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Parks and the Park Service
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Parks and the Park Service

Not all conservationists shared the movement's dominant utilitarian philosophy Some, like John Muir, extolled the intrinsic values and aesthetic appeal of undeveloped places and resources. Viewing wilderness as something to be appreciated for its own sake, they championed the creation of national parks to preserve America's most spectacular and scenic natural treasures.

Park proponents had to contend not only with the old tradition of unregulated natural resource exploitation but also with the utilitarian conservationists, who also saw trees chiefly as lumber and rivers chiefly as power and irrigation sources. When San Francisco advanced plans to dam the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park for its water supply after the turn of the century, the two conservation factions came to blows. Joined in sentiment by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., Robert Underwood Johnson of Century Magazine, J. Horace McFarland of the American Civic Association, and other park supporters, Muir decried the despoilation: "Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water tanks the people's cathedrals and churches; for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man." [39] The dam's advocates included Gifford Pinchot and Franklin K. Lane, who promoted the enterprise as San Francisco city attorney and as Woodrow Wilson's first Secretary of the Interior. After a long and bitter battle, Congress in 1913 approved what a park historian has called "the worst disaster ever to come to any national park." [40]

The "Rape of Hetch Hetchy," as the losing side termed it, pointed up a major weakness of the park movement. Whereas utilitarian, multiple-use conservation had become well represented in government by such bureaus as the Forest and Reclamation services, no comparable entity spoke for aesthetic conservation. The defeat gave new momentum to a campaign for a national parks bureau. Notwithstanding his role in Hetch Hetchy, Secretary Lane was friendly to the park concept and in 1915 hired Stephen T. Mather to oversee and advance Interior's park concerns.

A self-made businessman and born promoter, the gregarious, well-connected Mather matched Pinchot in dynamism and charisma. Building on his inherited base of preservationists, he gathered additional support for a parks bureau among influential journalists, railroad companies likely to benefit from increased park tourism, and key members of Congress. The Forest Service opposed a new bureau: rightly foreseeing the creation of more national parks from its national forests, it argued instead for transfer of the parks to its jurisdiction. But victory came to the park forces when on August 25, 1916, President Wilson signed legislation creating the National Park Service.

The act assigned to the new bureau the 14 national parks and 21 national monuments then under Interior and directed it "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations." The national monuments, generally smaller than the parks, included prehistoric Indian ruins, geologic features, and other sites of natural and cultural significance reserved by presidential proclamations under the Antiquities Act of 1906.

Appointed the first director of the Park Service, Mather vigorously promoted public use of the parks through better roads and visitor accommodations and extensive publicity. Their growing popularity moved Congress to authorize Shenandoah, Great Smoky Mountains, and Mammoth Cave national parks in 1926, expanding the National Park System east of the Mississippi. Horace M. Albright, Mather's successor in 1929, was even more successful in enlarging the Service's public and political constituency. Soon after Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in 1933, Albright persuaded him to transfer the parks and memorials of the nation's capital, the War Department's historic battlefields and forts, and the Forest Service's national monuments to his bureau. This stroke confirmed the nationwide role of the Park Service in historic as well as natural preservation.

During the 1930s the Service also became involved with recreation outside wilderness areas. In 1935 the Bureau of Reclamation completed Hoover Dam on the Colorado River between Arizona and Nevada. This highest dam in the Western Hemisphere was the centerpiece of the Boulder Canyon Project, the first great multipurpose water development. In addition to providing irrigation, electric power, and flood control, the project gave birth to Lake Mead National Recreation Area. The Park Service assumed responsibility for building and managing boating, swimming, and camping facilities on the 115-mile-long reservoir formed by the dam.

This cooperative relationship between Reclamation and the Park Service was repeated at several other major water impoundments. But the differing philosophies undergirding the two bureaus sometimes brought them and their constituencies to blows. Postwar plans to dam wilderness canyons in Dinosaur National Monument, a Park Service preserve in Utah and Colorado, stimulated a national conservation battle recalling Hetch Hetchy. Secretary of the Interior Oscar L. Chapman's support for Reclamation's position contributed to Park Service Director Newton B. Drury's resignation in 1951, but this time the park forces prevailed. Dinosaur remains undammed.

Increasing automobility brought more and more people to the parks, placing heavy pressure on their resources and exacerbating the tension inherent in the Park Service's dual mission of preservation and public enjoyment. A major construction program to accommodate more visitors in the 1950s and 60s was followed by an era of heightened environmental concern and awareness of the tendency for greater public use and related facility development to jeopardize park values. New parks and recreation areas relieved some of the pressure, and wilderness preservation received an enormous boost with the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980. Placing some 47 million Alaskan acres in national parks, monuments, and preserves, the act more than doubled the extent of the National Park System.

In 1988 the system comprised 341 areas totaling nearly 80 million acres, containing features as diverse as the Grand Canyon and the Statue of Liberty. As the bureau responsible for such great American meccas and symbols, the National Park Service is probably more familiar to the man in the street than any other component of Interior--or the department itself.

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