Parks, Politics, and the People
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Chapter 3:
The National Park Service

Not long after I had entered on duty, Albright called me to his office and told me he had worked up a schedule for a trip I was to make to the West. It was designed primarily to give me a chance to get acquainted with some of the large parks and the field personnel and to learn about some of the land problems firsthand. I was delighted over the prospect of seeing the national parks in operation and of meeting some of the old-time park superintendents.

I started west by train in May, 1931, and my first stop was Grand Canyon National Park. Minor R. "Tilly" Tillotson was the superintendent. I had one of the real experiences of my life at the Grand Canyon, and I never let Tilly forget it. I did not realize it fully at the time, but I am convinced that Horace Albright was sending me around to some of his tried and true park people as a sort of test and also to give me a little "hazing," as if I were joining a fraternity. Tillotson met me at the station and had a very fine hotel room ready for me. I met several of the staff, and then Tilly turned me over to the chief ranger. He suggested that we go by muleback the next morning down to Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon, spend the night there, and come back the following day. We'd have the rest of that day and a third day along the South Rim of the canyon to review some of their land needs. That sounded reasonable. Early the next day the chief ranger and I got on our mules and started down the Bright Angel Trail. We went all the way to the bottom, across the canyon, and about two-thirds of the trail up the North Rim Trail, then back down to the ranch, getting in late but in time for dinner. The chief ranger rode his mule all the way. I did not want him to outdo me, and so I rode mine all the way, too. Anyone who has ever ridden the steep Bright Angel Trail on a stiff-legged mule for some ten hours knows how I felt. I had a hard time sitting down that night. The next morning when we were about to start out, I told the chief ranger, "All right, now, I took it yesterday, and I think I took it in the spirit in which it was meant, but if something has to carry something out of this canyon, I'll carry the mule, he won't carry me." And so I walked practically the whole way up the canyon trail to the South Rim that morning. When we reached the top, Tilly met us with a grin on his face.

From the Grand Canyon I went on to Sequoia National Park, where I met the superintendent, Colonel John White, a man in his early fifties who had received his military rank during the Philippine engagements as one of the constabulary. He was pleasant yet very independent, a world traveler and soldier of fortune before he became a park superintendent. Apparently he was having some kind of running differences with Albright, although I didn't know that at the time. Colonel White ran his shop as a military man would; he was firm and decisive. He was quite a collector of surplus property, especially old military equipment from World War I. After a day in the field, a good part of it in the inspiring giant redwood forest, we spent most of the second day in the office and in his home. We talked nearly the whole day about various things that he was particularly interested in, and a lot of his statements took the form of questions though he never asked for approval of anything in particular. As the day went on I felt sure he had received a letter from the director covering several of the subjects he was bringing up, and so I took the precaution of not expressing outright agreement or opinions on anything. After all, the purpose of this trip was simply to get acquainted and to better understand some of the field problems.

On the third day I left for San Francisco, and on the train I got a little concerned about some of the things Colonel White had brought up. I decided to write a report to the director on both my Grand Canyon and Sequoia visits. I ended the letter saying that, while Colonel White had not asked for my approval of his ideas, the fact that I had not said much might have led him to believe I was in accord with his position. I wrote that I would report in more detail when I got back to Washington. Apparently as soon as I had left the park Colonel White also wrote to the director, telling him that I'd been there, that we'd gone over several matters in detail, that he thought very highly of me, and that I had approved this and that and that! The director, I understand, was about ready to summon me back to Washington—until he received my letter. I am certain he would not have fired me, but he certainly would have thought I was not very smart.

The Park Service had two staff groups based in the Bay Area. They were headed by Frank Kittredge, chief engineer, and Tom Vint, chief landscape architect, in San Francisco; and John J. Coffman, chief forester, in Berkeley. These were the main technical staffs, and their primary duty was to service the parks. I called first on Kittredge, since he was the senior officer. He introduced me to his staff, explained how they operated, and took me to visit some of the important people in the city, after which we were to attend a Park Service party at his home down the peninsula. The next day I visited with Chief Landscape Architect Vint. We had much in common and a lot to talk about. I really got my best insight into the service from Tom. We went out for dinner in Chinatown that night. The next day Tom and Frank took me to the ferry to Oakland, where I boarded the train. Those who have taken this ferry ride will agree, I think, that it gave one time to enjoy the skyline of San Francisco and the view of the hills beyond Oakland and Berkeley, sights worth more than the time now saved by driving across the Bay Bridge.

I had three days on the train to write up my notes. The trip had been an enjoyable and a very worthwhile experience. On the whole it gave me an essential understanding of how the National Park Service operated. I got acquainted with many of the front-line people—the ones who met the public, protected the parks, and planned and developed the facilities. They were my kind of people, and in my mind I felt that I had been accepted by them. They had given me a few hurdles to go over and had tested me to find out whether I was going to meet their standards and take my responsibilities in the Park Service family as seriously as they did.

San Francisco was the base of the Park Service's technical staffs because of the fifty-three areas in the national park system in 1929, amounting to about 8,273,835 acres, all but one, Acadia National Park, were west of the Mississippi River.

As a result of a study authorized by Congress February 21, 1925, to look into the possibility of national parks in the eastern part of the United States, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, in North Carolina and Tennessee, Shenandoah National Park, in Virginia, and Mammoth Cave National Park, in Kentucky, received congressional authorization in 1926. The authorization provided for the National Park Service to assume protection once certain lands were acquired and given to the federal government, but the areas could not be established as national parks until a majority of the land had come into federal ownership. Accordingly, Great Smoky was established for protection only on February 6, 1930, and established for full administration June 15, 1934; Mammoth Cave reached the minimum stage for protection on May 22, 1936, and full establishment on July 1, 1941; and Shenandoah was given protective status on February 16, 1928, and was fully established December 26, 1935.

All three of these areas required a great amount of negotiation and public-relations work. Shenandoah involved the acquisition of over 193,500 acres, and Great Smoky involved over 500,000 acres divided fairly evenly between North Carolina and Tennessee. Associate Director Carnmerer spent a great part of his time on these projects, working with the states and individuals as the representative not only of the Park Service but also of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who had committed himself to match the states' funds for land purchase up to five million dollars. As head of the Branch of Lands, I worked closely with Cammerer in carrying out these projects. He was the top man, and I was his "leg man." He personally handled most of the negotiations, even after he became director in 1933.

Shenandoah was the first of these three parks to materialize, although because of the depression progress was difficult. The Park Service, as with all federal agencies, was hard pressed for appropriations. Shortly after I came into the service, government salaries were cut 10 per cent across the board as a part of government economy under the great stress of the depression. President Herbert Hoover, a Republican, was having a very difficult time with a Congress that had a Republican Senate and a Democratic House of Representatives. He was able to get funds to begin a small public works program, however, including a start on construction of Skyline Drive in the authorized Shenandoah National Park, from Panorama, where U.S. highway 211 crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains, to Skyland, a distance of about twelve miles.

We had a planning meeting at Skyland. There was quite a summer cabin development there, but the only way to reach it was over a very steep, rocky dirt road up Kettle Canyon on the west side of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The meeting, which was attended by Secretary of the Interior Ray Lyman Wilbur, Arno Cammerer, and others, concerned the establishment of park boundary lines and an inspection of Skyland and Skyline Drive under construction.

Wirth at Shenandoah National Park
Of all the areas of the national park system, Shenandoah National Park in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, with its Skyland and Stonyman Mountain, is the one the author goes back to year after year.

The Blue Ridge, part of which is now Shenandoah National Park, had been settled in early colonial days by people with very meager funds on land given them by the more fortunate plantation owners down on the Piedmont Plateau. We found the people living there extremely poor and uneducated. They spoke a dialect that dated back to the late seventeenth-century English spoken by their forebears. Marriage within families had occurred often enough that inbreeding was a problem, and the incidence of mental retardation was high. The families all had small apple orchards and cornfields and made moonshine whiskey and applejack, though their market was greatly reduced when Prohibition went out in 1933. The people's houses were primarily one-room cabins, and their children were numerous. The property lines were handed down only by word of mouth; for example, "from the rock to the big oak tree over to the chestnut tree and back to the stream and up to the rock again." In many instances the rock or the tree or both had long since disappeared. The state bought the land, but the question of establishing acceptable boundary lines and good titles was most difficult. As a final solution, the state placed all its money into the courts of six counties, three on each side of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which Shenandoah National Park straddles. Through a special law enacted by the Virginia legislature, the courts put a blanket condemnation on all the property within the park boundary line and proceeded to use the funds to buy up the land according to appraisals based on property lines recognized and established by the courts. At the same time the people were allowed to continue living there. In condemning the land, the state took title to the property and then transferred it to the federal government. Only after the government received the titles could the work in the park begin.

The inhabitants posed another difficult problem. Their holdings had very little value, especially during the depression years. The amount the owners received for the land and so-called improvements did not provide anywhere near enough money for them to settle in a new location. The character and mentality of these people compounded the dilemma. It is hard to believe that people could be so poor and isolated in the twentieth century within a hundred miles of the capital of the United States. It was clear to Director Albright that, until a suitable solution was found, the service would have to let these people stay in their cabins. The opportunity to relocate them came several years later, in the mid-thirties, when the Resettlement Administration established farms in the valley, built reasonably comfortable houses, and moved the people there. But they were so used to the mountain country that after a few months they began to move back to their old homes. Finally, steps were taken to allow these people to live in the hollows until the older members of the family died. In the meantime the children were sent to school at government expense in order to fit them for reestablishment in the communities.

We had some of the same problems in establishing Great Smoky Mountains National Park, although not quite as bad or extensive. The mountaineers of that region were strong, intelligent, and in good health, with no apparent problems of inbreeding, and they possessed many basic skills. They had some problems similar to those of the Shenandoah mountain people, but most of them bargained for the sale of their homesteads, sold them, and left the mountains without much assistance from the government. Some sold subject to a life interest.

The Branch of Lands had a nearly continuous job of reviewing and changing the boundary lines of Great Smoky, Shenandoah, and Mammoth Cave national parks largely as a result of poor surveys and maps. The Shenandoah map was in three sections, and we could not get them on our drafting tables. We would spend Saturdays and Sundays with these maps stretched on the floor in the hall in the Interior Building trying to get them in shape for court and fieldwork.

There are only two ways in which areas of the national park system can be established: by congressional legislation or, in the case of nationally important historic, prehistoric, or scientific areas on government-owned land, by presidential proclamation. Both are often influenced by political circumstances. For instance, the approach of an election year has considerable influence on the actions of Congress and the administration. During the last days of a session of Congress there is a rush to get legislation enacted. The same urgency obtains towards the end of a president's term in office. The reason, of course, is that if a project to which expensive and time-consuming research and hearings have been devoted fails to receive final approval before the session or term ends, the whole process has to be repeated in order to present it to a new Congress or president.

Special circumstances surround the establishment of each new park area. Virgin Islands National Park is a good case in point. In the fall of 1955, Helen and I were in Grand Teton National Park. At Moose, where the Park Service headquarters is located, there was a log building that housed both the post office and a fishing tackle store. On a visit to the post office I noticed Laurance S. Rockefeller in the store buying fishing tackle. I stepped over to say hello to him, and he invited Helen and me to come up to his J Y Ranch the next morning and look over some maps of the Virgin Islands. He explained that he had been down to the islands in his boat some three or four years previously and had bought a piece of property called Caneel Bay Plantation, a depleted, unused tract with a fine beach. He had recently been down that way again, and a man named Frank Stick had given him a carbon copy of a report on a proposed national park on the Island of Saint Johns, in the Virgin Islands. It was dated 1939 and addressed to me as assistant director in charge of the Branch of Lands. I assured Laurance that I was still interested in the proposed national park. Frank Stick was an old friend of mine who had been of great help in the establishment of Cape Hatteras National Seashore, in North Carolina. The report he had given to Rockefeller was no doubt one I had asked Hal Hubler to prepare in 1939 when I was in the Virgin Islands in connection with the CCC program. Hubler, a landscape architect and superintendent of a local CCC camp at the time, had told CCC Director Fechner and me about Caneel Bay on Saint Johns Island and was so persuasive that we went over to see it and actually went swimming. However, the war came on before we could do anything about the proposed park.

Helen and I went up to the Rockefeller ranch the next morning and, while she and Mary Rockefeller took a walk, I joined Laurance in the recreation building, where he had at least a half-dozen maps and the report that Frank Stick had given him. I explained to Rockefeller that, while I was still in favor of a national park in the Virgin Islands, we could not proceed on the basis of the old report; it would have to be brought up to date. He wanted to know whether we could get on with a new study right away, and I told him that we had the necessary staff but were a little short of travel money. He readily helped us with that problem, and we came back with a report before the end of the calendar year and proceeded to draft legislation for consideration by the secretary of the interior and the Bureau of the Budget. The proposed bill was cleared and was introduced in Congress in early 1956.

Rockefeller, Seaton, O'Brien, Wirth, Aspinall, Miller
Laurance E. Rockefeller (third from right) hands Secretary of the Interior Fred A. Seaton the deed to the land establishing Virgin Islands National Park on December 1, 1956. On the left: Representative O'Brien, of New York, and Director Wirth, On the right: Representative Wayne Aspinall, of Colorado, and Representative A. L. Miller, of Nebraska.

In the meantime Laurance Rockefeller employed Frank Stick and proceeded to acquire land for the proposed national park. The legislation required that at least 50 per cent of the lands authorized within the boundary of the national park be in federal ownership before the park could be established. The bill was enacted by Congress and was signed into law on August 2, 1956, which was a very short time to get a bill processed into law. In that brief period Laurance Rockefeller had acquired more than 50 per cent of the land needed for the park, and the lawyers had already begun to get the titles in condition acceptable to the attorney general of the United States.

In due course all the details were cleared up, and success was celebrated with a big barbecue at Cruz Bay on Saint Johns Island December 1, 1956. Secretary of the Interior Fred Seaton and the governor of the Virgin Islands were there, and Rockefeller presented to the secretary the deeds to the lands he had bought for the Virgin Islands National Park. The park project, originally suggested seventeen years earlier, was started in earnest in the fall of 1955 and completed in a little more than a year's time.

The Rockefeller family for two generations has been most considerate and helpful in the development of the national park system. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., devoted much of his time making this country a better place to live in, certainly from the standpoint of conservation. His most heralded contribution was the restoration of colonial Williamsburg, in Virginia, and the establishment of the Williamsburg Foundation to operate it. Williamsburg is closely associated with Colonial National Historic Park, which includes Yorktown and Jamestown Island. The scope of Rockefeller's contributions to the national park system was broad and impressive. A large portion of the land for Acadia National Park, in Maine, was purchased by him and conveyed to the federal government. Grand Teton National Park, in Wyoming, is another example. Although a good bit of the land was in government ownership, a large amount remained in private ownership, notably some tracts in the valley on both sides of the Snake River. Grand Teton was established in 1929, but its original area included only the mountains. A proposal to extend the park boundary to include the valley was vigorously opposed, but the extension was finally settled by an act of Congress in 1950. At that time Rockefeller, who had been buying most of the private holdings in the disputed area, donated his land to the government for inclusion in the park. When Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established in 1934, Rockefeller matched the five million dollars provided by the states of North Carolina and Tennessee for land acquisition. Then, along the 450 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway, he made other donations, including the Linville Falls area in North Carolina, giving part of the land to the U.S. Forest Service and the falls themselves for the parkway. In the West, he made contributions toward purchase of the redwoods, both the gigantia and the coastal redwoods, and also provided funds to buy and preserve the very fine western yellow pine stand as an addition to Yosemite National Park. Rockefeller also gave great assistance to the state parks of New York, especially Palisades Interstate Park, on the west side of the Hudson River in New Jersey and New York.

The daughter and five sons of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., are well known for their divergent interests, which include the conservation of our natural resources. Laurance S. Rockefeller in particular has a great interest in parks at all levels of government which brought me in direct contact with him long before I became director of the National Park Service in 1951. Since retirement I have been a consultant to him. As already described, Laurance S. Rockefeller gave his government the Virgin Islands National Park, and he has enlarged on his father's gifts of land at Teton and other national parks around the country. He and the various organizations that he belongs to have made many contributions to research that have advanced and will continue to advance the field of conservation, especially the park field. Laurance Rockefeller is a very imaginative person, vigorous, determined, and extremely generous. He's quick at grasping the essential points and relating them to the objective. One of Laurance's greatest contributions was his chairmanship of the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission, which opened a new era in park development and led to the establishment of the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation. That bureau provides financial aid for the development of park and recreation facilities at all levels of government. He was also chairman and a member of the presidential Citizens' Advisory Committee on Environmental Quality. To these efforts he devoted a great deal of his time and resources.


Parks, Politics, and the People
©1980, University of Oklahama Press
wirth2/chap3a.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.