Preserving Nature in the National Parks
A History
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Chapter 7
A House Divided: The National Park Service and Environmental Leadership

National Park Service Culture and Recreational Tourism

In contrast to its record in natural resource management, the Park Service truly can claim leadership in the field of recreational tourism—the development and management of parks for public use, enjoyment, and education. Indeed, the Northern Pacific Railroad's backing of the 1872 Yellowstone legislation had provided an important clue to the destiny of the national parks. The ensuing development of the parks for tourism—well under way by the early twentieth century—was affirmed in 1916 by the Organic Act's mandate to ensure public enjoyment of the parks. From 1916 on, the Service's "administrative interpretation" of the act has perpetuated the emphasis on accommodating tourism. Development and construction flourished especially during the Mather era, the New Deal, Mission 66, and the Bicentennial program of the 1970s. Backed by Secretary of the Interior Watt, the Park Restoration and Improvement Program of the early 1980s funded mainly the upgrading of existing park facilities, rather than new development. Other visitor-related programs, such as interpretation and law enforcement, also grew over the decades. [29]

Furthermore, through its own persistent lobbying and that of various national and local allies, the Service secured expansion of the national park system from a handful of parks and monuments in 1916 to approximately 370 units by the mid-1990s, including historical, archeological, recreational, and a variety of other types of parks. In favorable times, and under leaders like Mather, Albright, Cammerer, Wirth, and Hartzog, the system expanded rapidly—a result of both genuine altruism and bureaucratic aggrandizement (tempered by active resistance to many proposals for parks that the Service deemed unworthy of inclusion in a national system). Beginning with the first state parks conference in 1921, the Service extended its influence to nonfederal lands, promoting the growth and development of state park systems, with notable success during the New Deal era. The Park Service's growing involvement in recreational demonstration areas, national parkways, and national recreation areas in the 1930s helped place it unquestionably at the forefront in the setting aside of recreational open space for millions of Americans—an accomplishment about which the Service has repeatedly and justifiably expressed pride.

The loss in 1962 of Director Wirth's state and local recreational programs to the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation was reversed in 1981, when Secretary Watt returned those programs to the Park Service, citing the need for more efficient government. Significantly expanded in scope since 1962 (although with sharply decreased funding beginning under Watt), the programs have bolstered the Service's authority and status in the recreation field and have become part of its overall "partnership" effort. Involving cooperation with national, state, and local entities in parks and recreation endeavors, the partnership programs are by congressional intent focused more on public use than on wildland preservation, thus reinforcing the Service's interest in recreational tourism. [30]

The long-dominant emphasis on accommodating public use in parks had a profound impact on the National Park Service, leading to the entrenchment of specific values and perceptions. With tourism and the economics of tourism being fundamental to the parks' very existence, the utilitarian, businesslike proclivities of park management (spawned in Yellowstone and other early parks) thrived as the system grew. Striving for ever more parks and better accommodations, the Service measured its success by indicators such as annual visitor counts; the increasing scope of its programs and size of the park system; and the number of new campgrounds, visitor centers, and related developments. Recreational tourism was, moreover, the chief impetus behind the diversification of the Park Service's mission. Always cherishing its identification with the large natural areas of the system, the Service nevertheless used the recreational aspects of its mandate to justify its tremendous expansion into reservoir, urban area, and parkway management, as well as assistance for state and local recreational programs.

The ever-demanding construction and development programs relating to public use of the parks ensured the ascendancy of those professions overseeing such work and greatly influenced Park Service funding and staffing priorities. From Mather's selection of engineers to fill superintendencies to the present day, the developmental professions have consistently maintained prominence within the Service's highest ranks, whether in Washington, in other central offices, or in the parks. Of fourteen directors, only two have been landscape architects—Conrad Wirth and William Penn Mott—and one an engineer—Gary Everhardt. (Even though the Service is best known worldwide for its large natural parks, no one with a professional background in natural science has ever been chosen director.) Dozens from the construction and development professions have served in other key organizational positions: as superintendents, regional directors, and associate regional directors; and as deputy, associate, and assistant directors in Washington. Logically, they have also headed such influential offices as the eastern and western design and construction centers and their successor, the Denver Service Center—which has been responsible for far more of the parks' design and construction work than any other office. As of the end of 1992, the service center alone had a work force of 773, out of a total Park Service force of about 22,700. Service center personnel included 123 landscape architects, 81 architects, 73 civil engineers, 51 general engineers, 11 electrical engineers, 19 mechanical engineers, 8 environmental engineers, 2 safety engineers, 22 engineering and architectural student trainees, 47 engineering and architectural drafting technicians, and 11 construction representatives. At the same time, 41 positions were devoted in one way or another to natural resources. [31]

In analyzing what it viewed as an "abysmal lack of response" to repeated calls for research-based management, the 1992 National Academy Report on science in the parks stated that the problem was "rooted in the culture" of the National Park Service, but made no effort to identify the cultural characteristics. The Vail Agenda, on the other hand, did attempt to define the Service's culture. Managers who could be "creative and embrace responsibility, not avoid accountability and play it safe" exemplified the culture. The Agenda further identified such positive attributes as independence, initiative, imagination, and commitment—altogether a definition so conventional that it provided no clues to the substantive values, perceptions, and attitudes of the organization and its leaders. [32]

In truth, the leadership culture of the Park Service has been defined largely by the demands of recreational tourism management and the desire for the public to enjoy the scenic parks. Since the establishment of Yellowstone and other nineteenth-century parks, managers have had to deal not only with planning, development, construction, and maintenance of park facilities, but also with ever more demanding political, legal, and economic matters such as concession operations, law enforcement, visitor protection, and the influence of national, state, and local tourism interests. Such imperatives have driven park management. Especially since the 1960s, deeper involvement in urban parks, greater drug and crime problems, more development on lands adjacent to parks, and the escalating political strength of concessionaires and other commercial interests have added to the pressure on management. [33]

From this evolving set of circumstances, certain shared basic assumptions began to emerge even before the Park Service was created, gained strength under Mather and his successors, and endured—some to the present. Close consideration of eight decades of National Park Service history reveals that these assumptions have long reflected the perceptions and attitudes of the Service's leadership culture: with public enjoyment of the parks being the overriding concern, park management and decisionmaking could be conducted with little or no scientific information. Appearance of the parks mattered most. Even when dealing with vast natural areas, resource management did not seem to require highly trained biological specialists—the unscientifically trained eye could judge park conditions adequately. What is more, scientific findings could restrict managerial discretion, and park managers needed independence of action. Each park was a superintendent's realm, to be subjected to minimal interference, primarily that sought by the superintendent, perhaps through the regional director. Similarly, the Service was the recognized, right-thinking authority on national park management—it could provide the kind of "environmental leadership" necessary to run the parks properly with little or no involvement from outside groups. In this regard, environmental activism was often unwelcome; and legislation such as the Wilderness Act or the National Environmental Policy Act should not interfere unduly with traditional management and operations of the Service. Moreover, natural qualities for top leadership in the Service were to be found mainly within the ranger and superintendent ranks and the developmental professions. [343]

Overall, then, the dominant Park Service culture developed a strongly utilitarian and pragmatic managerial bent. It adopted a management style that emphasized expediency and quick solutions, resisted information gathering through long-term research, and disliked interference from inside or outside the Service.

Primarily concerned with varied aspects of recreational tourism, the Park Service's leadership culture has been extremely reluctant to abandon traditional assumptions. It has long proved its persistence and adaptability in the face of repeated criticism. Much of that criticism has come from inside the Service, especially from biologists from the 1930s on, very often with support from naturalists and interpreters in the parks. Some superintendents also have been openly disapproving: the uniformed, "green blood" groups within the Park Service family have not always been of one accord. Numerous individual superintendents, in major parks such as Shenandoah, Sequoia, Yellowstone, and Channel Islands, have been recognized in recent years for their contributions to various aspects of natural resource management. [35] Nevertheless, such advances have largely depended on the chance of a particular superintendent's attitude and willingness to strive for ecologically informed management, rather than on any pervasive environmental perspective within the Park Service. Overall, the Service's rank and file has been more ecologically aware than its leaders.

Through research and careful planning, ecological preservation and recreational tourism do not have to be mutually exclusive. But in the ebb and flow of national park history, loyalty to traditional assumptions has prevented the Service from establishing unquestioned credentials as a leader in scientifically based land management. [36]

Yet, it must be noted that the emphasis on recreational tourism in the national parks has always had a statutory basis. Tourism and public use have had explicit congressional sanction since the legislation establishing Yellowstone and other early parks authorized accommodations and roads and trails to facilitate public enjoyment. This authority was strongly reaffirmed in the National Park Service Act of 1916, with its emphasis on public use. Not only did Congress not challenge the Park Service's interpretation of the act during the ensuing decades, but it also encouraged development and use—at times aggressively. The Service's remarkable success in building the national park system, developing the parks, and expanding into many new tourism-related program areas continually depended on congressional sanction and appropriation of funds. Furthermore, such congressional support surely reflected widespread public support. Public enthusiasm for the parks has been evident from the steady increase in the annual number of visits to the parks (reaching, by one estimate, 281 million per year in 1990—more than the national population) and, in recent times, the repeated designation of the Park Service as among the most popular and respected federal bureaus. [37]

Overall, then, national park management with its emphasis on tourism and use has largely reflected the values and assumptions of the Service's utilitarian-minded leadership culture. The culture has been grounded in legislative mandates. And the legislation has derived from public values and perceptions, principally the appreciation and enjoyment of the parks' scenic beauty and recreational opportunities.

In significant contrast to management for public use and enjoyment, science as a means of informing natural resource management in the national parks has never gained specific statutory authority. This fact has been acknowledged again and again in the reports on park science. For instance, the National Parks and Conservation Association's 1989 report recognized the lack of a scientific mandate, as did the National Academy's 1992 report and the Vail Agenda, which stated plainly that the Park Service "does not have any specific statutory language directing it to engage in science as part of its assigned mission." [38]

Indeed, even though the Organic Act of 1916 called for the parks to be left "unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations," it did not mandate science as a means of meeting that goal. Seeking to preserve the parks' majestic landscapes by preventing excessive commercialism, the founders had lobbied for legislation to place protection and development of the scenic areas under federal control. Scientific research was not at all prohibited by the act; certainly by implication it could be read into the act's principal mandate. But that was not enough to convince Mather and Albright, two founders who became directors and saw little need for scientific expertise to manage parks created for scenic preservation and public enjoyment. These giants of Park Service history deeply infused their values and assumptions into the Service. Their developmentoriented Lane Letter of 1918 was fundamental dogma for decades, and deemed official policy as late as the 1970s. The emergence in the 1930s of an ecological and scientific perspective and its revival in the 1960s threatened to make park management more costly, difficult, and timeconsuming, thus bringing about a struggle within the Service between the more ecologically oriented and the more traditional factions. As heirs to the vision of Mather and Albright, the Service's top leadership by and large has shared the founders' apathy toward scientific resource management. Their views have prevailed; and to public expressions of ecological concern, rhetoric has been used many times to mask the deficiencies of the Service's response.

Focusing on recreational tourism, the Service neglected to push science to the forefront and make it a nonnegotiable element of park management. In an age of ecological science, the acknowledged lack of a congressionally imposed scientific mandate for national park management clearly means that ecological preservation still is not a primary concern of Congress. Without such a mandate, the Service has not seized the initiative to build sufficient science programs on its own. And the recognition that only through scientific resource management can ecological preservation in the parks be adequately addressed negates rhetorical claims that preservation has been the Service's primary goal.

In response to the National Academy's 1992 analysis of science in the parks, a high-level committee headed by scientist Paul G. Risser (who had chaired the 1992 report) and consisting of superintendents, a regional director, and other authorities inside and outside the Service, issued a report declaring that without a legislative mandate, there can be no assurance that the Park Service will make a "genuinely lasting commitment to science-based management." Noting that an "adequate science and technology program and organization" had never been established, the report added that the Service "had simply never done so, in spite of repeated authoritative urging. There is no assurance that it will do so now, on a longterm sustained basis, without statutory direction." [39] Indeed, the history of the National Park Service is the history of a bureau without a scientific mandate and unwilling to act decisively in support of science unless specifically directed to by Congress—the Service would have to be told to "make a genuinely lasting commitment." Such reluctance makes it appear that the lack of a mandate has served, in effect, as an excuse for not being resolute in scientific matters.

Despite long-standing recognition of its deficient science programs, the Park Service has remained highly popular with the public. In a 1991 study entitled A Race Against Time, the National Parks and Conservation Association cited polls by the Roper Organization, which indicated that the Park Service "continues to enjoy the highest public approval rating of all government agencies." Nonetheless, the association concluded by castigating the public for "ignorance and complacency" and for "acting like recreational tourists at a theme park," oblivious to the responsibility to ensure preservation of the parks. [40] Although such environmental organizations may wish that it were not so, national park management, in refusing to come to grips fully with science and ecological concerns, tends to reflect the attitudes of a public that values the parks mainly for their scenery and for the enjoyment and recreation they provide.

For many, spectacular scenery may create an impression of biological health and provide such satisfaction that little consideration is given to the parks as segments of great ecological complexes under stress. Living almost entirely in extensively manipulated and altered landscapes, the public may take for granted that unimpaired natural conditions exist, especially in the larger parks. To the untrained eye, unoccupied lands can mean unimpaired lands, even where scientists might quickly recognize that human activity has caused substantial biological change. The loss of ecological integrity may have little or no effect on the aesthetics or the general appearance of an area. Even when ecological degradation is pointed out to park visitors, the new conditions may be thought of as merely "another change in the scenery."

Even though it admits to a deficiency in scientific management, the Park Service—as host to the millions of tourists who come to the parks to enjoy nature and majestic scenery—has sought to inspire the public to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the complexities of natural history. In so doing, the Service has helped build an environmental ethic, fostering greater knowledge and concern about ecological issues nationwide. This influence has been evolving since campfire talks, nature walks, and museum displays spread throughout the park system in the 1920s and 1930s. The effort expanded over the years to include a huge and varied array of museum and visitor center exhibits, interpretive talks, guided hikes, and trailside exhibits, augmented by brochures, films, books, and other means of enlightening the public. Begun in the 1960s, Director Hartzog's environmental education programs reached out to thousands of schoolchildren, many of them underprivileged and without access to parks outside urban areas. Through its involvement with state and local parks and the more recent partnership programs, the Service has effectively advanced nature appreciation and understanding. Furthermore, the Service has extended its influence worldwide through assistance to foreign countries in the development, interpretation, and operation of parks. [41] Thus, despite limitations in ecological management, the national parks, the National Park Service, and the uniformed ranger have become symbols of a conservation and environmental ethic.

Such constructive efforts have no doubt moved the public toward a greater comprehension of environmental matters. For many in the Park Service, scenic preservation and accommodation of tourists remained the focus of their careers, even after science and ecology gained favor during the environmental movement. Yet, in an important way, their work served broad environmental purposes. For many visitors drawn to the national parks partly by their very accessibility and convenience, contemplation of the natural beauty displayed and interpreted in the parks surely has nurtured a deeper realization of the complexities of nature—aesthetic appreciation thus serving as a threshold to ecological awareness. It may be that few people develop a concern for ecology without having first acquired a heightened sense of the beauty in nature, as is fostered in the national parks.

A 1993 merger of biological research functions within the Department of the Interior and a sweeping reorganization of the National Park Service in 1995 brought substantial changes for the Service. On October 1, 1993, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt officially established the National Biological Survey (later "Service"), including scientists and support staff drawn primarily from the department's three public land-managing bureaus —the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Land Management. (As a Department of Agriculture bureau, the Forest Service was not involved.) The Park Service's contribution to the new bureau was the equivalent of 168 full-time positions (scientists and support personnel) and approximately $20 million in base funds. Created by administrative order and thus without congressional sanction, the bureau was to foster an ecosystem management approach through coordinating biological and ecological research to address land management issues on a national, regional, and local scale. It was to be a nonadvocacy research bureau, with no responsibilities for actual land management or regulation. [42]

Although different in purpose and scope from Secretary Harold Ickes' 1940 administrative transfer of the Park Service's wildlife biologists to the Bureau of Biological Survey, the 1993 merger had a similar effect, in that it suddenly withdrew from the Park Service virtually all of its biological research capability. Science had at last achieved independence—but it was through removal, rather than by remaining in the Service and gaining independence from "operational management," as advocated beginning in the 1960s and realized to some extent until Director Hartzog suddenly placed the biologists under the regional directors in 1971. However, in the political climate of the mid-1990s the National Biological Service was weakened by funding and staffing cutbacks, which helped bring about its merger with its geological counterpart, the U.S. Geological Survey. The uncertain, changing situation increased the doubts that already existed within the Park Service about the future of its biological research.

Soon after the Service lost its research biologists, it undertook a major reorganization in response to the goals of the administration of President Bill Clinton to reduce the size of the federal bureaucracy and improve efficiency. The 1995 reorganization substantially modified the hierarchical system in place since 1937, in which parks reported to regional offices, which in turn reported to Washington. In the new arrangement the parks gained much greater autonomy: the regional offices were abolished and replaced by smaller central offices with less capability to oversee park operations; and the Washington office was sharply reduced, diminishing its oversight capabilities as well. [43]

Remaining in the Park Service after creation of the Biological Service was a sizable force of well-trained natural resource managers, their support staff, and many others of like persuasion. Still, the loss of the research biologists surely diminished the ecological and scientific perspective within national park management. Furthermore, the emancipation of the parks from the leadership and oversight of well-staffed central offices reduced the park superintendents' accountability to higher authority and to national standards of park management. Acknowledging the strong traditions of the Park Service, the Vail Agenda had noted that the Service would "not be transformed quickly or easily." [44] Indeed, although the organizational structure was quickly changed, the reorganization left the central cultural assumptions of the Service fully intact, and has even created a situation where, with less oversight and fewer constraints, traditional attitudes may be reinforced and flourish.

The organization's most deeply imbedded assumptions are far more difficult and slower to change than the organizational structure. Given the strength and persistence of ancestral attitudes within the Service, its core values are likely to outlast any one director, even one who is stubbornly determined to change them. And succeeding directors may well rescind prior modifications and reaffirm old attitudes. Even a whole generation of leaders may not succeed in changing the core values of the Park Service to establish what the Vail Agenda termed a "strong ecosystem management culture." [45] Such changes are not impossible—but they are improbable.

Beginning with the construction of Yellowstone's roads and lodges, the history of development and use of the parks for tourism extends for more than a century and reflects an entrenched perception of the purpose of national parks. Backed by the Organic Act's mandate for public use and enjoyment, early attitudes and actions of the Service created a powerful, virtually irresistible trend in national park management. But in time, the dignity and nobility of the parks, once seen largely in terms of majestic landscapes, came also to be understood in more precise scientific and ecological terms—a new and challenging perception arose within the Service, never to be fully integrated into park operations. In both philosophy and management, the National Park Service remains a house divided— pressured from within and without to become a more scientifically informed and ecologically aware manager of public lands, yet remaining profoundly loyal to its traditions.

In this era of heightened environmental concern, it is essential that scientific knowledge form the foundation for any meaningful effort to preserve ecological resources. If the National Park Service is to fully shoulder this complex, challenging responsibility at last, it must conduct scientifically informed management that insists on ecological preservation as the highest of many worthy priorities. This priority must spring not merely from the concerns of specific individuals or groups within the Service, but from an institutionalized ethic that is reflected in full-faith support of all environmental laws, in appropriate natural resource policies and practices, in budget and staffing allocations, and in the organizational structures of parks and central offices. When—and only when—the National Park Service thoroughly attunes its own land management and organizational attitudes to ecological principles can it lay serious claim to leadership in the preservation of the natural environment.


Preserving Nature in the National Parks
©1997, Yale University Press
sellars/chap7c.htm — 1-Jan-2003