Establishing the Infrastructure for Coordinated Administration Over America's National Parks
Time Period: Early 1900s
In This Corner: Preservationists
In the Other Corner: Tourist developers, non-environmentalists
Other Interested Parties: Conservationists
General Environmental Issue(s): Parks, preservation
Even when the first American national parks had been created, they possessed no definition or system for maintenance. Valued most for their natural oddity, these parks and monuments lacked any ability to be preserved once faced with competition or challenge. A historic failure made this park system definition possible and necessary.
Discussed in other essays, the episode at Hetch Hetchy demonstrated the intellectual weakness of the American parks movement in relation to the idea of preservation. Grinnell, Pinchot, and Roosevelt had led the utilitarian perspective on conservation to a broad audience. Agencies including the USGS and the Forest and Reclamation Services gave the federal government a significant involvement in conservation. However, no comparable bureau in Washington spoke for preservation. A wealthy Chicago businessman named Stephen T. Mather recognized this shortcoming. When he brought it to the attention of Franklin K. Lane, the secretary of the interior, in 1915 Lane invited him to join him as his assistant and advisor.
As is often the case, the battle over Hetch Hetchy marked a loss for preservationists while also clarifying the route for future policy initiatives. The shortcomings of the environmental movement that were shown by the Hetch Hetchy episode focused future efforts of environmentalists to clarify and sharpen the definition and meaning of national park.
Crusading for an independent federal bureau to oversee the U.S. national parks, Mather and Conrad Albright effectively blurred the distinction between utilitarian conservation and preservation by emphasizing the economic value of parks as tourist attractions that might spur economic development. Mather initiated a vigorous public relations campaign that led to widespread media coverage in popular magazines. Mather also used funds from western railroads to produce The National Parks Portfolio, a lavishly illustrated publication that he sent to congressmen and other influential citizens (Sellars 1997, 48–50).
Although the Interior Department was responsible for fourteen national parks and twenty-one national monuments by 1916, it had no organization to manage them. Typically, parks were staffed by the army, not for security purposes but because they were the only available federal employees. In Yellowstone and in the California parks, military staff developed park roads and buildings and enforced regulations against hunting, grazing, timber cutting, and vandalism. They had little or no ability to educate or advise visitors; therefore, national parks included little of what today is referred to as “interpretation.”
Congress quickly responded to Mather's publicity campaign. President Woodrow Wilson signed legislation on August 25, 1916 that created the NPS and placed it within the Interior Page 282 | Top of ArticleDepartment. The act made the bureau responsible for the Interior's national parks and monuments, as well as Hot Springs Reservation in Arkansas (made a national park in 1921) and other national parks and reservations “of like character” that would subsequently be created by Congress. The act also stipulated how the Park Service was to carry out site management. The agency's efforts, read the act, “[will include] ... to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
The Secretary was specifically given the right to
... sell or dispose of timber in those cases where in his judgment the cutting of such timber is required to control the attacks of insects or diseases or otherwise conserve the scenery or the natural or historic objects in any such park, monument, or reservation. He may also provide in his discretion for the destruction of such animals and of such plant life as may be detrimental to the use of any of said parks, monuments, or reservations. He may also grant privileges, leases, and permits for the use of land for the accommodation of visitors in the various parks, monuments, or other reservations herein provided for, but for periods not exceeding thirty years; and no natural curiosities, wonders, or objects of interest shall be leased, rented, or granted to anyone on such terms as to interfere with free access to them by the public. (Sellars 1997)
Mather was chosen to be the first director of the Park Service. His assistant, Horace Albright, became the assistant director (and would eventually become director). Early initiatives clearly laid out a dual mission for the bureau: conserving park resources and providing for their enjoyment. Although the bureau's existence emphasized the idea of preservation, the rationale for setting sites aside was for their future use and enjoyment by the general American public. For instance, automobiles, which were not permitted in Yellowstone, would now be allowed throughout the system. Roads would be built to assist tourists in accessing sites by vehicle (Sellars 1997, 55–61).
With this unified mission, the national parks changed significantly during ensuing decades. One primary change, however, was in the accessibility of new parks. For a variety of reasons, before 1916 the national parks were primarily in the western United States Although the existence of such parks demonstrated an ethical change in the American relationship with nature, it did not necessarily change the everyday lives of the majority of Americans. During the 1920s, however, the national park system added Shenandoah, Great Smoky Mountains, and Mammoth Cave National Parks in the Appalachian region but required that their lands be donated. Private donors, including John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and other philanthropists, joined with the involved states to slowly acquire and turn over to the federal government the bulk of the lands that would combine new parks that were created during the next decade (Sellers 1997, 108).
The Park Service also took on another eastern U.S.-based mandate by accepting oversight of many historic sites during the 1930s. Starting in 1890, Congress had directed the War Department to manage historic battlefields, forts, and memorials as national military parks and monuments. These included sites such as Gettysburg, Chickamauga, and Chattanooga. After succeeding Mather as director in 1929, Albright succeeded in fulfilling his predecessor's desire to have Congress move military parks to the jurisdiction of the NPS. The popular, largely eastern Page 283 | Top of Articlesites increased the Park Service's annual visitation. Over time, however, they also complicated what the service intended by carrying out “preservation.” The efforts to maintain certain aspects of the natural surroundings in Yellowstone, for instance, were a very different mission from facilitating visitors' interpretation of Pickett's Charge at the Gettysburg Battlefield.
Sources and Further Reading: Carr, Wilderness by Design; Runte, National Parks: The American Experience; Sellars, Preserving Nature in the National Parks: A History.