Parks, Politics, and the People
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Although I had known Connie Wirth for some years, I never realized the full measure of his devotion to his country and to the service of his people until we hiked together into the towering coastal redwood trees of California's Rockefeller Forest. It was 1958, and the graceful giants in the grove where we paused for a breather were then believed to be the world's tallest living things.

"Mel," said Connie, "suppose we lie on our backs and look up through the crowns of these trees into the sky. Not in this life, not even in a great cathedral, will you then feel closer to your Maker. For men built the cathedral, but God created the trees.

"And I am sure He created them for people—all the people of our country and of the earth, not just the few who want to cut them down for their personal profit. Now I am a servant of the people, and I think the best way to make sure these trees remain forever the property of the people is to get them into parks. Naturally, since I'm director of the national parks, I'd like to see as many redwoods as possible placed under the protection of the National Park Service."

Connie wasn't just talking. Just ten years later, Congress established Redwoods National Park. The National Geographic Society, I am proud to say, was able to help the legislators decide upon the size and boundaries of this important park by granting funds for a complete survey of the coastal redwood belt in northern California. The idea was born as Connie and I walked out of the Rockefeller Forest.

"Are these really the tallest trees in the world?" I remember asking.

"We don't really know," Connie said. "There's never been a thorough survey made, not even by the lumber companies. The Park Service has a little money we could use for the job. Do you think you could talk your Geographic trustees into putting up the rest?"

I did. The survey was duly made, concentrating on the broad question of what groves worthy of national park status were still available. Meanwhile, a National Geographic Magazine staffer, Dr. Paul Zahl, discovered the 367.8-foot giant that thus far holds the record as the world's tallest living thing. Hidden along the banks of isolated Redwood Creek, the tree and its neighbors were subsequently purchased from the lumber company that owned them, and the grove is now part of the national park.

The battle to establish Redwoods National Park was a bitter one. Without Connie Wirth to lead it, the cause could never have been won, and the American people he served would have been the losers. He cajoled congressmen. He browbeat people who could be swayed no other way. When he had to, he accepted insults with a smile. Loggers cursed him at public meetings, while lumber barons, in their plush offices, insulted him in more sophisticated terms.

But insults and other unpleasantries can be turned to advantage when one is a "magnificent bureaucrat," as a high federal official once called Connie Wirth. In his book Connie writes: "One should never forget his experiences, no matter how unpleasant, because experiences are the foundation of the road to the future." Sound advice for anyone, that, but especially for the public servant, the ready target of criticism from congressmen, from the top people in the executive branch of government, and from all the organizations and individuals with special interest in the public servant's field of jurisdiction. You can find this sort of advice, implicit or offered through example, throughout the book, making Parks, Politics, and the People a valuable manual for those who seek careers in government and for those already embarked upon them.

It is, in addition, a history. The exciting period during which the author served in government has been well documented by serious historians. Connie makes no attempt to duplicate their efforts but rather illuminates their accounts. He sheds light upon the government people at the working level who had much to do with shaping events for which the top brass received the credit but who drew little notice in the broad history of the era. This fleshing-out of history is a most valuable service.

Necessarily, the book is considerably autobiographical. The author describes the background that led him into government service: the influence of a father who, before there was a national park system, gained renown as a designer and administrator of local parks; Connie's venture into business as a landscape architect; and finally, his entry into a long career in the federal government.

Much of the book—again necessarily—concerns the National Park Service, in which the author served for thirty-three years. Of his many accomplishments in senior staff positions and as director of the service for twelve years, two were outstanding: his direction of Civilian Conservation Corps activities of his own and other bureaus of the Department of the Interior as departmental representative on the CCC Advisory Council and his initiation of the service's Mission 66 program through which our national parks were rehabilitated after years of unavoidable neglect during World War II.

Even when he was seconded to the Civilian Conservation Corps during the New Deal, Connie didn't leave parks entirely behind. His job was to build CCC camps, and many of these were in national and state parks. The work he did in the CCC was certainly one of his finest contributions to the welfare of the country. The CCC took city boys off the streets in the depression years, sent them into the wilds, and there built them into men sound in body and character. They planted trees, cut trails, fought fires, and built lasting structures. We are still reaping benefits from their work.

Perhaps the high point in Director Wirth's career was his inspiration and organization of Mission 66, a giant proposal to rejuvenate the parks. By 1956, the national parks had grown so numerous and become so run-down because appropriations had not kept up with growth that something dramatic, mammoth had to be done to restore them. It couldn't be a simple one-year appropriation but must be a long-term push. Connie proposed a ten-year effort, called Mission 66, whose culmination in 1966 would coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the National Park Service. He kicked off the program with a huge banquet in the halls of the Department of the Interior and had rangers and others give illustrated talks that would dramatically point out the low condition of the parks and what ought to be done to bring them up to par for the millions of annual visitors.

Invited to the dinner were important members of Congress and all the committees that dealt with the parks, cabinet members, government officials, and distinguished friends from civilian life. The dinner was to be something different. From western parks Connie obtained surplus buffalo and elk, which were served as tempting roasts. Pictures flashed on the screen showing rangers families living in squalor, poor facilities for tourists, congested and bumpy roads, and other defects. In contrast, architectural drawings conjured up villages of neat homes for park personnel and beautiful visitor centers designed to interpret the culture, history, and other information about the parks. Then Connie inveigled high-ranking government officials who were fond of the parks to give pep talks emphasizing the low state of the parks and what should be done. The whole program was dramatic, fast-moving, and enthusiastic. So well did Connie plan and carry out his project that he indeed accomplished everything he wanted, and in the fiftieth anniversary year the new wonders were dedicated with great ceremony and admiration.

Connie left the parks only once. Just after World War II the late Harold L. Ickes, then secretary of the interior, sent him to Europe to help work out a peace treaty with Austria. Then Connie returned to his beloved parks.

If Parks, Politics, and the People is largely the story of one man's service in the national parks, the fact does not diminish the value of the book as a public servant's guide. Except for the fields in which they function, one government bureau is much like another. Those who administer them face the same unrelenting pressures. If they are to be successful bureaucrats, they must employ the same techniques to find their way through the tortuous federal jungle.

Describing his methodology, Connie leaves out nothing. He tells of the battles he won and lists those he lost. He gives us full texts of the reprimands he received. He criticizes those he feels deserve criticism. But he tempers his barbs with kindness. When I first read his manuscript, I told him I couldn't understand why he was so temperate, since he was now out of government and not exposed to retaliation.

"Well," he replied, "it's like Voltaire is said to have put it: 'I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.' So when a fellow bucked me, he was only exercising his right as a citizen of a democracy.

Democracy, American style, is really what Parks, Politics, and the People is all about—not democracy coldly defined, but democracy at work, serving the people under the skilled, devoted guidance of a "magnificent bureaucrat."

Chairman Emeritus and Editor Emeritus
National Geographic Society


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