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

The Public Hunting Crisis and a New Look at National Parks

As the Park Service faced the loss of its recreation programs, it was drawn into a heated debate over whether or not to allow another type of recreational activity in the parks—sporthunting. The most publicized controversy yet to arise over park wildlife, the debate would precipitate major reassessments not just of wildlife policy, but of the Service's overall natural resource management policies.

Elk research conducted in the 1950s by biologist Walter Kittams had indicated that even though population control had been under way since the mid-1930s, elk still overgrazed Yellowstone's northern range. Relying on Kittams' recommendations, the Service planned to make a special effort to reduce the herd's population from ten thousand to five thousand head. [151] This planned reduction, unprecedented in size and, as before, to be conducted by park rangers, prompted demands from sportsmen's organizations and from state game and fish commissions to allow hunters to participate in the kill. Their demands soon expanded to permit big-game hunting in all national parks.

Reduction programs of lesser magnitude than Yellowstone's were being carried out in a number of parks, for instance in Zion, Rocky Mountain, Sequoia, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Acadia, and Grand Teton. In all but Grand Teton, the reductions were the responsibility of park rangers, sometimes assisted by state game and fish personnel. Yet some precedent for public hunting in national parks had been established with the 1950 act adding Jackson Hole National Monument to Grand Teton National Park. Located just south of Yellowstone, Jackson Hole lies along the migration route of Yellowstone's southern elk herd. Early in the century, biologists came to believe that human settlement had interfered with the migration and with the animals' winter range. To prevent mass starvation of elk unable to reach their winter range, Congress in 1912 appropriated funds to purchase an area (the National Elk Refuge) near the town of Jackson, and the Biological Survey initiated a winter feeding program for the herd. The program continues today. But in 1950, when Grand Teton National Park was expanded to include Jackson Hole, Congress provided, as a concession in the bitter struggle over park expansion, that "qualified and experienced hunters licensed by the State of Wyoming" could be allowed to hunt in the park when the Service and the state determined it necessary for "proper management and protection" of the elk herd. This condition Director Newton Drury reluctantly accepted to secure the addition of Jackson Hole to the national park. [152]

In Grand Teton, elk reduction was to include sporthunting, with hunters to be "deputized as park rangers"—a means of avoiding the appearance of ordinary recreational hunting in the parks. But, as Park Service biologist Robert H. Bendt reported in the early 1960s, public participation in the park's elk reduction effort did not turn out to be "as great as anticipated." Throughout the decade following initiation of Grand Teton's reduction program in 1951, only about fifty percent of the approved hunting permits were used; and an average of only twenty-seven percent of the hunters managed to kill an elk—an overall success rate of about one in eight. [153] Despite such low success in Grand Teton's hunt, when Yellowstone announced plans to increase reduction of its northern herd in 1962, sportsmen's organizations and state game and fish commissioners used this opportunity to seek the opening of all national parks for big-game hunting.

There had always been interest in sporthunting in national parks. But in the early 1960s, pressure from hunting advocates became, in the words of Grand Teton superintendent Harthon L. ("Spud") Bill, "stronger and more disturbing" than before. Still, in his January 1961 recommendation to his regional director on the hunting issue Bill equivocated. He stated that "basically" he did not favor sporthunting in national parks and added that the Service should consider an appeal to the public before "capitulation to the proponents of hunting." Yet he also asserted that the Service had been "maneuvered into a difficult position by the rigid no hunting provision where we have had situations which might have been alleviated by public hunting." Bill advised that the Park Service must be flexible. What worked in one park might not work in another, and the Service must "be in a position to determine when public hunting is necessary." [154]

The Grand Teton superintendent's position was reflected in Wirth's important policy analysis of the issue in February 1961. In a letter to Anthony Wayne Smith, the National Parks Association's executive secretary, Wirth wrote that the Service's ongoing elk reductions were not in the category of mere recreational hunting, but were the result of a "forced situation": with damage from overgrazing, reduction was the only means available for adhering to the Service's mandate to leave the parks unimpaired. He noted that the 1916 act establishing the Park Service allowed "destruction" of animal and plant life that was "detrimental to the use of the parks" and, further, that Fauna No. 1 had recommended keeping native animal populations in line with range carrying capacity. Moreover, Wirth feared that the great public interest in sporthunting would prevent any more national parks from being created unless hunting was allowed. He noted that biologist Lowell Sumner had already recommended that a portion of the proposed Great Basin National Park, in Nevada, be designated a deer management area, with the public to participate in a reduction program overseen by the secretary of the interior—a plan similar to that for Grand Teton. [155]

Wirth then focused on perhaps the heart of the issue, recalling that since the mid-1930s rangers had been carrying out reduction programs, a "disagreeable and time consuming" task for which there was seldom enough manpower or funding. Now, after a thorough review, he believed that public hunting could be conducted in a "controlled and limited" manner to assist the rangers. "On the basis of practical results," public hunting was likely "the most effective [method] to follow in some cases." He emphasized that it was merely a "method" for reducing surplus populations, not a policy that condoned public sporthunting in the national parks. Concluding his analysis, Wirth stated that the Service "must be progressive and we must be realistic" in park management and use "modern knowledge and techniques to further the basic aims of the Service." He asked, "Why, then, should we not permit [public participation in reductions]?" [156]

Publishing Wirth's letter along with Smith's reply in its monthly magazine, the National Parks Association strongly objected to the director's position and threatened to sue the Service to prevent public participation in the reductions. The association conceded that reductions were "in all probability" necessary, yet believed they should be carried out mainly by the "paid staff of the Service." In a slam at Mission 66, the association cited Wirth's expressed concern for funding and manpower in wildlife management and habitat protection, then pointed out that construction funding was far more than that allocated to "management, protection, interpretation, and research" combined—an "imbalance" that needed readjusting. Furthermore, allowing hunting in new parks such as the one proposed for Great Basin could result in a dangerous relaxation of restrictions against public hunting in the older, established national parks. [157]

The association's views were shared by other conservation groups, such as the Wilderness Society, which agreed that reduction was "necessary" yet opposed all forms of sporthunting in the parks. Howard Zahniser, the society's executive secretary, stated this opinion to Olaus Murie a month after Wirth had made his statement. Later that year, the Audubon Society concurred with Zahniser's position. [158]

Opposition to Wirth's policy statement also came from within the Park Service—from none other than Yellowstone superintendent Lon Garrison, probably the Service's most influential park manager. In a memorandum of March 24, 1961, with the notation "NOT FOR PUBLIC RELEASE!" across the top of the first page, Garrison wrote that with the director's public hunting statement, one of the "keystones of the National Park Service suddenly crumbles and the cause of pure park conservation . . . loses much of its vitality." Garrison argued that public hunting would damage the park, with hunters illegally killing other big-game species and generally wreaking havoc in the vicinity of hunting camps. Also, Yellowstone would in essence be in competition with the Grand Teton hunt, where so far hunter participation was less than expected. With the low success rate of those that did take part, Garrison estimated that to reduce Yellowstone's northern herd by five thousand head, twenty thousand hunters would have to participate. In direct contradiction to Wirth's public hunting proposal, he stated that for Yellowstone "this is not the answer here." [159]

Raising a fundamental point, Garrison wrote to his regional director, Howard W. Baker, questioning if in all this controversy the Service had sufficient information to justify the targeted five thousand population figure. He then answered his own question: "Of course not." Garrison judged that the Service might even have "misled the public" into believing that the park had detailed knowledge of the northern herd, when in fact much more information was needed. The ecological relationships among bison, elk, pronghorn, bighorn, deer, and beaver were, he stated, "subtle and not very well known," and Yellowstone's wildlife should not be managed "on the basis of hypothesis and sheer guesswork."

Garrison called for a "long-term study, perhaps five years," into the "ecology of Northern Yellowstone big game species." He summarized the seriousness of the situation by arguing that if the Service did a "good job based on professional research" there would be "no valid criticism." But the stakes were high. In Garrison's opinion, "a mediocre job based on uncertain knowledge spells failure and will provoke a continuing storm of criticism that will jeopardize far more than elk management at Yellowstone. We simply cannot risk failure." The Yellowstone superintendent's recommendations were forwarded to Wirth by Regional Director Baker, with a cover memorandum opposing public hunting in the national parks. [160]

On September 14, probably after extensive deliberations, Wirth issued a statement on "Wildlife Conservation and Management," a major policy reversal that brought him in line with Garrison's recommendations. He declared that public hunting was "neither the appropriate nor the practical way" to carry out the Service's wildlife management objectives—it was "irreconcilable" with national park purposes. Given the tremendously complex ecology of the parks, "competent and adequate ecological research" was necessary. In the "long view," Wirth declared that "management of the natural environments must be based on complete and exact knowledge of all factors involved, and be guided by a program of continuous appraisal of wildlife and other natural conditions." [161] Despite the strength of Wirth's pronouncement, it would prove altogether as rhetorical as the initial Mission 66 commitment that national park management would not be built on guesswork but on scientific knowledge.

The director apparently issued this statement without clearance from Secretary Udall's office, which sparked friction between the two officials. Wirth argued that his statement merely reflected a long-standing national park policy. But hunters' associations and state conservation officials in the West reacted angrily to his new position. Wirth's reversal back to the nopublic-hunting policy created a "crisis in public relations," as Udall's assistant secretary, John A. Carver, later recalled. [162]

Park Service rangers carried out Yellowstone's massive elk reduction in the winter, killing more than forty-five hundred of the northern herd. Smaller numbers of elk were shot in Rocky Mountain and Glacier, and deer in parks such as Acadia, Sequoia, and Grand Canyon. In 1962 opponents of the policy introduced a bill in the U.S. Senate requiring the Park Service to consult with state officials on the need for reductions, and authorizing the secretary of the interior to use hunters in reduction programs. Attacked by conservation organizations, the bill failed to pass. [163]

With the Service beset by critics, in April 1962 Secretary Udall called for thorough studies to be conducted on its science and resource management. The studies would address concerns expressed long ago in Fauna No. 1 and by wildlife biologists such as Lowell Sumner and Adolph Murie— concerns now echoed by conservation organizations and by high-level Park Service managers, including Daniel Beard and Howard Stagner. In one request Udall asked the National Academy of Sciences to undertake a review of the "natural history research needs and opportunities" in the national parks. In another he called for a "blue ribbon" committee of highly respected wildlife specialists to study the Service's wildlife management policies and practices. The National Academy selected William J. Robbins, a prominent biologist with the National Science Foundation, to chair its study. Secretary Udall personally persuaded A. Starker Leopold, professor of biology at the University of California at Berkeley and son of the late ecologist Aldo Leopold, to head the wildlife management review. [164]

In response to the "crisis in public relations," and coming nearly half a century after establishment of the National Park Service, prestigious committees from outside the Service were to undertake in-depth reviews of research and wildlife management policy. Never before had this happened. Originating within the Service, Fauna No. 1 had lacked the clout that could be derived from reviews by prominent scientists and wildlife specialists brought together by a secretary of the interior. Imposed by Udall's office, these reviews by influential outside experts were awaited by a large and increasingly vocal conservation community.

Looking forward to the reports, Lowell Sumner wrote to his friend and professional colleague Starker Leopold in May 1962 expressing belief that the upcoming studies were probably the "biggest and most hopeful development since George Wright's death cut short the evolution of the original Wildlife Division" in the mid-1930s. [165] And indeed the wildlife management study (referred to as the Leopold Report) and the National Academy's research review, both presented in 1963, would call for a potent infusion of science into national park management. They would constitute an important restatement of the Service's basic goals in managing natural areas of the national park system.

At a 1968 meeting of Park Service scientists, Lowell Sumner took a long look back and asked the question, "Why, among NPS activities, did biology alone fail to recover" after the end of World War II? One of the Service's most experienced scientists, Sumner believed that "the heart of the matter" had been the Park Service's "reluctance to acknowledge the ecological importance of the parks." [166] Indeed, the period during and after World War II was marked by two phases of national park management, both of which witnessed steady resistance to meaningful improvements in the Service's scientific capabilities and its knowledge of the parks' natural resources.

Newton Drury had overseen a period of minimal growth and development during the war and early postwar years. His cautious outlook and preservationist leanings meant that he was timid in advocating park development for tourism and opposed to extensive involvement in reservoir recreation. Commenting on Drury's conservatism, former chief biologist Victor Cahalane recalled that the director was a "state's righter" who believed the federal government should have a very limited role in managing park lands. Drury differed markedly from Mather, Albright, Cammerer, and Wirth, whose aggrandizing ways contributed much to the expansion and development of the national park system. [167] In resource management issues Drury often supported the wildlife biologists, who pressed for decisions based more on ecological considerations than on the desire to satisfy park visitors. Yet he made no determined effort to enhance the biologists' authority in the Service.

Under Conrad Wirth, the next phase of national park management featured Mission 66—the kind of long-range, expansive program Drury never earnestly pursued. National park facilities had badly deteriorated and the parks were strained to the limit by public use that had more than quadrupled between the end of World War II and the mid-1950s. Even the vehement Park Service critic Ansel Adams once admitted that Mission 66 was an "excellent program of providing 'necessities' in terms of expected travel increases." From a "bureaucratic viewpoint," he added, it was "one of the better undertakings of recent years," its purpose "undoubtedly well intended."

Despite widespread criticism of the program, Wirth came to believe by 1961 that the Park Service had not "planned big enough." He later wrote that "instead of having the urgency behind us, we were facing a new dimension —an action program was required that would dwarf the first five years of Mission 66." In fact, Mission 66 funding during its last half-decade amounted to considerably more than during the first five years, the grand total reaching just over one billion dollars by the end of the program. [168]

Many current and retired Park Service employees view Mission 66 as a kind of Golden Age of the national parks—an exciting time of growth, expansion, and development of the system. Mission 66 was the culmination of the vision of Stephen Mather and Horace Albright, who had sought to develop the parks and make them accessible for the benefit and enjoyment of the people. The program was a high point of what might be termed the "landscape architecture approach" to national park management, when, under landscape architect Wirth, development of the parks for recreational tourism dominated national park affairs and went largely unfettered by natural resource concerns. With huge sums of money, Congress backed Wirth's policies—in effect confirming the Service's long-held belief that the basic purpose of the national parks was public enjoyment, rather than scientifically based preservation of natural resources. Appropriation of a billion dollars for park development demonstrated that Mission 66 was what Congress and the people wanted for the parks.

Yet this Golden Age brought changes to National Park Service programs that did not please Wirth and his associates. After building its reputation and leadership in park management and recreational tourism, the Service witnessed its control of national recreation planning given over to the newly created Bureau of Outdoor Recreation, and its administrative discretion over the parks' backcountry threatened by the wilderness bill. Moreover, the Park Service was at odds with the rising tide of conservation. Wirth's comment in early 1958 that some of the conservationists believed that the "Service is the enemy" and "cannot be trusted to preserve the parks" reflected his apprehension that the bureau was losing ground with that important and vocal part of its constituency. [169]

At first, the criticism regarding the deteriorated condition of park facilities that helped bring about Mission 66 was aimed largely at a parsimonious Congress, rather than at the Park Service. Once Mission 66 began, however, the Service itself came under intense criticism from conservationists who argued that the program's construction and development were too extensive, too modern, and too intrusive. Finally, by the time Mission 66 passed midcourse, critics increasingly aimed at another target: Park Service failure to build a science program and to consider the ecological impact of park development. The focus had shifted from, for instance, Bernard DeVoto's early 1950s article identifying a crisis in terms of deteriorating national park facilities; to widespread concerns about modern, inappropriate development under Mission 66; then to "Get the Facts, and Put Them to Work," defining crucial park needs in ecological and scientific terms.

Intended to commemorate the Service's fiftieth anniversary, Mission 66 marked a major transition in national park history. The era that brought to culmination the Mather and Albright vision of developing parks for public use and enjoyment would also witness the resurgence of George Wright's vision to protect, or even restore, the integrity of the parks' natural resources —a vision shared by those wildlife biologists who continued after Wright. Once the studies requested by Secretary Udall from the Leopold Committee and the National Academy of Sciences were released in 1963, the Park Service truly would enter a new era, in which park management would be judged far more on ecological criteria. Yet this era began at the height of national park development under Mission 66 and would confront a half-century of Park Service tradition emphasizing recreational tourism.


Preserving Nature in the National Parks
©1997, Yale University Press
sellars/chap5g.htm — 1-Jan-2003