed to get its new name (a "much-hated" designation, as Albright recalled it) abolished and the original name restored. Later, in 1939, management of federal buildings was transferred to the Public Buildings Administration. [146]

Finally, additional involvement in recreational programs came when Congress in the early 1930s authorized a National Park Service study of the recreational potential of Lake Mead, the huge new reservoir behind recently completed Boulder Dam on the Arizona-Nevada border. Even before the study was finished, the Service had established CCC camps and begun development along the reservoir's shoreline. Not surprisingly, given the direction the Service was taking in other recreational matters, its study found the potential to be very high, and in October 1936 the Park Service signed an agreement with the Bureau of Reclamation to manage public recreational use on and around Lake Mead. [147]

Ironically, only twenty-three years after a bitter nationwide controversy over the destruction of Yosemite National Park's Hetch Hetchy Valley by construction of a dam and reservoir, the Park Service became a willing participant in the mangement of Boulder Dam (later Lake Mead) National Recreation Area, encompassing what was then the largest reservoir in the world. Philosophical contradictions inherent in the Service's managing a reservoir where the main feature was itself a gigantic impairment to natural conditions were apparent from the start.

In 1932, at the request of Secretary of the Interior Ray Lyman Wilbur, former U.S. Congressman Louis C. Cramton, a longtime supporter of national parks, headed a reconnaissance of the reservoir area, with the study team including national park superintendents from Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Zion, and Bryce Canyon. Their lengthy report noted the contradictions, observing that conservationists had long fought to protect national parks from "becoming incidental to or subordinate to irrigation and water supply uses." The report warned that heretofore all national parks had involved the "preservation of wonders of nature." Thus, "to deliberately bring into the national park chain and give national park status to such a dam and reservoir would greatly strengthen the hands of those who seek to establish more or less similar reservoirs in existing national parks." The team also warned that designating a reservoir a national park might encourage mining, cattle grazing, and other utilitarian uses of the existing national parks. [148]

However, even these substantial contradictions were readily resolved, to the enhancement of Park Service interests. As with many other park programs initiated during the New Deal era, recreation provided the Service with its principal rationale for entry into the field of reservoir management. Cramton's 1932 report on Lake Mead recommended that the area not be designated a "national park"; rather, the reservoir's national importance as a recreation area should be declared and that aspect of its management turned over to the National Park Service. The reconnaissance team believed that the Park Service's reservoir recreation work would be "entirely consistent with history and with principle." As justification the report cited the 1916 Organic Act's statement that the Service would manage "such other national parks and reservations of like character as may be hereafter created by Congress." [149]

Thus, by little more than devising the designation of "national recreation area," the Park Service sidestepped the contradictions with its traditionally held purpose of preserving lands unimpaired. It launched a new recreational program centered on huge reservoirs created by inundating western canyons and river valleys. Eventually this program would mushroom for the Park Service, bringing large sums of money and closer ties to the Bureau of Reclamation, particularly during and after World War II. Although within the Service there seems to have been some hesitation about the involvement at Lake Mead—perhaps on the part of Director Cammerer himself—it was nevertheless urged on by Conrad Wirth, spearhead of the Park Service's growth in recreational programs. Wirth, in turn, found support for recreational programs from such individuals as Associate Director Arthur Demaray, and even biologists Wright and Thompson. [150]

The Park Service's recreational programs did in fact draw on the talents of George Wright, who as head of the Wildlife Division represented the strongest potential resistance in the Service to its development-oriented park management. In 1934, recognizing Wright's considerable administrative skills, Director Cammerer appointed him to head the preliminary survey of the nation's recreational needs, which the Service had urged the National Resources Board to authorize. The survey team also included Conrad Wirth and the Park Service's chief forester, John Coffman. Wright wrote to Joseph Grinnell, his mentor at the University of California, that he found the recreational field to be "quite alien." Nevertheless, he supported the Service's rapidly expanding recreational programs. Shortly before his death in early 1936, Wright stated in a paper entitled "Wildlife in National Parks" that it was logical to place "responsibility for recreational resources" under the Service. Moreover, he had earlier given his blessing to the Park Service's involvement with reservoirs. [151]

The chief proponent of preserving natural conditions in the parks, Wright apparently saw the Service's varied recreational efforts as a means of relieving harmful pressure on the traditional national parks. Consistent with the major focus of his career, he wrote to Sequoia superintendent John White in 1935 about his concern that the national parks themselves not "supply mass outdoor recreation"—a prospect that would place a "destructive burden" on the parks. To Wright, adopting the policy of "giving all of the people everything they want within the parks . . . would involve sacrificing the Service's highest ideals." [152]

Overall, the National Park Service responded eagerly to the variety of New Deal opportunities in national recreational planning and development, as well as in the expansion of historical programs. Regardless of the taint of bureaucratic aggrandizement, the Service pursued very seriously— and very idealistically—the development of national, state, and local parks. Its assistance to the nation's park systems and its nationwide surveys and planning laid the foundation for expanding recreational opportunities throughout the country—a contribution that later generations would find easy to forget or take for granted.

It is important to point out that although Conrad Wirth showed little interest in scientific resource management and allowed the biology programs to decline during the last half of the 1930s while he was in charge of CCC funding and staffing, he was nevertheless the Park Service's chief advocate for the creation and development of recreational open spaces, whether as national, state, or local parks. His extensive surveys and planning for new parks during the New Deal (and later during his "Mission 66" program) would ultimately bear fruit with the establishment of dozens of new parks for the public's enjoyment and for the preservation of fragments of the American landscape—a legacy of inestimable value.


Preserving Nature in the National Parks
©1997, Yale University Press
sellars/chap4h.htm — 1-Jan-2003