Parks, Politics, and the People
NPS Arrowhead logo

Chapter 9:
Mission 66 and the Road to the Future

The National Park Service's Mission 66 might be fairly described as a renaissance. From the time that automobile travel began to build up in the 1920s following World War I until driving was curtailed by gasoline rationing in World War II, visitor use of the national and state parks increased tremendously. Moreover, the types of facilities preferred by people visiting the parks in their own cars were different from the kind formerly provided for those who traveled by train and took coach tours. Annual appropriations had been sufficient to protect park areas and develop the necessary facilities for this increased use. During World War II attendance dropped sharply, and a number of the national parks were made available to the military both as training grounds and as rest areas for troops suffering from combat fatigue. In view of the need to pour funds into all phases of the war effort, appropriations for administration of the park system were sharply curtailed. But ten years after the war the park system was still short of funding, in spite of a resurgence of visitation and the problems of inadequate maintenance, protection, and development during the war and postwar years. Mission 66 was conceived in 1956 and was designed to overcome the inroads of neglect and to restore to the American people a national park system adequate for their needs. This was to be accomplished within ten years, by 1966.

A lot could be written on the conditions that existed in the areas of the national park system in 1955, but an article in The Reader's Digest described them bluntly:

One out of three persons in the United States will visit some part of our national-park system during 1955. To these visitors I must pass along a warning: Your trip is likely to be fraught with discomfort, disappointment, even danger.

This warning, the result of a year-long investigation which included an 8000-mile inspection tour, is borne out by the director of the National Park Service (NPS) himself, Conrad L. Wirth. Says Mr. Wirth:

"It is not possible to provide essential services. Visitor concentration points can't be kept in sanitary condition. Comfort stations can't be kept clean and serviced. Water, sewer and electrical systems are taxed to the utmost. Protective services to safeguard the public and preserve park values are far short of requirements. Physical facilities are deteriorating or are inadequate to meet public needs. Some of the camps are approaching rural slums. We actually get scared when we think of the had health conditions." [Charles Stevenson, "The Shocking Truth About Our National Parks," The Reader's Digest, January, 1955. Quoted by permission.]

Mission 66 required a lot of helping hands in its formulation and execution. A group of Park Service professionals started with nothing but an idea and put together a program of such comprehensive proportions and solid design that it attracted nationwide attention and received the full backing of the Department of the Interior, the president, and Congress. The service developed an esprit de corps and a determination in this endeavor that were wonderful to behold. Mission 66 influenced the activities of several other federal and state agencies and even attracted the interest of the White House in favor of other conservation studies and projects. Roy E. Appleman, the Park Service historian, had a very important part in working up the program and later compiled the history of organizing and launching Mission 66. I am indebted to his report for much of what follows in this chapter.

One weekend in February, 1955, I was pondering the reason the Park Service couldn't get the money we needed for the national parks. In 1940, when there were 161 areas in the system, totaling 21-1/2 million acres, with close to 17 million park visitors, total funds available were $33,577,000, including funds for some 109 national park CCC camps. In 1955, with 181 areas totaling 23-7/8 million acres and visitation more than tripled to a total of 56,573,000, the appropriation of $32,525,000 was approximately $1 million below the 1940 level. Moreover, our appropriations had been cut drastically during the war—down to a low of $4,740,000 in 1945—and we were in desperate need of extra money to repair the damage that wartime neglect had wrought. I had been in the director's chair for three full years, during which we had presented the government with some very strong arguments for what we felt were reasonable requests for funds. We had also submitted two-, three-, and four-year programs as requested by the Bureau of the Budget. But nothing happened. A few minor increases were approved, but even those were knocked out by the committees of Congress.

As I pondered our dilemma, I asked myself, "What would I want to hear from the Park Service if I were a member of Congress?" The answer to this question was a series of new questions: What would be the total amount of work required to bring the whole park system up to a satisfactory condition after the lean years of funding? How much would it cost? What would be the most economical way of getting this job done? How long would it take the service to do this on a reasonably economic basis? I envisioned not a crash program but a long-range one. As I went along with my cogitations, the various aspects of the problem began to clear up and make sense. I also realized that this kind of program would be difficult to set up, and I began to have strong doubts. Perhaps it would not clear the department, not to mention the Budget Bureau. Two- or three-year programs were all they were ever willing to consider, and even then they would make no commitment beyond the first appropriation year.

I spent several hours the next day, Sunday, working up some notes and making estimates based on figures I remembered—they were more "guesstimates" than estimates—and my thinking began to crystalize. I reasoned that other bureaus, such as the Bureau of Public Roads, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the Army Corps of Engineers got money year after year. They had big projects, such as dams and long highways, to construct that couldn't possibly be completed under a single annual appropriation or even in two or three years. That was it. Our projects were all relatively small ones that could be cut out of the budget because they were not sufficiently appealing to the committees that reviewed our request. But if we submitted one all-inclusive, long-term program for the entire park system, it would mean a complete review and some major policy changes by Congress. The whole program could be so arranged that if it were stopped halfway through, for example, half of the parks would be in good shape and the other half would be in poorer shape than ever. If we requested funds for a specific segment of a complete package program and all the congressmen knew that the parks in their states were part of the package and would be similarly taken care of within a given time, it seemed that once the overall program got started it would be hard to stop. Further, by letting larger contracts to do all the work necessary in an area and finishing the job instead of doing a little bit at a time, the project would in the long run be more economical and would interfere less with management and public use.

On Monday morning, February 7, I expounded my ideas to my branch heads. I proposed that we set up a special staff, selected from personnel in the Washington office, and put this group in the conference room, with no telephone, to work exclusively on the plan. They would be relieved of all their regular duties and would devote full time to the plan until it was completed, even if that took a year. These Mission 66 committee members would be selected so as to represent the major functions of the service, and they would be people who were so important in their regular assignments that they would be sorely missed.

The branch heads favored the proposal with enthusiasm. Although my original thought provided for only one Mission 66 committee, they suggested that a steering committee be set up consisting primarily of the bosses of the members of the main committee. Both were under my general supervision. The steering committee was to meet with the Mission 66 committee at regular intervals to review the work and make suggestions. The two committees worked well together and came up with an outstanding report and program that were the envy of other bureaus of the federal government. The members were:

Steering Committee Mission 66 Committee

Lemuel A. Garrison, Chairman
Chief, Conservation and Protection Branch, Operations Division

Thomas C. Vint
Chief, Division of Design and Construction

Henry Langley
Chief, Programs and Plans Control Branch, Operations Division

John E. Doerr
Chief, Natural History Branch, Division of Interpretation

Donald E. Lee
Chief, Branch of Concessions Management, Operations Division

Keith Neilson
Finance Officer, Administration Division

Jackson E. Price
Chief, Branch of Lands, Operations Division
William C. Carnes, Chairman
Chief Landscape Architect, Division of Design and Construction

Harold G. Smith
Assistant Chief, Programs and Plans Control Branch, Operations Division

Robert M. Coates
Chief, Economics and Statistical Section, Conservation and Protection Branch

Howard N. Stagner
Principal Naturalist, Natural History Branch, Division of Interpretation

Jack B. Dodd
Assistant Chief Forester, Conservation and Protection Branch

Roy E. Appleman
Staff Historian, History Branch, Division of Interpretation

Raymond L. Freeman
Assistant Chief, Branch of River Basin Studies, Division of Cooperative Activities

We realized from the beginning that if the program was to be successful we would have to have a title that was short, expressive, easy to remember, and provocative. We spent some time on the problem of the title at our first meeting, and our discussions concerning a title helped us to form a better understanding of our total objective. We felt a sense of "mission" in the program and listed all that we hoped to accomplish. We talked about the time needed to do all that had to be done. We felt we had to allow enough time to make certain that what we did would be economically sound and well executed, and we finally decided that ten years was the length of time to "try on for size." Further, 1966 would mark the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of the National Park Service, and it would be a good golden anniversary if the park system was in acceptable condition by that time. We reasoned that everything we had in mind was contained in two words, Mission 66.

Mission 66 committee
The Mission 66 committee, whose members devoted full time, including after hours, to setting up the program. Left to right: Howard Stagner, naturalist; Bob Coates, economist; Jack Dodd, forester; Bill Carnes, landscape architect and chairman; Harold Smith, fiscal; Roy Appleman, historian; Ray Freeman, landscape architect—land planner. 1956. Courtesy National Park Service.

Roy Appleman's account describes the temper of the Washington office after the staff meeting on February 7: "Excitement ran through the Park Service offices just before noon that Monday as word passed around that a special study group had been formed to inquire into possible changes in the service's policies and to plan for the future. Members of the staff received news of their selection for the work with a mingled feeling of surprise, uncertainty, and anticipation. But all looked forward to the afternoon meeting when they would learn more about the task ahead."

At that meeting I emphasized two things: one, a reasonable objective for the service over a long period; and, two, a program to accomplish that objective. I told them they wouldn't find the answers in any book, regulation, or even in legislation, but we had to find the answer, whatever it might be, because the public was not satisfied with the condition of the national park system and was calling on us to say what must be done, and why, to correct that condition; the public wanted to see our cards. I handed down two dead lines. I informed the staff that I wanted the program outline available for presentation at the Public Services Conference at Great Smoky Mountains National Park on September 18, 1955. I also got very emotional and told them that I would give them until Friday, February 11, to prepare a memorandum that I could send to the field and the personnel in the Washington office informing them of the service's Mission 66 project and what we hoped to accomplish.

The Mission 66 staff and the steering committee started right to work. The memorandum was prepared and went out on time. It stated in part:

The year 1966 will mark the Golden Anniversary of the National Park Service. In an effort to solve, by that time, the difficult problem of protecting the scenic and historic areas of the National Park System from over-use and, at the same time, of providing optimum opportunity for public enjoyment of the parks, I have initiated a project which we are calling MISSION 66....

The purpose of MISSION 66 is to make an intensive study of the problems of protection, public use, interpretation, development, staffing, legislation, financing, and all other phases of park operation, and to produce a comprehensive and integrated program of use and protection that is in harmony with the obligations of the National Park Service under the Act of 1916.

The immediate objective of MISSION 66 is the development of a dynamic program to be presented to the Secretary for consideration by the Bureau of the Budget and the Congress beginning with the 1957 fiscal year estimates. The ultimate objective is the complete execution of the program by the time the Service celebrates its Golden Anniversary in 1966.

In the first two or three weeks the staff delved into a considerable amount of history, policy, and legislation, going back to the establishment of Yellowstone, the Antiquities Act, the founding of the Park Service, the presidential reorganization orders of 1933, the Historic Sites Act of 1935, the Park, Parkway, and Recreational-Area Study Act of 1936, and the CCC program. As an axiom of intent and purpose, the committee adopted for its own, a statement that was made by Justice Mathew W. Hill in the case of Dexter v. Washington and that was delivered in the Washington Supreme Court on February 18, 1949 (202 Pacific reporter, 2d series): "Edmund Burke once said that a great unwritten compact exists between the dead, the living, and the unborn. We leave to the unborn a colossal financial debt, perhaps inescapable, but incurred, none the less, in our time and for our immediate benefit. Such an unwritten compact requires that we leave to the unborn something more than debts and depleted natural resources. Surely, where natural resources can be utilized and at the same time perpetuated for future generations, what has been called "constitutional morality" requires that we do so.

Each person within the Mission 66 staff and steering committee was free to question anything he thought could be done in a better way. Nothing was to be sacred, except the ultimate purpose to be served. Men, method, and time-honored practices were to be accorded no vested deference. Old traditions seem to have determined standards far beyond their time; for instance, the distance a stagecoach could travel in a day seemed to have been a controlling factor in establishing public facilities in some parks.

By the end of February the Mission 66 committee had started collecting detailed material in order to develop the program for Mission 66. A request for factual information was sent to each division and branch of the service, and a questionnaire was sent out to the parks. (The term parks was to be common to all classifications of areas in the system for the purposes of Mission 66.) The office in Washington, the regional offices, and the field offices were instructed to give high priority to any request that came from the Mission 66 committee or the steering committee. A list of twenty-eight items that should be looked into in each park was tabulated. The Mission 66 staff reviewed the Mount Rainier National Park master plan and asked for a pilot study of Mount Rainier. The superintendent, Preston P. Macy, came to Washington for five days. Macy was a man with many years of very successful park administration experience. They had a lot of good "skull practice" with Macy, with excellent results.

By March 17 work had progressed far enough that the steering committee and Mission 66 staff felt a second memorandum should go to the field. The memorandum reviewed the work done by the committees, clarified certain of the earlier directives, summarized some of the more troublesome problems, and outlined the steps yet to be taken. It firmly requested suggestions and recommendations from the field. Part of the memorandum was a questionnaire to be answered by each park superintendent, outlining a course of action for the Mission 66 program in the park under his administrative control. All replies were to be sent to the Mission 66 staff by April 11. Finally, the memorandum also invited all employees to send any suggestions or thoughts they might have to the Mission 66 staff in Washington. The responses were many and good.

During the week of April 11 a meeting of regional directors was held in Shenandoah National Park and attended by representatives of the steering committee and the Mission 66 committee. In view of the findings of the Mount Rainier National Park pilot study, it was decided at that meeting that pilot studies should be carried out on a variety of other areas. The parks selected constituted a good cross section of the service's administrative, preservation, protection, development, and visitor-use problems. They were Yellowstone National Park, in Wyoming, Chaco Canyon National Monument, in New Mexico, Shiloh National Military Park, in Tennessee, Adams Mansion National Historic Site, in Massachusetts, Fort Laramie National Historic Site, in Wyoming, and Everglades National Park, in Florida.

The Mission 66 staff placed on my desk once a week a brief of their accomplishments on the subjects they were currently pursuing or would be taking up the following week, together with a statement on the decisions they had reached the past week. Copies of this report went to key people in the Washington office. It reminded all of their responsibility to speak out with suggestions or objections as the work progressed and not to wait until the report was completed. I quote from Roy Appleman's notes:

As often as his duties would permit, Mr. Wirth stepped through the side door of his office to join the Staff informally for a few minutes. He would comment on some aspects of the work or pass on to the Staff members some bit of information he had just received. He cut through the confusion that often seemed to overwhelm the Staff and helped to keep its work on course by advice and criticism. Above all, his optimism on the outcome of the Staffs work was of immeasurable value.

As this indicates, everybody had a responsibility to help put Mission 66 together. We were not going to have time for long reviews after the committee finished its report which, when finished, was to be final.

The service's field forces had conducted several visitor polls during the summer at the request of the Mission 66 committee, and the results followed very closely those of a poll made by an outside organization that was not financed by National Park Service funds. Of approximately 1,750 persons interviewed, a total of 718 had visited national parks in the preceding five years. Of those, 69 per cent had complaints of one kind or another. Many complaints concerned the facilities available in a park and the general condition of the parks; there were very few complaints against Park Service personnel. About one-third mentioned overcrowding, and about one-half referred to overnight accommodations. Practically all park visitors wanted either cabin or motel accommodations. Very few wanted hotel accommodations, and only 14 per cent wanted campgrounds. Seventy per cent visited a park for one day or less, and only 29 per cent stayed overnight.

In 1952, my first full year as director, we had a field meeting in Glacier National Park. At that time we got a lot of complaints from the ladies about living conditions for the staff in the parks. I had seen some of the housing, and it was terrible. At that time I asked Herma Baggley, wife of George Baggley, then superintendent of the Lake Meade National Recreation Area, in Arizona and Nevada, if she would head a committee made up of a Park Service wife from each park to get pictures and make a report with recommendations on the condition of their housing. Tom Vint was to work with them in drawing up standard floor plans for new housing. Besides the terrible condition of the buildings, the rooms and windows were of different sizes in different parks so that when a family moved from one park to another such items as furniture, rugs, and curtains did not fit. The ladies did a great job, and their final two-volume report, with pictures and descriptions, came in just about the time Mission 66 got started. It fitted right into the scheme of things. The report contained standard floor plans for two- and three-bedroom houses. The exterior architectural appearance of these more or less uniform houses could be varied and suited to a particular locality. This study made a great impression on the Bureau of the Budget and the committees of Congress and resulted in the building of thousands of new homes for our field people.


Parks, Politics, and the People
©1980, University of Oklahama Press
wirth2/chap9.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.