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

Declining Influence of the Wildlife Biologists

Corresponding with George Wright in the spring of 1935 on the need for highly qualified scientists in the parks, Joseph Grinnell stated "quite precisely" his high aspirations for the Park Service's biological programs. Grinnell believed that the country's "supreme 'hope' for pure, uncontaminated wildlife conservation" was the National Park Service, "under its Wildlife Division." [166] A year later, the division had reached its maximum of twentyseven biologists—but Wright, its founder and chief, was dead. It is difficult to trace all the reasons for the decline of the wildlife programs that followed, but the loss of Wright's leadership surely contributed.

Much later, Lowell Sumner recalled that among the biologists only Wright had the special ability to "placate and win over" those in the Park Service who increasingly believed "that biologists were impractical, were unaware that 'parks are for people,' and were a hindrance to large scale plans for park development." Wright had been able to exert a "reassuring influence at the top, [keeping] hostility to the ecological approach . . . muted." Writing to Grinnell in the fall of 1936, Ben Thompson noted the frequently adversarial role of the biologists, with their negative "I protest" attitudes, which Wright had diverted and diplomatically finessed into "positive acts of conservation." Thompson stated that Wright had succeeded in establishing a division to "protect wildlife in the parks and make the Service conscious of those values." But the "immediate job" after Wright's death had been to keep the wildlife biologists from "being swallowed . . . by another unit of the Service." [167]

Thompson's remarks suggested the vulnerability of the Wildlife Division. By August 1938, while forestry, landscape architecture, planning, and other programs flourished within the Park Service, the number of biologists had dwindled to ten, with six positions funded by the CCC and still only four funded from regular appropriations. The overall total dropped to nine by 1939, as the transfer of the biologists to the Bureau of Biological Survey approached. [168] The transfer came not through any Park Service intention, but as the result of a broader scheme: the compromises made when President Roosevelt rejected Secretary Ickes' attempt to transform the Interior Department into a "Department of Conservation." Ickes had eagerly sought, but failed, to have the Forest Service moved from the Department of Agriculture to his proposed new conservation department. Instead, the Biological Survey was placed in Interior. Soon after (and apparently without Park Service protest), he moved all of the Interior Department's wildlife research functions into the Biological Survey, transferring the Park Service's biologists to the survey's newly created Office of National Park Wildlife. Although biologists located in the parks retained their duty stations, they had become part of another bureau. [169]

Like the national park system, the Biological Survey's wildlife refuge system had expanded greatly during the 1930s. The refuges in effect served as "game farms," which, along with aggressive predator control, constituted the survey's chief efforts to ensure an abundance of game for hunters. Thus, the survey's management practices differed critically from those advocated by the biologists who transferred from the Park Service. In June 1939, about six months before the transfer, Ben Thompson wrote to E. Raymond Hall, acting head of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology after Grinnell's death, asserting that the survey had "never liked the existence of the NPS wildlife division." [170] Thompson did not explain the cause of the dislike, but differences in management philosophies and policies, plus growth of the Park Service's own biological expertise under George Wright (which very likely diminished the Biological Survey's involvement in national park programs), may have caused tension between the survey and the Wildlife Division.

Aware of the policy differences, Park Service director Cammerer and the Biological Survey's chief, Ira N. Gabrielson, signed an agreement in late 1939 whereby the national parks would be managed under their "specific, distinctive principles" by continuing the Service's established wildlife management policies. The agreement spelled out the policies, using most of the recommendations included in Fauna No. 1. Nevertheless, Lowell Sumner later recalled that the transfer weakened the biologists' influence in the Service. To whatever degree the scientists had been considered part of the Park Service "family and programs," Sumner wrote, "such feelings were diluted by this involuntary transfer to another agency." [171] Although the biologists would return to the Service after World War II, almost another two decades would pass before scientific resource management in the national parks would experience even a small resurgence.

Viewed within the context of the New Deal, the National Park Service's declining interest in ecological management becomes comprehensible. The New Deal impacted the Park Service fundamentally by emphasizing— and, especially, by funding—the recreational aspects of the Service's original mandate. The Park Service, which under Stephen Mather had stressed development of the national parks for public access and enjoyment, used the recreational and public use aspects of its mandate as a springboard, justifying involvement in ever-expanding programs during the 1930s. The emergency relief funds appropriated by Congress during the Roosevelt administration enlarged the breadth and scope of Park Service programs to a degree undreamed of in Mather's time. Under such circumstances the Service continued to respond to its traditional utilitarian impulses, influenced by what its leadership wanted and by its perception of what Congress and the public intended the national park system and the Service itself to be.

It is significant that during the 1930s no public organizations demanded scientifically based management of the parks' natural resources. Pressure from the Boone and Crockett Club, the American Society of Mammalogists, and other organizations that helped bring about the 1931 predator control policies seems to have been focused on that issue alone. It also appears to have subsided following promulgation of the predator policies. The National Parks Association's urging that the parks not be overdeveloped probably constituted the chief criticism faced by Park Service management during the decade.

Even the Service's first official natural resource management policies did not move national park management far from its utilitarian base. The forestry and fish management policies allowed continued manipulation of natural resources, largely as a means to ensure public enjoyment of the parks. The policy on predatory animals issued by Albright in 1931 contained sufficient qualifications to permit continued reduction. Even easing up on reduction met with resistance, including that of Albright himself, who feared the parks' popular game species were being threatened by predators. In addition, the Service's commitment to strict preservation through the research reserve program was never realized. Virtually alone among national park policy statements, Fauna No. 1's wildlife management recommendations, with the expressed intent of preserving "flora and fauna in the primitive state," encouraged an ecological orientation in the Park Service. Still, the ecological attitudes that did emerge were inspired by the wildlife biologists, who failed to gain a commanding voice in national park management.

Unlike the perspectives of the landscape architects or foresters, the wildlife biologists' vision of national park management was truly revolutionary, penetrating beyond the scenic facades of the parks to comprehend the significance of the complex natural world. It was a vision that challenged the status quo in the National Park Service. But without a vocal public constituency specifically concerned about natural resource issues, the wildlife biologists were alone in their efforts. They were insurgents in a tradition-bound realm; for what support they did get, the biologists had to rely on shifting alliances within the Park Service, depending on the issue at hand.

In this regard the 1930s would differ markedly from the 1960s and 1970s, when influential environmental organizations and increasing public concern about ecological matters would bring strong outside pressure on national park management. The failure of the Park Service to pursue options presented by the wildlife biologists in the 1930s left the Service still largely ignorant of its natural resources and unaware of the ecological consequences of park development and use.

Greatly enhancing the influence of professions such as landscape architecture and forestry, the Service's growth and expansion led also to the ascendancy of landscape architect Conrad Wirth as a major voice in national park affairs. After waiting in the wings during the administrations of Newton Drury and Arthur Demaray, Wirth would become director in late 1951. With the Service still primarily interested in the visual, aesthetic aspects of nature, those few wildlife biologists involved in national park affairs under Wirth would face an onslaught of invasive development in the parks not unlike what the New Deal had produced—only more expansive.


Preserving Nature in the National Parks
©1997, Yale University Press
sellars/chap4j.htm — 1-Jan-2003