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The National Park









THE NATIONAL PARK wilderness NPS Arrowhead logo

the record of national park preservation

Today, more people than ever before take a personal interest in conservation, National Parks, and wilderness. This is easy to understand—it coincides with the phenomenal increase in outdoor recreation and the shrinkage of available open spaces. In the National Parks people find something they like, can understand, and want to keep. As an example of conservation in action, National Parks have contributed in no small measure to the attitudes and convictions that prevail among the public today.

This favorable circumstance did not always prevail—it is of quite recent origin. During the formative years of National Park development, the wilderness beyond the Nation's frontiers appeared limitless. Those who could foresee its shrinkage and who proposed to do something about it were generally regarded as alarmists and impractical dreamers. National Parks were established through sufferance rather than in response to widespread public demand, and, once established, had no ready-made pattern to follow in their management. To a very large degree, the policies and direction of these new areas had to originate with those who administered them.

The process was not without difficulty, nor without error. Problems which are clearly evident now could then be only dimly perceived, and the means to cope with them were largely absent. It took a clear head and a firm hand on their part to start the National Parks in the right direction.


Time tends to paint our memory in rosy hues, and we forget how dusty and rough and narrow the first park roads were, that developments for public use were practically nonexistent, and interpretive services completely lacking. Camps were pitched on the most convenient, often the most beautiful sites, and public accommodations were built according to the builders' individual notions, without regard to architectural fitness, landscape values, or long-range planning. Frequently, hotels and camps usurped the most scenic and the most strategic sites in the park. Roadsides sometimes were burned to improve the view, and in Sequoia a colony of private summer homes intruded on the Giant Forest.

Trespass was common—20,000 sheep were driven out of Yosemite one year. Overgrazing during World War I left serious scars on Mount Rainier. Yellowstone's buffalo were brought near to extinction. Hunting trespass was common. Predators were sought out and killed. An early report from Yosemite tells us that any bird or animal unfortunate enough to enter the valley was at once pursued, captured, or killed.

Many parks inherited abused lands, the results of years of misuse and injurious practice. The Kern drainage in Sequoia was so completely denuded by sheep grazing, many years before it was added to the park, that it was hard to find enough forage for a saddle horse. The establishment of Joshua Tree, Big Bend, and other areas halted depletion of their grasslands.

The last California grizzly was shot in a spot that 20 years later became part of Kings Canyon National Park. The elk were gone from Rocky Mountain and Glacier, the bighorn from Big Bend and Mesa Verde, and the rare birdlife of Everglades was seriously threatened before these areas were established.

We cite these few examples so that we may avoid the common error of using only the best from the past for comparison with the total picture of today. Generally speaking, conditions have improved greatly through the years—sometimes through the mere circumstance of the establishment of a park, always accompanied by practical acts of management, correction, and protection. Progress along many avenues of park conservation has been steady and sure.



Since its establishment in 1916, the National Park System has expanded greatly to encompass many kinds of areas—historic, archeologic, and recreational, as well as scenic nature preserves.

Fifteen National Parks and 18 National Monuments comprised the System in 1916. Today, the National Park Service administers 29 National Parks, 84 National Monuments, and 69 other kinds of areas. We are here concerned primarily with those of scenic-scientific interest. Twenty-two of the areas of 1916 were in this category—about 5 million acres. Today, over 22 million acres—88 per cent of all lands administered by the Service—are contained in the 66 scenic-scientific parks, monuments, and other areas.

Except for those transferred to the National Park System, most of the new areas were established after extensive study by the National Park Service, and upon Department of the Interior recommendations and representations before Congress. At the same time, numerous proposals for areas found to be of less than national importance have been rejected.

While seeking out needed and suitable areas to complete the System, the Service has maintained the standards of quality that were established in the earlier National Parks.


Certain laws concerning National Park areas prohibit settlement, hunting, mining, lumbering, and like commercial activities. Where such activities are permitted, Congress has expressly provided for them. The whole body of law is clear in intent, and establishes a firm safeguard against the exploitation of the resources of the National Parks for commercial products. Congress reserves to itself the right of final decision on such matters—dams, power development, or pipelines, for example.

Nevertheless, there have been numerous attempts, well organized and powerfully supported, to despoil the National Parks of their forests, wildlife, minerals, grasslands, and free-flowing streams. We have only to recall Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Glacier, Olympic, Grand Teton, Yellowstone, or Death Valley, to bring some of them to mind.

The National Park Service quite properly assumes the leadership in vigorously resisting such invasions. The majority of such attacks are dispelled by the Service and the Department before becoming subjects of public controversy or Congressional action. The more dramatic episodes, however, quickly capture public attention and enlist the defensive efforts of many. Private citizens, numerous organizations, and congressional leaders—all have shared in preserving the integrity of the National Parks. There have been a few reversals, but the history of the parks has been one of repeated victories in such contests.

The National Park Service is a public agency. It investigates, plans, and recommends. Frequently it is called upon to harmonize widely divergent interests. Within the scope of its authority, it decides; but in larger issues, matters that go beyond internal park management, it must look to the Department of the Interior and to the Congress, reflecting the consensus of the public, for guidance, decision, and direction.

On the broad front, preservation of park and wilderness values depends, therefore, quite as much upon public awareness as it does upon any specific decision that may be made independently by the National Park Service. One of the most encouraging developments over the past 20 years has been the strengthening of conservation education in the public schools—first through the interest of individual teachers, followed by the integration of conservation into the school curriculum. An informed public is the best safeguard of the integrity of the National Parks. The cause of wilderness preservation is best advanced when the Service, conservation organizations, and the informed public present a united front on major issues.



Some strange proposals find their way to the National Park Service, often suggesting activities completely inappropriate to the best use of the parks. Going back in the files only 3 years, for instance, we can find requests for gambling concessions, helicopter sightseeing service, summer theater, pocket billiard concession, miniature golf course, bowling alley, miniature train for sightseeing, cable car into Grand Canyon, gunnery range, lands for farms and summer homes, private airports, as well as requests for stock grazing, lumbering, prospecting and mining, and hundreds more.

The National Park Service immediately rejects such proposals, and it requires no rare understanding of park objectives to make the decisions. Such matters are usually settled within the Service, and rarely become subjects of public controversy.

All proposals, however, are not so clear cut, and there is room for many honest differences on some questions of proper park use. Each such case is considered on its own merits in accordance with the following general principles: (1) that the activity result in no impairment of significant natural or scenic values, (2) that it does not itself become a primary attraction, and (3) that it does not lessen the opportunity for others to enjoy the park for what it is.

The rapid increase in park attendance has brought with it ever closer application of the principle of appropriate and beneficial use. The refinement of use standards and close adherence to them are reflected in the very high quality of park use that prevails today.


The existence of privately owned lands within a park is an obstacle to satisfactory management and protection. Adverse use, unsightly developments, and difficult protection and long-range management problems are the result. New areas always add temporarily to the total of such lands within the System. Acquisition, by purchase, donation, or exchange, is a lengthy process, but over the years there has been definite progress.

The 33 areas that comprised the National Park System in 1916 contained well over a million acres of private "inholdings"—more than one-fifth of all lands within the authorized boundaries of that day. By 1956, nearly 90 percent of this land had been acquired, leaving less than 150,000 acres within the original 33 areas. Comparable progress has been made in areas added since 1916, but the problem remains a big one, with over 700,000 acres of private lands remaining within the 25 million acres now in the System.



It is important not only to hold an area as a National Park, and to defend it against threats from without, but also to so order its internal affairs that it does not deteriorate. The problem of grazing will illustrate the point.

Elimination of commercial grazing has been an important goal since the establishment of the National Park Service. In 8 of 11 wilderness parks in the System in 1916, commercial grazing of sheep, cattle, and horses was practiced. Only one of these areas is so used today; more than 64,000 animal grazing months have been eliminated. Comparable gains are evident throughout the System even though the establishment of new areas usually provides that existing grazing privileges be continued for the lifetime of the permittee. The important facts are that, while progress is slow, the ultimate elimination of all grazing has remained the objective, progress is evident, and there has been no regression.


Over the years, certain basic policies have evolved concerning the maintenance of natural conditions of vegetation. In brief, these are:

Retention of natural forest conditions.

Control of all wildfire; prevention and as complete control as possible of man-caused fires.

Eradication of all exotic pests, and control of epidemic outbreaks of native pests.

Eradication of exotic plants.

Restoration of areas damaged by man-accelerated erosion or depletion of plant cover.

Two aspects of this program have special interest—control of introduced disease, and protection of non-commercial forest species.

An old Spanish saying tells us that "All trees are wood, but the pine is not mahogany." In the National Parks, all trees are mahogany! Natural and scenic beauty is the justification for forest protection in the National Parks; park forests and plant species are regarded as exhibits, as museum specimens, valuable for their natural beauty and their interest as a part of a natural association. Many agencies give good protection to commercially valuable forests, but the National Parks alone regularly protect non-commercial species from fire, insect, and disease.



Wildlife, present in variety and in normal abundance, is a major ingredient of wilderness.

Fortunately, many areas were established soon enough, and protection afforded early enough, to preserve species that otherwise might have perished; but preservation entails more than the establishment of a wildlife sanctuary.

The past 40 years have witnessed the elimination of poaching as a factor of consequence; the reversal of the practice of killing predators, the recognition of the place of the predator as a part of a natural fauna; an encouraging degree of recovery of the once endangered trumpeter swan, grizzly bear, bighorn, and bison; the restoration of elk, bison, bighorn, Merriam's turkey, and antelope in some parks from which they had disappeared; and the elimination or partial control of exotic animals in other National Parks. Today all forms of native wildlife find of species that have disappeared, where possible, and management where required to neutralize the influence of man. It means education, so that people, aware of delicate natural balances, will adjust their behavior and expectations to reality. It means research to reveal the facts upon which a sound program of management, protection, and use must be based.

The wildlife program in the National Parks is the only major effort in this country to preserve a complete fauna, in a natural habitat, with minimum disturbance and control.


Education has a great deal to do with man's understanding and enjoyment of wilderness, his wise use and management of it, and his acceptance of the idea of its preservation. The National Park Service recognized this very early and led in the development of an effective interpretive program.

The idea of outdoor nature study in the National Parks, tested through trial by a public-minded couple, Mr. and Mrs. C. M. Goethe, was launched toward its final success in Yosemite in 1920. This program not only has been expanded throughout the areas in the National Park System, but has served as a pattern for similar programs in many State and municipal parks, and other outdoor establishments. Within the National Parks in 1956, the interpretive program served over 26 million visitors at talks, on conducted trips, and in museums and visitor centers. Nearly as many used exhibits and other self-help facilities.

Interpretation gives the visitor a basis for added enjoyment, greater interest and awareness of the natural scene around him, some ideas about conservation, and a clearer idea of his responsibility as a user and protector of the park. The cumulative results over the many years are impressive.



Generally speaking, in a National Park only those developments are justified which are required in order for visitors to use the park beneficially, and to enjoy and understand the natural scene. This means reasonable access by road and by trail to the area and to selected places within it that will give the visitor a good example of its major qualities. In some parks, it also means campgrounds, accommodations, and other facilities to provide the creature comforts.

Most of the road work of the past 25 years has been reconstruction on or near the location of older roads, bringing the system up to a standard required to handle the travel of the day. In Yellowstone, for example, most of the roads have been rebuilt during the last 30 years, but there have been virtually no new roads into new areas in the past 50 years.

Once reasonable access was provided, there was remarkably little extension of roads in any of the older National Parks. In fact, the National Park Service began to pull back on new road construction before it was generally recognized outside the Service that roads—too many of them, or in the wrong places—could impair park and wilderness values.

Roads have been constructed into new areas, and more will be needed, but only to the degree necessary to provide a comparable amount of reasonable access and opportunity in new or in underdeveloped park areas.

Good taste and good judgment are important in the placement and treatment of a park road or developed area, but the practical factors of economics and engineering must be taken into account, too. Some compromise with perfection is unavoidable, but efforts to hold road standards to acceptable limits, to preserve natural conditions along roadsides, to fit park roads to topography while providing scenic and interpretive opportunity, and to achieve appropriateness in design and location of developments, have met with considerable success.

More fundamental, however, is the over-all development and use plan for a park, having to do with road and developed area locations and their integration. Circumstance, rather than a well-conceived plan, controlled the earliest developments in many National Parks. Poorly located and ill-planned to start with, their expansion to accommodate mounting travel has created serious problems of overcrowding, impairment of values, and impaired enjoyment. Fortunately, for the first time in the history of the National Park Service, the opportunity to rectify these conditions is now at hand.

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Anyone who seeks wilderness can find it in the National Parks. It is no problem for those who follow the trails, finding solitude, beauty, and adventure far removed from roads and lodges. Even those who never venture far from roads, experience the quality of wilderness. For them the wilderness may lie but 10 minutes' walk from most park roads, or they may sense it looking outward from such places as Trail Ridge Road, Going-to-the-Sun Highway, Blue Ridge Parkway, or even from the plaza of Bright Angel Lodge. Whether or not their impression coincides with any definition we may formulate, the visitors see, sense, and react to wilderness, often without leaving the roadside.

This is no accident—it is the result of many years of planned progress along many avenues of park conservation. It reflects discrimination in the selection of superlative scenic, scientific, wilderness areas for inclusion in the System; consistent conformity to the sound concept of use and preservation upon which the National Parks are founded; a successful history of resistance to threats of despoilment, impairment, and adverse use; and an internal management program that not only has protected the physical resources but, in many cases, has brought about the recovery of large areas once abused and misused. The growing public awareness of wilderness values, a source of great strength to the conservation movement, is itself in part a product of beneficial use and preservation unimpaired of these areas of great natural beauty.

The wilderness is there; consciously or unconsciously, people respond to it.

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Last Modified: Sat, Feb 1 2003 10:00:00 pm PDT

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