Parks, Politics, and the People
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Chapter 12:
Advice: Good and Bad

Anyone who has worked in government, whether federal, state, or local, will know what I mean when I say that a public servant is subjected to an unlimited amount of unsolicited advice on an unlimited number of subjects. Some of it has value, but much of it is absolutely worthless. In a lower-level job one is spared the brunt of this assault; but as one advances in rank and assumes more responsibility, one not only gets more advice but realizes how valuable it can be when it comes from well-informed, judicious sources. In any case, one has to listen, smile, and thank everyone for the advice offered.

Some of this advice comes via Capitol Hill, which introduces additional complications. I have received telephone calls from members of Congress telling me that they have written me a letter on a certain matter in stronger terms than they wanted to use but that this was necessary because a copy was being sent to a constituent. This kind of letter is not answered in the same vein. It must be answered honestly, expressing a firm stand on what is believed to be right, because the reply is usually sent on to the constituent. The rationale for handling letters received through congressional referral emphasizes the difference between an elected or politically appointed official and a career civil service person. The former is obliged to please his constituents as much as possible, while the latter is charged with administering the laws in accordance with the policies and regulations in his department or agency. When the civil service must give a citizen a negative answer, it must state it firmly but as diplomatically as possible.

I have been involved in a number of politically sensitive situations. Some are recounted elsewhere in this book, but one instance should be related here. A relatively high-ranking politically appointed officer made a definite attack on the Park Service and on me for no really good reason, other than to stimulate his ego. He caused quite a rumpus in the upper echelon of the department, and even though the discussions took place behind closed doors, the information was leaked and came to me loud and clear. For a while it was a question whether the person making the attack should resign. Some time later I had an occasion to write a letter on the subject, and I pinpointed what had happened and cleared several people who were thought to have had something to do with it. Shortly thereafter I got a handwritten note from a highly placed official of the department, part of which stated: "You have been one of the 'magnificent bureaucrats' of our day, and I hope by now that the unfortunate events of last October have been forgotten. I have forgiven the guilty one, but I have not forgotten. One should not forget his experiences no matter how unpleasant, because experiences are the foundation of the road to the future. I believe that ultimately the nasty attack on the service and on me did more good than harm.

A lot can be learned from politicians, and I can't help but repeat a story I heard over the radio a week before the 1976 New Hampshire primary election. Representative Morris (Mo) Udall was running for the Democratic presidential nomination along with some eight or ten others. As he approached a gathering of prospective voters in a meeting room, he heard a lot of laughter. When he got inside he was greeted by the presiding officer, who said, "I was just telling these people that you are running for president." Mo replied with a big smile, "Yes, and I heard all the laughing." That got a loud laugh and a big hand, and it broke the ice. This bit of humor must have got him quite a few votes from the people in that room.

Having written about members of Congress and in-government relationships in other chapters, I will now turn to the activities of individuals and organizations outside of government. About two years after I became director of the National Park Service, I received a letter from an old friend, Joe Prendergast, an official of the old National Recreation Association. At the time he lived in Alexandria, just across the river from Washington. He signed the letter as president of a historical association. He was disturbed about the possibility that the National Park Service would reroute the George Washington Parkway along the Alexandria waterfront. His letter resulted in a meeting in my office, and we talked for about a half-hour. Just before he left I said, "Joe, I haven't heard of your historical association; it's new to me. How many members do you have?" With a smile he told me that he was the only member and that he had the letterhead run off as a gag. He added that he thought it would help him get in to see me so that he could go into detail about preserving the historic Alexandria waterfront. He further said he would be very glad to have me as a member without dues and he could elect me vice-president. I declined.

I don't know how many associations there are in this country, but I dare say we have more organizations concerned with the conservation of natural and historic resources than any other country in the world. As director I took out membership in nearly every organization that might have a bearing on the activities of the National Park Service. My dues amounted to over $1,200 annually, or almost 7 percent of my salary. It was the best way for me to keep tabs on what was going on, and it was educational. I learned a lot about people and their thinking, individually and collectively. Now my memberships are limited to organizations in which I have a very definite professional interest and personal association, though these still number over two dozen.

Private organizations and special-interest groups can bring considerable pressure to bear on a public agency. One of the problems we had on Yellowstone Lake will serve to illustrate. Motorboats of a certain size are permitted on the lake, and all the launching sites are either at the north end or near Fishing Bridge, Bridge Bay, and West Thumb. About 80 percent of the lakeshore is thus left in wilderness. We wanted to keep all motorboats out of the area south of Frank Island, especially the southern half of the Southeast Arm. Several streams flow into the lake at that location, including the Upper Yellowstone River. Over many thousands of years these streams have formed deltas and small, low islands with sandy shores. On the sandbars certain kinds of birds made their nests. Much to our concern some people took great delight in speeding their boats by the sandbars to make waves and see the birds fly away, and sometimes the waves would flood the nests. Of course there were other good reasons for keeping motorboats out of such wilderness regions, but this kind of behavior by motorboat users, even if unintentional, left us no alternative but to close the South and Southeast arms to them. Yellowstone Lake is a large lake, and the closing of these two arms—which amounted to 20,000 acres of water surface with 90 miles of shoreline—still left around 90,000 acres of water surface and 110 miles of shoreline open to motorboating. Nevertheless, closing the area below Frank Island to motorboats brought a great deal of pressure on the service from a small but well-organized group of motorboat owners and even from an assistant secretary of the department who came from a nearby state. This pressure made it necessary for the service to hold five public hearings in and around Yellowstone at considerable expense. Thanks to help from several national conservation organizations, we were able to hold our ground. The protesters did not represent anywhere near even 10 percent of the people who lived around the park or a majority of those who owned motorboats.

There was another case where a large commercial company took over a choice camping spot for the entire season, even though camping was limited to two weeks per camper, by using the names of some ten people in the company on different applications for camping permits. They moved in a large, expensive trailer for the summer and assigned it at different times to some of their best customers as a business promotion, thus depriving the general vacationing public of camping opportunities. Of course when the superintendent got wise to what was going on, he put a stop to it but not without protests. We bureaucrats were spoiling their business.

The national park system exists for the benefit of all the people, and it must be so managed that its natural and historic values will be available, let us say, in the year 2066, when Joe Doaks and Agnes Hobbleskirt will be born. Such is the responsibility of the service, or, if you prefer, the bureaucrats. I am sure that the people who objected to restricting the motorboats on Yellowstone Lake and those unscrupulous businessmen with their trailer and political partners blamed the bureaucrats for stopping them. I was a bureaucrat and am proud of it, and furthermore I am sick and tired of hearing everyone who runs for political office blame the bureaucrats for doing what is required of them even when some individuals don't like it.

So much for a very brief analysis of the climate in which a bureaucrat finds himself and which he must accept as a part of our governmental structure. If a career bureaucrat is to be successful he must never forget the right of the people—his fellow citizens and fellow taxpayers—to petition their government. He must listen to all the people, even though he may consider some of their ideas, suggestions, and demands to be more detrimental than helpful to the nation as a whole.

I have never before attempted to classify conservation organizations according to motivation, but on the basis of long experience in dealing with them I find it tempting. Actually, such sociological taxonomy is better applied to individuals than to organizations, because permanent organizations vary in emphasis and approach from year to year depending on their leadership, whereas an individual's thinking and habits don't usually change very much. I would say that conservationists fall into half a dozen classifications: (1) Pests are constantly after government about something that is of no importance except to them, and they are never consistent in their demands. They lack experience but feel they have to stick their cotton-picking fingers into everything. They are the hardest ones to avoid and the last to contribute any constructive ideas. (2) Endrunners are always running to the congressman, the secretary, the governor—anybody in higher authority—to complain, to ask the authority to overrule an administrator, or to submit a request on almost anything they think the bureaucrats would not approve. They are always on the job. (3) Followers will sign any petition. Pests and endrunners circulate petitions for and against projects, and some of the same names will be found on both. The people who sign just don't think, or perhaps they don't even read the petitions; they simply sign when asked. (4) Constructive thinkers are usually pretty competent. They will study a problem carefully, and if they feel strongly about it, they will offer constructive suggestions, most of which will usually be helpful. They can be reasoned with because they are invariably kind and courteous and understand when they are told why something can't be done. (5) Professionals are good to have around. If highly specialized in their own field, however, they may not understand the necessity of blending the principles of all professional fields to satisfy the requirements and habits of park users and at the same time protect the features of the park. If they had a little broader vision, most professionals would fit in the next classification. (6) Consultants, because of their experience, study, and observation, have the ability to analyze a problem from many angles and are willing to sit down and help work out plans for solving it. While a consultant's final analysis of a situation might differ from the administrator's, he will probably introduce new thoughts worthy of consideration and his contribution could have a definite effect on the final solution.

I recall one particular case in which a park superintendent was plagued by the first category of conservationist. Great Smoky Mountains National Park had a fire lookout tower on Clingman's Dome that was old and rickety and hard to climb, yet it was a wonderful place for people to go because they could see for many miles in all directions. It was a replacement item in the Mission 66 program. Fred Overly was park superintendent at the time it was to be replaced. He had previously been superintendent of Olympic National Park in the state of Washington and had been severely criticized by conservation people in the Northwest. I'd known Fred for years: he was high-strung, but he had imagination and ingenuity. At Olympic during the cold war when money was scarce he had conceived an idea—which we all knew about—of taking down trees with dangerous snags in them around the park camping areas as a safety measure for campers. Trees also had to be removed to build roads into a camping area. In letting the contract for the road work, Overly saved money by having the contractor stack stripped-down trees along the roadside instead of hauling them away. He then arranged with lumber mills in Port Angeles to have the trees sawed into boards. The mills gave half of the boards to the park and kept half in payment for their trouble. Then Overly went to the high school and got the manual training teacher to have his classes build a visitor center for the park as a training project. It turned out to be a very nice and useful building. Some conservation-minded people complained, however, that Overly had taken down the trees just to build a visitor center. The pressure on the park superintendent was so great by the time I became director that I reassigned him as superintendent of Great Smokies. When replacement of the old, unsafe iron fire lookout tower on Clingman's Dome was scheduled, it was suggested that we build a concrete spiral ramp instead of stairs up the new tower so that people in wheelchairs or those who could not otherwise manage the steps could enjoy the view and see how the rangers spot forest fires. Well, certain eastern conservationists immediately got after Overly for proposing to build a concrete ramp instead of wooden steps. They pointed out that there was plenty of wood in the park that could be used at a saving. I can just see Fred now as he told me what he said to them. He told them: "I was superintendent of Olympic National Park and people like you complained because I did just what you are suggesting, so I was moved here, and for your information I'm never going to use even a twig in this park. You people complain no matter what we do, and that's that." According to Fred they did not know what else to say, and so they left and he heard nothing more from them about the tower.

Some organizations are always looking for a fight. They have got to have a cause for raising money. In some conservationist publications I've seen photographs that make it look as though the Park Service were taking a whole mountain down to build a park drive. The organizations may even be in agreement with a project but write up their campaign in their books in such a way as to suggest they fought for a long time, finally forcing the Park Service to take action. They end up taking full credit for the accomplishment. When I retired I wrote a letter to one organization stating that I'd been a member for over thirty years, that I had read its booklets and pamphlets, and that although they had championed the national parks they had never said a kind word about the service or given it credit for anything it did. I never received a reply.

There have been good organizations that supported the efforts of the Park Service but that nevertheless turned against the service when their leadership changed. I can find no better illustration of this than the Sierra Club's views on the planning and construction of the Tioga Road in Yosemite National Park. Before the park was established, this road was a mining wagon road. It is the only road in the national park system that goes over the High Sierra and even now can be used only in the summer months. Its function is twofold: to permit people coming from the east to get into Yosemite National Park without first going far north or far south; and, most important, to provide an opportunity for people who cannot hike or ride horseback to see that most impressive great expanse of the High Sierra.

I crossed the Tioga Road in 1924, before I had any idea of becoming a Park Service man. Then it was a very narrow, winding mountain dirt road, difficult for automobiles to travel. Over the years, to accommodate the gradually increasing automobile travel, the park maintenance program had improved some of the curves and grades, paved the road in some places, and provided turnouts to allow cars to pass each other. But as travel increased and cars got larger, the number of accidents and complaints from visitors skyrocketed. Rangers assigned to this district had to undertake the burdensome chore of listening to unhappy park visitors. No matter how much the park staff improved and patched the old road, the accidents and hazards continued to increase, and it became evident by the late twenties that major reconstruction would be required over the entire route.

When reconstruction was started in the early thirties with PWA funds, the team of engineers and landscape architects worked closely on the location, alignments, grades, cuts, and fills; and all road structures, including bridges, culverts, parking areas, and the like, were blended into the natural landscape. In addition to review and approval within the National Park Service, the Tioga Road project was reviewed and approved on a continuing basis by the Yosemite Advisory Board, a group of citizens prominent in the conservation field. They included such Sierra Club members as Walter Huber, a prominent San Francisco engineer and conservationist; Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.; and William E. Colby. They and the Sierra Club gave their approval of the project, subject to minor changes, back in the thirties.

By the fifties the most difficult section, some ten miles, had not been completed, and we hoped to finish it under the Mission 66 program. We began to run into trouble, however, with certain conservationists and with the engineers in the Bureau of Public Roads, even though we had decided to proceed on the route that had been selected and approved earlier.

We did make some very minor changes in order to meet improved safety standards. I went to the field and met with our design and construction people and with David Brower and Ansel Adams. Brower, then executive secretary of the Sierra Club, and Adams, the famous nature photographer, were violent protestors. In our discussions I believe we covered nearly every possible objection and suggestion. Their suggestions were feasible from a construction standpoint but not an improvement in any way over the approved alignment. Further, they were more costly. I asked why they had changed their minds, since the Sierra Club had approved the route years before I became director. I also said that I had heard from several officials of the Sierra Club, and, though they wished the road did not have to be built, they felt that the location previously approved would be as good, if not better, than any other. Dave Brower's reply was that it was a different Sierra Club now.

The objection of the Bureau of Public Roads was that road standards had changed considerably since the thirties, and that a wider road with wider shoulders was now required. In high country with steep slopes, every foot extended out from the centerline of the road creates a scar, from both cuts and fills, much greater than on level ground and correspondingly increases the cost. We couldn't settle the question of shoulder width. The Park Service wanted a safe width of road with narrow shoulders and turnouts wherever the terrain would permit. The engineers wanted shoulders that would allow cars to pull off the road when in trouble. They indicated that if I didn't give them the shoulder width they wanted they would not undertake the project.

At this point the Park Service wrote a letter to Walter Huber, sending a copy to the Bureau of Public Roads. Huber, who had built many mining roads in the High Sierra before this part of the park was established, was a past president of the Sierra Club and past president of the American Society of Engineers. He was at that time a member of the secretary's advisory committee on national parks. We wanted to know whether our recommended two foot shoulders were sufficient to insure structural soundness of the road, which was another objection raised by the engineers, or whether we should go to four feet as the Bureau of Public Roads held was necessary. Huber took the time to go to the road site and study the matter very carefully. He then wrote me a very full letter indicating that our two-foot shoulder was ample for that type of road, with the turnouts we had planned, except for one place of several hundred feet where he felt it would be wise to widen the shoulder to three feet to provide the stability needed for the twenty-foot road. I then wrote to the Bureau of Public Roads, sending them a copy of Huber's reply, and told them that I was accepting his suggestions, that we were determined to go ahead on the basis of Huber's findings, and that we would appreciate reconsideration of their stand. I asked that, if their decision remained unchanged, they transfer to us the basic engineering data that they had prepared and that we had paid for, so that we could proceed with an outside engineering firm. I received a very nice reply from the bureau indicating that they would proceed with the job along the lines that Huber and the Park Service wished. We were both happy that the matter was finally settled.

Our friends in the conservation field, however, kept picking at us, and we heard from many people around the country, which kept us busy writing letters. It took two more years to complete the project. After the new road was dedicated and opened to the public, we got many letters complimenting us on a job well done. Some of the letters were from people who had criticized us but admitted that they had been wrong and now enjoyed the road very much, although they found it did make a large scar on the face of the glacier-polished granite surface.

I have not mentioned all of the people the service called upon to study and review the Tioga Road project. Practically every aspect of the project that affected the natural history of the area was considered and reviewed by a person professionally well qualified to do so. This is the policy the service uses in all its planning. It often calls upon other bureaus of the government and upon universities and professional individuals outside of government for help. Whether a project involves land, plant life, wildlife, water, or air, these consultants are a very important part of the responsibilities assigned to the National Park Service and therefore are fundamental to all the service's planning.

This is not to say, of course, that there are not times when disagreements of various kinds occur between professional people. Disagreements can be stimulating and constructive and can lead to better understanding of the issues involved. In that spirit I would like to correct here one such misunderstanding of an important matter. In the American Forestry Association's publication of January, 1976, there was an article by Richard McArdle, retired former chief of the United States Forest Service, on the history of the Wilderness Bill. It stated that the National Park Service was against this legislation. The Park Service was not against the bill; we were for it. We were opposed, however, to being included in it because the protection section of the original bill was not as protective for national parks wilderness as our own basic legislation. When we convinced the mastermind behind the bill, Howard C. Zahniser, of that fact, he readily adjusted the wording so that the basic standards already established for us by Congress would prevail in the national parks, and we supported the revised bill. I should explain that Dick McArdle is an old friend of mine. He and I received the Rockefeller Public Service Award the same year, and he convinced me to write this book.

President Lyndon B. Johnson greets conservation people and presents pens after signing the Land and Water Bill and the Wilderness Bill in the Rose Garden at the White House on September 3, 1964.

One of the greatest interagency programs was, of course, the CCC. To expound on this subject of cooperation and exchange of knowledge just a little further, I quote from a letter that Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes received from Fred Morrell, the representative of the Department of Agriculture on the CCC Advisory Council:

The CCC was, as you know, a large-scale social conservation undertaking that attracted world-wide attention. Its administration necessitated interdepartmental cooperation on a scale not previously attempted in the government of this, or perhaps any other country. Departmental interests were continuously in conflict. These differences had to be adjusted by yielding and compromise, and both Interior and Agriculture had to sacrifice interests and priorities, and work for the good of the Corps as a whole. Never in the nine years that I worked with Conrad Wirth did he violate a pact we made in 1933, that neither would advance the interests of his respective department without first advising the other and giving him an opportunity to present his case if he did not agree.

Mr. Wirth represented Interior's interests with remarkable vigor and ability, but as a part of a national program of conservation and not as an Interior's attorney out to win his case, regardless of its merits.

Morrell, Wirth
Connie Wirth, of the National Park Service, and Fred Morrell, of the U.S. Forest Service, highly respected each other. They handled the CCC programs for the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture and worked closely together.

The interesting thing about this is that I wrote a similar letter to the secretary of agriculture. Both were written and sent at about the same time, and neither of us knew that the other was going to write such a complimentary letter about his colleague. These letters should certainly serve to dispel the general belief that there is a lack of cooperation between bureaus and departments of the government. We do disagree from time to time, but that should not prevent cooperation and the lending of a helping hand where needed.


Parks, Politics, and the People
©1980, University of Oklahama Press
wirth2/chap12.htm — 21-Sep-2004

Copyright © 1980 University of Oklahoma Press, returned to the author in 1984. Offset rights University of Oklahoma Press. Material from this edition may not be reproduced in any manner without the written consent of the heir(s) of the Conrad L. Wirth estate and the University of Oklahoma Press.