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

Changes in Wilderness and Recreation Programs

Although it promoted Mission 66 as a wilderness preservation program, the Park Service refused to give genuine support to the wilderness bill, intended to set aside vast tracts of the public domain to remain largely unaltered by human activity. The bill had been under consideration by Congress since it was introduced at about the time the Echo Park dam was defeated. [134] It lacked close ties to, or dependence on, corporate recreational tourism, which had been a strong influence in national park management from Yellowstone's earliest times, providing constant pressure to develop the parks. In the quest to leave certain public lands essentially unimpaired, the wilderness bill represented the antithesis of developmental programs such as Mission 66—and it got a cool reception from Park Service leadership.

Earlier, in 1949, Director Newton Drury had encouraged wilderness advocates Howard Zahniser and David Brower to draft a bill that would, as Brower remembered Drury's words, set aside wilderness "inviolate by congressional mandate rather than by administrative decision." But by the late 1950s, in the throes of Mission 66, Park Service leadership had changed its position. To many, the wilderness bill seemed "redundant," as Lon Garrison recalled. National park wilderness areas were, he believed, adequately protected under the Service's 1916 Organic Act—they were wilderness "by original legislative intent." Claiming that the Service was already managing its backcountry "according to wilderness precepts," he stated that "most of us thought that we did not need new specialized legislation." Yet Garrison recognized that the conservationists "did not trust the strength" of the Service's administrative designation of wilderness backcountry areas. [135]

In his criticism of Wirth's national park wilderness brochure, David Brower stated that the Service might have actually intended to "demonstrate that the wilderness bill was superfluous." Brower believed that the brochure's effort to confuse real wilderness with roadside wilderness helped create a lack of clarity which suggested that additional legislative protection of truly wild areas was unnecessary. He noted also that in March 1957 the Service had urged the Advisory Board on National Parks to oppose the bill, and had spoken out against it during congressional hearings in June of that year. In a conciliatory comment, Brower added that the Park Service "matches with devotion the grandeur of the primeval lands it guards. . . . These men are our friends and we theirs." Yet, he urged, the Service must turn toward true wilderness preservation. [136]

Not at all placated by this gesture of cordiality, Wirth deeply resented Brower's comments and rebuked the National Parks Association for publishing them. In a February 1958 letter to Bruce M. Kilgore, editor of the association's magazine, Wirth stated that he could not "imagine a more unfortunate outburst coming at a more unfortunate time than this one." He described Brower as a "bitter and impatient man" who saw the brochure as "underhand propaganda" in the wilderness campaign. [137] A year later, Wirth wrote to his top staff that continued criticism had made it "increasingly apparent that a greater effort must be made . . . to present the Mission 66 program to the public in its true light." Among other endeavors, he wanted the Service to "strive for public understanding" of the idea that national park development in fact comprised "zones of civilization in a wilderness setting," and that park roads were "corridors through the wilderness linking these zones." [138] These comments reflected earlier remarks the director had made to the Fifth Biennial Wilderness Conference on Wild Lands in Our Civilization, when he described the new Mission 66 road into Mt. McKinley's remote Wonder Lake as "a wilderness road, to bring people into the wilderness, as John Muir advocated." [139]

Wirth firmly believed in the compatibility of wilderness and development. And, as part of the effort to prevent ever-increasing crowds from overwhelming the parks, the Service emphasized park zoning, with master plans demarcating backcountry from areas planned for intensive use and for road corridors. Such "controlled pattern developments" encouraged visitors to stay within specifically designated areas. [140]

In actuality, the planning and zoning process determined backcountry (or wilderness) largely by default: rather than such areas being selected for protection because of special significance, they were the areas left undeveloped by park planners. Forester Lawrence Cook observed in 1961 that the Service considered that "much of the area removed from mechanized transportation" could be "classed as wilderness." But Cook also acknowledged that the Service had not given "much serious consideration" to the effect of development on the "undeveloped remainder" of the parks—a concern that Lowell Sumner had raised about road construction in the 1930s and one that effectively cast some doubt on the 1957 wilderness brochure's extolling of wilderness that was easily accessible from roads.

Moreover, Cook stated that one of the "important problems" was to determine "how far ahead we should project our thinking as to zoning. The Master Plans do not now limit this except to 'the foreseeable future.' The [Service] should come up with some long-range answers." [141] Not unlike the vulnerability of Andrews Bald research reserve in Great Smoky Mountains, the zoning of park wilderness areas through the master planning process was subject to administrative change any time beyond "the foreseeable future"—perhaps one reason why the conservationists, in Lon Garrison's opinion, "did not trust the strength" of the Park Service's administrative designation of wilderness areas and sought legislation to create permanent wilderness.

In his autobiography Wirth asserted that the Park Service supported the wilderness bill to the extent that "the basic standards already established for [the Service] by Congress would prevail in the national parks"— that is, if the bill would not override the bureau's original congressional mandate and its traditional implementation of that mandate. [142] In contrast, though, Brower's assertion that the Park Service opposed the wilderness bill was in accord with Lon Garrison's remark on the lack of trust in the Service. In its comments on the bill, the Park Service had even claimed that such legislation could weaken protection of wilderness in the parks by reducing national park lands to a "low common denominator," putting them on a par with, for instance, lands managed by the Forest Service. [143]

Howard Stagner, an early member of the Mission 66 Committee (and the true author of the wilderness brochure), recalled that the Park Service was "very cold" toward the wilderness legislation. To the Service it was a kind of "turf situation"—a desire to maintain full control of the national parks' backcountry without additional, burdensome regulations. Stagner also remembered, however, that by 1964, when Congress passed the Wilderness Act, the Service had become "somewhat neutral." [144] Although many of the Park Service's rank and file enthusiastically supported the wilderness bill, the bureau's leadership seems to have drifted from outright opposition to reluctant neutrality.

Of all federal bureaus, the Park Service operated under a mandate that was by far the most closely allied with the goals expressed in the Wilderness Act. Logically, then, the Service might have been expected to seize this opportunity to advance the principle of preserving huge tracts of public lands in a wilderness, or unimpaired, condition, whether or not in national parks. But Stagner rightly identified a key problem: that the Service wanted no interference in its management of backcountry. The Park Service chose to be territorial rather than commit to the principle of greater wilderness preservation. In truth, its deepest commitment was to another principle: to ensure public enjoyment of the parks.

President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the wilderness legislation into law on September 3, 1964, nine months after Wirth left office. Despite claims that Mission 66 was a wilderness preservation effort, the final wording of the act implied misgivings about the Service's treatment of the parks. The Wilderness Act's statement of purpose—"to assure that [Americans do not] occupy and modify all areas within the United States . . . leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition" (emphasis added)—suggested that protection was necessary beyond that which the Service was giving the national parks. It suggested the distrust that Lon Garrison had identified and that Wirth had acknowledged when he stated in 1958 that some people felt the "Service is the enemy" and "cannot be trusted to preserve the parks." [145] Borrowing somewhat from the 1916 Organic Act's mandate that the parks were to be left "unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations," the Wilderness Act was intended to prohibit the very kinds of alterations of natural conditions then being wrought by Mission 66. Wilderness areas were to be managed "for the use and enjoyment of the American people in such manner as will leave them unimpaired for future use as wilderness" (emphasis added). [146] A key word in both acts, "unimpaired" was much more narrowly defined in the Wilderness Act, which tied the concept specifically to wilderness conditions.

With Mission 66 under attack by conservationists and the Park Service reluctant to support wilderness legislation, the Service also found its nationwide recreation assistance programs threatened when, in 1958, Congress and President Eisenhower established the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission. Focusing on programs the Service had been associated with for a quarter of a century, the commission was mandated to study all aspects of public recreation, including federal, state, and local programs, and areas such as lakeshores, seashores, urban parks, and wilderness. Wanting the lead role, Wirth sought to have the Park Service conduct the study, and when that failed he encouraged Horace Albright, a member of the commission, to seek the chairmanship. Albright declined, however, because of his advancing age, and longtime national parks supporter Laurance S. Rockefeller was named chairman. Even with Rockefeller in charge, Park Service involvement was minimal and Wirth felt shut out. The Service may have been preempted by its perennial rival, the U.S. Forest Service, and opposed by conservation organizations such as the Sierra Club, Wilderness Society, and National Parks Association. The association asserted that the Park Service in its earlier surveys had deemphasized wilderness in favor of recreation—a factor that surely prejudiced conservation organizations against Service participation. [147]

Especially during its early years, Mission 66 involved substantial planning for expansion of national recreational opportunities, and Wirth credited these efforts with inspiring the new recreation study. Building on work begun even before the advent of Mission 66, Park Service teams completed by the early 1960s a number of surveys of areas suitable for public recreational use, including sites along the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf coasts, as well as the Great Lakes and the Ozark rivers. [148] Certainly Wirth's personal efforts, beginning with his promotion of recreational surveys in the 1930s and 1940s and continuing with Mission 66, constituted an impressive contribution to the development of public recreation areas and provided groundwork for the commission's study.

Nevertheless, Wirth was invited to attend only one of the study meetings, and then only after he had complained about the anticipated proposal to establish a new bureau to take over recreation programs. As he recalled in his autobiography (in words that reveal his pique at being excluded), Wirth considered a new bureau unnecessary—it was "our responsibility" (the Service's) to run such studies. [149] But the commission's final report called for a sweeping program to address the nation's recreation needs, including, as Wirth had feared, a new bureau completely separate from the National Park Service to oversee this activity. Surely to Wirth's deep dismay, Horace Albright supported creation of the new bureau, believing, as he later stated, that the increasing recreational responsibilities would "impose too great a burden" on the Service. With the formal establishment of the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation in April 1962, the Park Service's role in national outdoor recreation programs, long cherished by Wirth, was drastically reduced. It was now limited mainly to managing the national park system itself. [150]


Preserving Nature in the National Parks
©1997, Yale University Press
sellars/chap5f.htm — 1-Jan-2003