Preserving Nature in the National Parks
A History
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There was a time, through the middle of the twentieth century, when the national parks reigned indisputably as America's grandest summertime pleasuring grounds. Managed by the National Park Service after 1916, the spectacular mountains, canyons, forests, and meadows set aside to provide for the public's enjoyment appealed tremendously to a public increasingly mobile and enamored of sightseeing and automobile touring. To make the parks accessible to millions of vacationers, graceful winding roads were constructed, with romantic names like Going to the Sun Highway or Trail Ridge Road. Huge rustic hotels built of log and stone, such as Yellowstone's Old Faithful Inn and Grand Canyon's El Tovar, welcomed overnight visitors to the parks. In hotel lobbies or in nearby museums, courteous park rangers stood ready to take eager visitors on nature walks—out into the crisp, pine-scented mountain air to enjoy the wonders of trailside forests and streams. In parks such as Sequoia and Yellowstone, visitors fed bears along roadsides or gathered in specially constructed bleachers to watch rangers feed bears; and at dusk each summer a firefall of burning embers cascaded from the heights of Yosemite's Glacier Point.

Enjoying immense popularity, the national park system grew to include areas in the East and Midwest while continuing to expand in the West, where it had begun and where the majority of the older and more famous parks are located. Preserving remnants of the wild landscapes of the frontier, the parks were from the beginning a part of frontier history and romantic western lore. Most national parks were truly isolated, and the nearby lands were little developed and sparsely populated. For many park rangers, working in the vast, majestic parks seemed a kind of lingering frontier experience: long assignments in remote backcountry areas; horse patrols along park boundaries; and primitive, wood-heated log cabins to house the family.

In recent decades the situation has changed. Today many national parks, although still beautiful, are marred by teeming, noisy crowds in campgrounds, visitor centers, grocery stores, and restaurants, and by traffic jams on roads and even on trails. The push and shove of hordes of tourists and the concomitant law-enforcement problems eclipse the unalloyed pleasure that earlier generations surely experienced. Bland, unattractive modern structures have replaced many of the rustic park administrative buildings and tourist facilities of the past. Housing for rangers and other employees frequently is comparable at best to urban tract homes. Spending fewer hours in the backcountry, rangers more and more find themselves encumbered by office work. In addition, the National Park Service has experienced a decline in its discretionary authority, as it must confront powerful, competing special-interest groups that watch every move. With their natural conditions degraded by air and water pollution, accelerated development of adjacent lands, extensive public use, and inappropriate actions taken by the Park Service itself, the national parks have become the focus of angry battles over environmental issues that often result in litigation by batteries of lawyers.

Set within the context of this broad array of national park operations and issues, the environmental and ecological aspects of national park management —principally the treatment of natural resources—form the central theme of this volume. This study traces over many decades the interaction of bureaucratic management with the flora, fauna, and other natural elements in parks of scenic grandeur that are intended to be visited and enjoyed by large numbers of people yet in some fashion to be preserved. The book begins in the late nineteenth century, when the earliest parks were established and when management principles were first set in place. It extends almost to the present day, when the recency of issues—many yet unresolved—flattens the perspective from historical to journalistic.

The first chapter, based mostly on secondary sources, summarizes the period before the National Park Service was founded in 1916. Subsequent chapters, drawing extensively on primary documents such as internal memoranda and reports (most of them never before researched), include an analysis of the legislative history of the act creating the Service and the intent of that act. Next is a detailed account of national park management over time—in effect, how the act was implemented: the growth and development of the park system during the 1920s, the rise of biological science within the Park Service, and the bureau's triumphs in recreational planning and development during the New Deal. The story continues with the World War IIŠera retrenchment and declining interest in biological science, the Park Service's reinvigoration during the tourism explosion of the 1950s, and the Service's clash with the environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s even as it began to revitalize its biology programs.

Rather than presenting a broad study of conservation history, this book focuses chiefly on internal Park Service concerns—on how a bureau created to administer the national parks arrived at management policies for natural resources, put them into practice, and in time changed many of them. Especially since its wildlife biology programs gained strength in the 1930s, the Park Service has not been of one mind about how to care for the parks' natural resources; philosophical and political disagreements have been persistent.

Indeed, present-day management of nature in the parks differs substantially from that in the early decades of national park history—the most fundamental difference being the degree to which science now informs the Service's natural resource practices. And in an age of ecological science, the extent to which the Service manages parks in a scientifically informed way may be seen as a measure of its true commitment to ecological principles. It may also be a measure of its commitment to the ethical purposes always implicit in the national park concept, but more recognized today—principally, that within these specially designated areas native species will be protected and preserved.

It might be assumed that management of national parks with the intent of preserving natural conditions would necessarily require scientific knowledge adequate to understand populations and distributions of native species and their relation to their environment, and that without such information the parks' natural history is fraught with too many questions, too many unknowns. At least from the early 1930s, this argument was voiced within the Park Service's own ranks. Yet it has not been the view of park management throughout most of the Service's history.

Because National Park Service decisionmaking most often has not been scientifically informed, the question arises as to what kind of management has been taking place, and why. Thus, in this study the management of nature in the parks is placed in the larger context of overall park operations and bureaucratic behavior—in ecological terms, it is placed within its "bureaucratic habitat."

The analysis is also expanded to embrace the corporate culture of the National Park Service. Of special interest is the extensive development of the parks for what might be called recreational tourism—pleasure travel focusing on appreciation of nature and enjoyment of the out-of-doors. This overriding emphasis on tourism development fostered the ascendancy of certain professions such as landscape architecture and engineering, and largely determined the Service's organizational power structure and its perception of what is right and proper for the parks.

Implementing its 1916 congressional mandate as it deemed proper, the Park Service engaged in two basic types of nature management: development for tourism, and what was later termed natural resource management. Both affected natural conditions in the parks. Although not generally perceived as such, tourism development amounted to a kind of de facto management of nature. It often resulted in extensive alterations to natural conditions, especially along road and trail corridors, and in pockets of intensive use (for example, along the south rim of the Grand Canyon or throughout the Yosemite Valley). By contrast, natural resource management involved direct, purposeful manipulation of natural elements—including the nurturing of favored species, such as bison, bears, and game fish; or the reduction of populations of so-called problem species, such as certain predators or tree-killing insects. These two basic types of nature management, factors in park management from the earliest decades, affected plants and animals throughout the parks, to the point of eliminating some species. This alteration of natural conditions created perplexing situations for later generations of managers and scientists.

The central dilemma of national park management has long been the question of exactly what in a park should be preserved. Is it the scenery— the resplendent landscapes of forests, streams, wildflowers, and majestic mammals? Or is it the integrity of each park's entire natural system, including not just the biological and scenic superstars, but also the vast array of less compelling species, such as grasses, lichens, and mice? The incredible beauty of the national parks has always given the impression that scenery alone is what makes them worthwhile and deserving of protection. Scenery has provided the primary inspiration for national parks and, through tourism, their primary justification. Thus, a kind of "facade" management became the accepted practice in parks: protecting and enhancing the scenic facade of nature for the public's enjoyment, but with scant scientific knowledge and little concern for biological consequences.

Criticism of this approach began in the 1930s, increased during the environmental era of the 1960s and 1970s, and is commonly voiced today. Nevertheless, facade management based largely on aesthetic considerations remains quite acceptable to many. Far easier to undertake, and aimed at ensuring public enjoyment of the parks, facade management has long held more appeal for the public, for Congress, and for the National Park Service than has the concept of exacting scientific management.

Yet aesthetics and ecological awareness are not unrelated. Whatever benefit and enjoyment the national parks have contributed to American life, they have undoubtedly intensified the aesthetic response of millions of people to the beauty and the natural history of this continent—a response that could then be pleasurably honed in more ordinary surroundings closer to home. Beyond the sheer enjoyment of scenery, a heightened aesthetic sensibility may have inspired in many a deeper understanding of, and concern for, the natural environment. This benefit defies quantification, but surely it has had consequences of immense value, both for individuals and for the nation.

The persistent tension between national park management for aesthetic purposes and management for ecological purposes underlies much of the following narrative.


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