Preserving Nature in the National Parks
A History
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Chapter 5
The War and Postwar Years, 1940—1963

Mission 66

When Douglas McKay, Oscar Chapman's successor as secretary of the interior, announced in November 1955 that he was withdrawing support for the Echo Park dam, he also announced that a narrow, rocky road in Dinosaur National Monument would be improved to provide public access to some of the area's most splendid scenery. This little-used park, which had just been saved from inundation, would be made accessible for greater public use. [102] As Park Service leaders had long argued and as the Echo Park confrontation indicated, preservation could not easily stand on its own in the public forum. Especially in the years before the 1964 Wilderness Act, preservation efforts that were not accompanied by development for public use were vulnerable and likely to fail. Tourism development was important in and of itself, but it also provided utilitarian grounds for preservation. It served as a defense against massive intrusions such as dams and reservoirs and as a means of keeping visitors in designated areas, thereby protecting undeveloped backcountry. National park development was locked with preservation in a state of perpetual tension—both supportive and antagonistic.

Since its founding in 1916, the Park Service had relied on two fundamental justifications in its drive to develop the parks for public use. To begin with, Stephen Mather had urged tourism development in order to attract people to the parks to generate public and congressional support and to ensure the parks' survival. His immediate successors, Albright and Cammerer, had continued this rationale for encouraging public use. But by the 1950s the situation had changed. Except in remote areas like Echo Park, the public had descended on the national parks, and development was justified not only as a means of accommodating visitors, but also of controlling record-setting crowds. From this new perspective, Wirth argued as urgently as had Mather that development would save the parks. By the 1950s the public was (in a phrase that Wirth claimed had been coined by the Service) "loving the parks to death." National park development would control where the public went and prevent misuse through what Yellowstone superintendent Lon Garrison termed the "paradox of protection by development." [103]

This idea became a fundamental principle of Wirth's Mission 66 program: in effect, if visitors were going to use certain areas, prepare for this by improving roads, trails, and park facilities that would limit the impact to specified areas. Public use would be contained, leaving alone the undeveloped areas of the parks. As Wirth stated in his annual report of 1956, park development was "based upon the assumption" that "when facilities are adequate in number, and properly designed and located, large numbers of visitors can be handled readily and without damage to the areas. Good development saves the landscape from ruin, protecting it for its intended recreational and inspirational values." [104]

Shortly after becoming director in late 1951, Wirth claimed continuity with the Drury administration, stating that National Park Service policies were "not expressions of the personal viewpoint of individual directors." But, in truth, he was overlooking not only the philosophical differences between himself and Drury, but also their substantial difference in ability to promote and finesse programs to a successful conclusion. [105] To his advantage, Wirth assumed the directorship more than six years after World War II, when programs designed to facilitate automobile travel (such as the Interstate Highway System and Mission 66) encountered a more favorable political climate. Wirth also benefited from a heightened public awareness of crowded conditions and deteriorating facilities in the national parks, an awareness that resulted in part from the Service's own publicity efforts.

These efforts apparently involved behind-the-scenes encouragement for the prominent historian and journalist Bernard DeVoto to write an exposé of conditions in the parks. A member of the prestigious Advisory Board on National Parks, Historic Sites, Buildings and Monuments, with which Wirth worked closely, DeVoto got the inspiration to write the article during a 1953 board meeting. Entitled "Let's Close the National Parks" and appearing in Harper's Magazine in October 1953, the article blasted Congress for ignoring the parks and leaving the Service like an "impoverished stepchild," or like the widow who "scrapes and patches and ekes out," using "desperate expedients" in an effort to succeed. Citing the deplorable condition of roads, campgrounds, buildings, and other facilities, DeVoto complained that the parks were woefully understaffed, many of them operating with the same number of personnel they had had two decades before, when far fewer people visited the parks. Moreover, park personnel often lived in shameful housing—"either antiques or shacks," some houses like "a leaky and rat-ridden crate." He claimed that "true slum districts" existed in parks such as Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain, and Yosemite. Attempting to shock the public in order to gain greater support, DeVoto recommended temporarily closing many of the most popular parks and reducing the system to a size Congress would adequately fund. [106]

DeVoto's widely read article was pretty much on the mark. The following year, 1954, while the Service continued without substantial relief from Congress, 47.8 million visitors entered the parks. This number set a new record for the tenth straight year and was more than twice the number recorded in 1941, the last big vacation year before World War II. In February 1955, just over three years after becoming director, Wirth conceived the idea of a giant program that would affect the entire park system and benefit congressional districts throughout the country. [107]

In his autobiography, Wirth recalled realizing that efforts to acquire major, long-range funding for national park construction and development should be modeled on the strategies used by agencies involved in massive development projects—such as the Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Public Roads, and Bureau of Reclamation. Because their dam and highway projects were so large, those bureaus were able to get huge multiyear funding packages approved by Congress. By comparison, the smaller projects of the National Park Service were more vulnerable and easily cut from the administration's annual budget. To strengthen his bid for large-scale funding, Wirth believed he should propose one "all-inclusive, long-term program" for the parks. He also sensed that if "all the congressmen knew that the parks in their states were part of the [Mission 66] package and would be similarly taken care of within a given time, it seemed that once the overall program got started it would be hard to stop." [108]

Wirth quickly formed committees in the Washington office to plan Mission 66. As the planning became more intense and spread throughout the park system, the director secured an opportunity to present the program to President Dwight D. Eisenhower at a January 1956 Cabinet meeting. In addition to Wirth's successful politicking with Congress, his meeting with the President and the cabinet gained Eisenhower's firm support for a ten-year program, to start immediately. The director formally announced Mission 66 at a banquet held in Washington on February 8, 1956. This festive occasion was sponsored by the Park Service, the Department of the Interior, and—significantly, in view of later criticism of Mission 66—the American Automobile Association, one of Stephen Mather's allies in founding the Park Service in 1916. [109]

In initiating this massive program, Wirth instructed Park Service personnel to "disregard precedents," think imaginatively, and be aware that existing park facilities were based on "stage coach economy and travel patterns." Lon Garrison, first chairman of the Mission 66 Steering Committee, recalled that the committee was instructed to "dream up a contemporary National Park Service," in effect, and to prepare the parks for an estimated 80 million visitors by 1966. [110] As conceived, Mission 66 included not only extensive construction and development, but also significant staff increases (especially for interpretation, maintenance, and protection); an ambitious program to acquire inholdings; and a nationwide recreational survey to assist all levels of government in improving public park and recreational facilities. The Service also included as a broad, yet "paramount" goal of Mission 66 the preservation of national park wilderness areas. [111] Despite Wirth's resolve to "disregard precedents," Mission 66 reflected Park Service trends dating from Mather's time on, especially during the New Deal, the last flush times, when the Service developed the parks, increased staffing, and planned for recreation on a nationwide basis.

Without question, Mission 66's primary focus was the improvement of physical facilities in all parks. Having begun planning as far back as the early 1940s to meet postwar development needs, by the mid-1950s the Service was, in Lon Garrison's words, "ready for Mission 66," and the park development files were "full of goodies!" Indeed, Mission 66 would encompass hundreds of projects, among them 1,570 miles of rehabilitated roads; 1,197 miles of new roads (mostly in new park areas); 936 miles of new or rehabilitated trails; 1,502 new and 330 rehabilitated parking areas to accommodate nearly 50,000 additional vehicles; 575 new campgrounds; 535 new water systems; 271 new power systems; 521 new sewer systems; 218 new utility buildings; 221 new administrative buildings; 1,239 new employee housing units; 458 reconstructed or rehabilitated historic buildings; and 114 new visitor centers. [112]

Much of the Mission 66 work was based on revised and updated master planning led by the landscape architects, who, as William Carnes, Wirth's chief landscape architect, put it, played the "paramount role" in this effort. The most influential of all national park documents, the master plans determined where and how much a park would be developed. Carnes advocated that national park professionals take "the humble approach," with subdued designs that would not dominate nature. But for intensively used areas, he noted that master plans were particularly complex—"actually a matter of town or community planning." Wirth believed that without the plans it would have been "impossible to organize a sound program." He named Carnes to head the Mission 66 Committee, the actual working group (it reported to the higher-level steering committee) that supervised the updating of master plans to guide each park through Mission 66. [113]

Mission 66 evidenced the power that the construction and development professions had attained within the Service, epitomized by the influence of the landscape architects. Since, from the very first, Park Service directors had enjoyed wide latitude to build their bureaucratic organization as they saw fit, their perception of the mandated purpose and function of the National Park Service was reflected in the organization and staffing that evolved under their direction. In the early 1950s, just prior to Mission 66, William Carnes claimed that there were more landscape architects in the Park Service than any other profession, and that the Service was the "largest single user of landscape architects in the country—possibly in the world."

Most landscape architects were in the parks, regional offices, and special field offices; a few were in Washington where Carnes was stationed. Numerous national parks had their own landscape architects to provide the superintendent with information and advice. Carnes and those who did not report to park superintendents or regional directors were under Thomas Vint, the widely respected, longtime Service architect and landscape architect. In 1954 Vint had opened new central offices—the eastern and western offices of design and construction, which, with ever-enlarging staffs of landscape architects, engineers, and architects, would shoulder much of the Mission 66 work. By the time of Vint's retirement in 1961 (at midcourse for Mission 66), his design and construction operations included a staff of more than four hundred permanent employees. [114]

In addition to the landscape architects' professional work, their influence was pervasive in other ways. Carnes noted that, beyond those directly involved in field projects, several had become superintendents, four were assistant regional directors, one was a regional director. Another, Conrad Wirth, had become director. And although not themselves landscape architects, most previous directors had worked "closely and understandingly" with the profession, to the extent that they had been honored as "Corresponding Members" of the American Society of Landscape Architects. [115] Thus, in the 1950s, when the superintendents and rangers gained a power base in the Washington office with branch and then division status (and with leadership by former superintendents such as Lon Garrison from Big Bend and Eivind Scoyen from Sequoia and Kings Canyon), they formed with the design and construction professions a cohesive leadership clique to move Mission 66 forward under Director Wirth. [116]

Despite the evident need to improve the parks' physical facilities, Mission 66 encountered severe criticism, far more than previous national park development and construction had faced. With its ambitious size and scope, Wirth's program was confronted by the rising power of the conservation movement, whose leaders could take their case directly to the public and to highly placed politicians, widely broadcasting disapproval of national park management. And in a pre—Silent Spring confrontation, development itself was the central issue, not ecological impacts per se, such as destruction of habitat. Concerns included the inappropriateness of the location and the appearance of visitor centers and other tourist facilities, the amount of road construction, the design of roads, and whether highways should wind gently through park scenery or provide for high-speed traffic.

To many, the major objection to Mission 66 was that it tended to modernize and urbanize the national parks. In Everglades, for instance, the dirt road to Flamingo, forty miles from the park entrance, was paved early in Mission 66, thus opening the heart of the park to heavy tourist traffic. As described by Devereux Butcher, a longtime critic of national park management, the small cluster of structures at Flamingo became like a "fishing-yachting resort of the kind that is a dime a dozen in Florida"—including a sixty-room motel, a large restaurant, a marina with accommodations for large boats, marine equipment sales, rentals for outboard and inboard boats (including houseboats), and sightseeing operations for daily tours of the park's Florida Bay. This development not only resulted in the dredging of part of Florida Bay to provide access for larger boats, but also required regular transportation of supplies and equipment by truck along the park's newly improved road, in addition to increased visitor traffic. [117]

Other modern developments such as Grand Teton's Colter Bay Village and Yellowstone's Canyon Village raised the ire of conservationists. Butcher denounced the appearance of Colter Bay's laundromat, cafeteria, boatdocking facilities, parking lots, "de luxe trailer park," and 150 cabins, and he depicted Canyon Village's new overnight accommodations as "dozens of box-like cabins" (an apt description). In Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the "sky-post"—a swirling, modernistic observation tower atop Clingman's Dome, the highest point in the park (and indeed in the state of Tennessee)—became another target of Mission 66 critics. [118] An article in National Parks Magazine declared that inappropriate Mission 66 development made the parks seem "urbanized." It claimed that "engineering has become more important than preservation," creating wide, modern roads similar to those found in state highway systems and visitor centers that looked like medium-sized airport terminals. [119]

One of the first Mission 66 visitor centers to be built in strikingly modern design and in a large natural park was completed in 1958 at the quarry site in Dinosaur National Monument. [120] Including an expansive glassed-in area where ongoing paleontological work could be observed by visitors, the new building (like the road being improved into the Echo Park area) was intended to attract tourists to little-known Dinosaur, providing insurance against future threats to use the park's lands for other purposes, such as reservoirs.

National park architecture during the post—World War II era was indeed influenced by modernism rather than by the romanticism of earlier rustic construction. Many Park Service architects had been trained after World War II and were imbued with modern design tastes, while some of the engineers had gained experience with the military during World War II or the Korean War, when design was of necessity strictly utilitarian. In addition, as the Bureau of Reclamation's dam-building operations declined during the 1950s, the Park Service hired a number of engineers from the bureau. Subsequently involved with national park roads and buildings, they presumably had little knowledge of landscape and architectural aesthetics.

Because modern structures required little if any traditional craftsmanship, they were much less labor intensive and cheaper to build. They were favored by a budget-conscious Service, which could get a greater amount of construction with Mission 66 dollars. Also, long-term maintenance for modern, standardized structures was less costly than for rustic log buildings. [121] The modernism of Mission 66 seemed particularly jarring when compared to the log-and-stone rustic architecture of earlier park structures designed to harmonize with surrounding landscapes. In many ways the rustic structures recalled the frontier and the days of Teddy Roosevelt—as if to suggest a primitive America that the parks themselves represented, rather than the urban America symbolized by the standardized designs of Mission 66.

In 1957, already sensitive to negative public comment on Mission 66, Wirth made an ambitious attempt to disarm the critics with publication of a large-format color brochure, The National Park Wilderness. The Echo Park confrontation had served as a catalyst to rejuvenate the wilderness movement; and, hoping to allay concerns about park development and to be viewed as part of the movement, the Service used the brochure to portray Mission 66 as a wilderness preservation program. The brochure began by asserting that "clearly" it was the will of the American public that all of the fundamental laws guiding management and development of the national parks were intended to "preserve wilderness values." The remainder of the lavishly illustrated booklet was devoted mostly to emphasizing the importance of wilderness in national parks while justifying development.

The brochure stressed the need to preserve wilderness while preparing the parks to "serve better their increasing millions of visitors." To the rhetorical questions of whether Mission 66 would "impair the quality or reduce the area of park wilderness" and whether wilderness preservation meant abandoning traditional national park hospitality by limiting the number of visitors, eliminating lodges and campgrounds, or "other radical changes," the answer came that the Park Service sought a "sane and practical middle ground." The brochure stated that this would entail "no compromise whatsoever" with the parks' traditional and basic purpose. Indeed, compromise was seen as unnecessary because of a fundamental compatibility between wilderness and development. The brochure identified different kinds of wilderness, including what it called accessible wilderness, available within a ten-minute walk from many park roads, or where visitors could "see, sense, and react to wilderness, often without leaving the roadside." It claimed that wilderness in the parks was being adequately preserved, and that under Mission 66, development could be used "as a means of better preservation." The more a national park was used, "the less vulnerable are its lands to threats of commercial exploitation." Preparing parks "for as full a measure of recreational, educational, inspirational use as they can safely withstand" would establish a "defense against adverse use [and] . . . safeguard park integrity." [122]

Curiously, one of the most striking examples for this kind of argument was Echo Park. During the fight over the dam, conservation groups themselves had encouraged increased recreational use of the canyons and rivers threatened with inundation for the specific intent of calling attention to these areas in order to preserve them. Between 1950 and 1954, the number of people river-rafting each year in Dinosaur National Monument increased eighteen hundred percent, from fifty to more than nine hundred. [123] The annual total would continue to rise. Moreover, as promised in 1955 by Secretary McKay, the narrow, rocky road into the Echo Park area was improved (with Mission 66 funds) as a means of safeguarding Echo Park from possible future destruction. Strong utilitarian pressure to build dams had brought about a strong utilitarian response—a push for sufficient tourism use to justify preservation. In a similar effort, Mission 66 funded completion of Olympic National Park's Hurricane Ridge Road and its attendant facilities, specifically with the intent of increasing public use in order to block persistent attempts by lumbermen to open the heart of the park to timber cutting. [124] With the memory of Hetch Hetchy ever present, accommodating and encouraging traditional national park recreational use seemed an effective means of opposing far more extensive destruction of a park's natural conditions through dams and reservoirs or logging.

Yet Wirth's 1957 wilderness publication failed to pacify the more outspoken critics. Both the brochure and Mission 66 were denounced in early 1958 in a National Parks Magazine article by David R. Brower, Sierra Club activist and executive director. Viewing the brochure as a "very effective piece of promotion," Brower argued that it blurred the distinction between easily accessible areas and true wilderness country by stressing a kind of "roadside wilderness," accessible to automobile tourists—and thus compatible with Mission 66 development. [125]

Olaus J. Murie, by then president of the Wilderness Society, agreed with Brower. He wrote to Wirth that although the brochure and other publicity for Mission 66 contained "very high-minded statements," in fact the brochure represented a "certain advertising technique" to promote Mission 66. Murie believed that inspiration for some of the roads being built in the parks arose not from public pressure for new highways, but from plans generated by the "Service itself." He had written to Wirth earlier that criticism of Mission 66 was being expressed by people around the country. Some believed that the bulldozer was the appropriate symbol for Mission 66, and one individual had asserted that the Park Service needed a "Mission 76 to undo the harm done in Mission 66." [126]

Copies of Murie's letters were sent to a number of conservation organizations and leaders, doing the Service, in Wirth's opinion, a "considerable amount of damage." In a six-page response to Murie (also mailed to numerous conservationists), Wirth claimed that Americans were the "most outdoor recreation-minded of any nation in the world"—that they were "as a mass, the world's greatest travelers," and the Park Service should respond to their demands. Moreover, extensive advertising and improved state and federal highways leading to the parks were attracting millions of visitors. The director believed that the "only thing left for [the Park Service] to do is to handle the resulting traffic to the best of our ability." The Service was bringing the parks up to a standard where it could "care for and guide the people who are going to arrive at our gates." [127]

Mission 66 also faced criticism from the Sierra Club, which became particularly agitated over rehabilitation of Yosemite's Tioga Pass Road, running east-west across the park. Leading club members reacted angrily to plans to widen the road where it passed along the shores of Tenaya Lake, one of the scenic gems of the park's high country. The Service planned to blast away even more of the massive gray granite, with its remarkable examples of glacial polish, which before the original road was built had swept down to the lake's edge. At an on-site meeting with David Brower and photographer Ansel Adams, Wirth explained the engineering and economics behind the Park Service's plans, but failed outright to sway either man. Aware that the Sierra Club had long before approved the original routing of the road along the lake, Wirth asked why the current opposition was so strong. Brower responded bluntly that it was now a "different Sierra Club." [128]

Owing partly to Brower's influence and the fight over Echo Park, the Sierra Club was becoming a more aggressive, activist organization, willing to criticize public land managers more openly rather than rely on gentlemanly negotiations, as in the past. [129] This confrontational strategy was reflected in the tone of Ansel Adams' articles protesting the destruction of the glacial polish along Tenaya Lake's shoreline. Writing in National Parks Magazine in the fall of 1958, the influential Sierra Club member noted the "slow but irresistible tide" of roads, buildings, and other development that had changed Yosemite. There he believed the "urgencies of bureaucratic functions have blinded those who should see most clearly. The illusion of service-through-development has triumphed over the reality of protection through humility." Adams argued further that there were no true guidelines for managing national parks—there was "no adequate definition of what is proper in a national park entered in the laws of the land, comprehended by all, and enforced with determination." In a simultaneous article in the Sierra Club Bulletin, he angrily denounced the "bulldozers of bureaucracy" and urged that a "vital restatement" of the 1916 National Park Service Act be undertaken to establish definitive guidelines for park management. [130]

Conrad Wirth remarked in his autobiography that in instances such as the Tenaya Lake dispute, conservation organizations had been "looking for a fight" and needed to have a "good cause for raising money." However, the depths of Adams' feelings about the Park Service and its Mission 66 development by the late 1950s were apparent in his personal correspondence as well, as when he told Sierra Club colleagues that the Service must be "thoroughly deflated and thoroughly re-organized. Heads must roll. . . . Everyone is so hypnotized by the MISSION 66 propaganda that the lurking tragic dangers are not apparent." He believed Tenaya Lake to be "infinitely more important than the Park Service!" He wanted a "strong Park Service," but not one that was "both Strong and Bad." [131]

As illustrated at Tioga Pass, Echo Park, and Everglades, Mission 66 brought about improvement of the national park road system. The twentyseven hundred miles of new or improved roads resulting from the ten-year program included paving, widening, and straightening of many narrow dirt fire roads built in the 1920s and 1930s. Although intended primarily as "motor nature trails," the improved roads in many instances made access to park backcountry easier for the increasing numbers of hikers, at the very time when wilderness advocates sought greater protection for backcountry. With virtually no sociological research on visitors' use of the parks, Mission 66 did not anticipate how that use would begin to change by the 1960s. The unexpected impact of greater access to park backcountry provided additional ammunition for critics of Mission 66. [132]

Rather than just looking for a fight, the Sierra Club and other organizations had become deeply troubled over the Service's developmental tendencies under Wirth. Their opposition to improving roads through or near national park backcountry would continue throughout Mission 66, for instance with the efforts in the 1960s to prevent excessive modernization of Mt. McKinley's main road. There the extent of improvement was ultimately decreased from what had been proposed. [133] Overall, since consevationists viewed many aspects of Wirth's program as poorly planned development, they had little faith in his argument that Mission 66 advanced park preservation.


Preserving Nature in the National Parks
©1997, Yale University Press
sellars/chap5e.htm — 1-Jan-2003