After a full year of hoopla and hype the National Park Service celebrates its official centennial with a big bash at Yellowstone Park, the original gem in a system that now includes 125 National Parks and Historic Sites, 79 National Monuments, 29 National Memorials, 25 National Battlefields and Military Parks, plus scores of Nature Preserves and Reserves, Recreational Areas, Scenic Rivers, Sea Shores, Lakesides, Trails, Parkways, and Special Designations like the White House and National Mall. There are now Park Service facilities in every state and within an hour’s travel of 90% of the population.
But National Parks are 50 years older than the Park Service but were haphazardly managed on sort of an ad hoc basis by the under-staffed and funded Department of the Interior and the U. S. Army. Yes, troops were the first Park Rangers after early tourists were surprised if unmolested by the Nez Piercé on their epic attempt to escape the Army to Canada. In the Yellowstone, many of them were Black Buffalo Soldiers.
An early glimmering of the idea of preserving scenic wonders came in the midst of the Civil War when in order to reward California’s loyalty to the Union—it had been a close thing—Abraham Lincoln signed into law an Act supported by Sen. John Conness and leading citizens transferring the Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Big Tree Grove to the state to “be held for public use, resort, and recreation...inalienable for all time.”
The first actual National Park was not created until 1872 when Ulysses S. Grant signed into law the Act creating Yellowstone National Park. The large, remote area in northern Wyoming, southern Montana, and a sliver of eastern Idaho had attracted national attention when the reports of the private Cook–Folsom–Peterson Expedition of 1869 and the larger semi-official Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition in 1870 detailed the wonders of its geysers, thermal springs, and the magnificent Falls at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Writer and lawyer Cornelius Hedges, a member of the latter expedition, publicly advocated for preservation of the region and had the backing of some Territorial officials.
But it was not until railroad tycoon Jay Cooke, not normally associated with selfless public advocacy, threw his considerable weight around in Congress that action was taken. Cooke was interested because he saw that he could promote access to the Park from his Northern Pacific Railway to supply passenger traffic on his railroad which was still under construction. Indeed for years after Cooke lost control of the road, the Northern Pacific flooded the East with enticing brochures and colorful posters that made the park a popular attraction to a growing middle class with disposable income and leisure time.
|Buffalo Soldiers on patrol in Yellowstone Park in the 1880's.|
Yellowstone was meant to be a singular creation. But once a precedent was set other local interests were able to access the proper powerful forces in Congress press for the creation of Parks in their area. Michigan officials and Great Lakes shipping promoters got Mackinac Island in northern Lake Huron protected when the garrison at Ft. Mackinac was in danger of being removed since another war with the British in Canada had become remote. The Island was already a resort destination. It was approved as a National Park in 1875 and its Army garrison was made its guardian. The private resort on the Island flourished while the Federal Government assumed the expense of upkeep on the Park and preservations of the Fort and scenic wonders. The park flourished for twenty years before operators of the resort began to resent Federal regulations and lobbied successfully to have the Park and fort turned over to the state of Michigan.
In 1890 Sequoia National Park was created in California and the following year Army Cavalry units took over the care of Yosemite Park, still officially owned by the state. In 1906 the Federal government assumed ownership and control of the Park.
The system that was hardly a system bumped along. Not much money was spent. Improvements were often limited to dirt roads, crude trails, and the most basic of campgrounds and picnic areas. Anything more elaborate was left to concessionaires who operated rustic inns or elegant resort hotels. But attendance and public interest grew year by year. The Sierra Club and other early conservation groups lobbied for improvements and expansions.
Things really took off when enthusiastic outdoorsman and conservationist Theodore Roosevelt fell into the presidency thanks to an assassin’s bullet in 1901. Not only did he create the United States Forest Service and National Forest system, scores of Bird Sanctuaries and Game Reserves, but he added new National Parks including Crater Lake, Mesa Verdi, and Windcave in South Dakota.
Residents of the South West had been advocating preservation of the ruins of several cliff dwellings and Pueblos which were threatened by looting pottery hunters and vandals. Another railroad, this time the Santa Fe, lent its support. These sites were considered worthy of protection and preservation, but the desolate surrounding mountains and deserts were not and gold, silver, and copper mining companies coveted the land for exploitation. That left isolated pockets that were considered too small to be designated a traditional National Park and there was no precedent for preserving archeological and historic man made sites. With Roosevelt’s support Congress passed the Antiquities Act of 1906 to give the President the authority to create National Monuments from public lands, by presidential proclamation, to protect significant natural, cultural, or scientific features.
|Devil's Tower in 1900, soon to be made the first National Monument by Theodore Roosevelt.|
The first National Monument created was Devil’s Tower in northeast Wyoming in the area of Roosevelt’s old stomping grounds as a South Dakota rancher in the area around the Black Hills. On the recommendation of a scientific and scholarly commission, several of the Native American sites were added over Roosevelt’s tenure and under his successors William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson.
This new category did not require individual action by Congress and Monuments were created from land on military reservations, National Forests, and Interior Department lands at least theoretically available for Homestead. Sometimes those proclamations clashed with local interests, especially mining and they became controversial.
Despite the expansion and a sharp spike in visitors as some parks became accessible by bus and automobile, management was still haphazard. Were the Army was not in de facto control, management and care was left to a hodge-podge of contractors and locally recruited employees often without much experience or expertise. Secretaries of the Interior under Taft and Wilson; the powerful American Civic Association, a pillar of the establishment; landscape architect Fredrick Law Olmsted; Representatives William Kent and John E. Raker of California; Senator Reed Smoot of Utah; industrialist and conservationist Stephen T. Mather; journalist Robert Sterling Yard; and California conservationist Horace M. Albright led a campaign for the establishment of a new agency under the Department of the Interior with the authority control, manage, and plan development of the National Parks. They got support from the Army, which was busy chasing Pancho Villa in Mexico on one hand and faced with the possibility of eventual entry into the Great War in Europe on the other was eager to shed its responsibilities in the Parks.
|First Park Service Director, Stephen T. Mather|
Congress finally acted and Wilson signed the National Park Service Organic Act on August 25, 1916. It brought all of the National Parks and some National Monuments under the control of the new agency. Stephen Mather, as expected was named the first director of the agency with Albright as his deputy. Heading the list of his early achievements was overseeing the creation of Grand Canyon National Park in 1919 against vehement opposition from mining interests.
Mather was respected enough as a non-partisan figure to be held over in the Republican administrations of Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge. Miraculously, he insulated the Park Service from the corruption scandals that engulf Harding’s Interior Secretary Albert Fall and other agencies of the Department. Mather created a professional civil service organization, increased the numbers of parks and national monuments, and established systematic criteria for adding new properties to the system.
Despite battle with bi-polar disorder which sometimes left him so depressed he was unable to work, with the close support of Albright Mather was able to convince Congress to make the first expansions of National Parks in the East when the Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks were authorized in 1926. He suffered a stroke in 1929 and had to retire, dying less than a year later. Albright continued his work in the Hoover administration.
A big part of the building the new Park Service was the creation and development of Park Rangers to replace the Army and assorted patronage hires and private contractors who had managed, protected, and policed the Parks. They took their name from Roger’s Rangers of the French and Indian Wars and futile search for the elusive Northwest Passage, but were inspired by Harry Yount, the Gamekeeper of Yellowstone National Park in 1880 and ’81 who patrolled for poachers and acted as a guide for tourists and an escort for visiting officials. Yount told his boss Interior Secretary Carl Schruz before he resigned in frustration at being overwhelmed by a job to big for a single man, that the Park needed to “…be protected by officers stationed at different points of the park with authority to enforce observance of laws of the park [and for] maintenance and trails.”
|Gerald R. Ford as a Seasonal Ranger at Yellowstone.|
Mather described the plethora of duties and responsibilities of the Rangers:
They are a fine, earnest, intelligent, and public-spirited body of men, these rangers. Though small in number, their influence is large. Many and long are the duties heaped upon their shoulders. If a trail is to be blazed, it is “send a ranger.” If an animal is floundering in the snow, a ranger is sent to pull him out; if a bear is ranger.” If a Dude wants to know the why, if a Sagebrusher is puzzled about a road, it is “ask the ranger.” Everything the ranger knows, he will tell you, except about himself.
The earliest Rangers wore the civilian gear of a woodsman, hunter, or logger. Senior Rangers, Park Superintendents and the like, could be distinguished mostly by wearing a tie, polished boots, and a hat without holes in it. Soon they adopted military style uniforms, kaki and later green with the same soft felt campaign hats as the Doughboys of World War I. By the late 20’s the uniform was made sharper for public duties—a stiff brimmed gray Stetson replaced the soft felt, green jacket and trousers, and a gray shirt with a tie. Basically the same recognizable and iconic uniform is still in use today for both male and female Rangers. Summer uniforms now feature gray short sleeve, open collar shirts and straw versions of the Stetson or green baseball style caps for work details.
The election of Franklin D. Roosevelt heralded a new era for the Park Service. In one of his last major acts Herbert Hoover signed the Reorganization Act of 1933 which gave his incoming successor the power to reorganize the Executive Branch of the government. Later that summer Albright brought the FDR a proposal for sweeping changes to his agency. Roosevelt approved two executive orders not only transferred to the National Park Service all the War Department historic sites—battlefields, some cemeteries and fortifications—but also those National Monuments which had been managed by the Department of Agriculture. In addition the monuments and parks around Washington D.C. which had been run by an independent office were brought under the Department including the Washington Monument, Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, the National Mall, Lafayette Park, and the grounds of the White House. For the first time Park Rangers were active and interacting with hundreds of thousands of visitors a year in an urban setting. In the wake of the reorganization the Park System expanded by adding 12 natural areas in 9 western states and Alaska and 57 historical areas located in 17 predominantly eastern states and the District of Columbia.
It was Albright’s last hurrah at the helm. Roosevelt appointee Arno B. Cammerer, a career department official and former top aide to both Mather and Albright took over. He would remain in charge until 1940 despite clashes with Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, a top New Dealer with a more political agenda. He began to survey and record historic sites and buildings outside the existing parks, and worked with Congress to pass the Historic Sites Act as well as a law establishing the National Park Foundation to privately raise funds for Park acquisitions and improvements. Several more sites of all types were added including many in the East and closer to heavy population centers.
|A CCC crew constructing a small timber trail bridge in Acadia National Park in Maine|
The Parks really got a boost when the New Deal came into full swing. Park improvement projects including road and bridge construction, trail development, visitors centers, campgrounds, piers and docks, and interpretive museums were built by the Works Projects Administration (WPA) and especially by the Civilian Conservation Corps. At the program's peak in 1935, the Service had 118 CCC camps assigned to National Park System areas, with approximately 120,000 enrollees and 6,000 supervisors. All of that work really transformed many Parks and the improvements can still be seen and used today.
As a result of greater access to the parks by automobile and the increase in facilities within easy reach of many citizens, over the Depression years Park attendance jumped from two million annual visitors in 1933 to more than 15 million in 1940. In fact by stimulating travel and tourism, the National Park system contributed to the long climb to economic recovery.
Cammerer suffered a heart attack in 1940, many said brought about by his clashed with Ickes and had to resign. He was dead a year later. His replacement Newton B. Drury, and advertising executive and leader of the Save the Redwoods League was the first Director not to come up through the ranks of the Park Service. He was immediately faced with the reality of World War II mobilization and a massive shift in spending priorities by the Roosevelt administration. Money for further expansion of the system evaporated. The CCC wound down and was eliminated, the young men one destined for its ranks drafted into the armed services instead.
Much of Drury’s time was spent eking out the most of his diminishing resources, fighting further cuts in Congress, dealing with labor shortages as his Park Rangers and civilian employees were syphoned off into the military or into industrial defense production. There was also a constant battle to keep the Parks from being invaded for their resources in the name of defense production including mining across the Southwest and lumbering. The military also pressed for use of Park lands for training camps, air fields, and even artillery and bombing ranges.
Even after war’s end, the mindset of the Truman administration was far less friendly to traditional conservation values and wanted to use Park lands more like the National Forests which were managed more for their resources than for their preservation as natural places. Money for expansion and maintenance did not come flooding back from the Federal Budget. At the same time after a lull in the war time rationing years, Americans were hitting the roads again in droves and the National Parks and Monuments were a popular destination. Annual visits soared again and the parks were unable to update to accommodate them, or even to adequately maintain their infrastructure.
In 1951 Drury clashed with Interior Secretary Newton B. Drury over his support for the Echo Dam project which would have flooded canyons of the Colorado River in Dinosaur National Park. It was part of a proposed system of dams on the Colorado and Green Rivers for hydro-electric generation. Drury resigned in protest and helped rally massive opposition to the project from across the Conservation movement. After year of protest, Congress removed the Echo Canon project but approved the construction of the other dams in the system. 1956 legislation forbad building such projects in the future on Park Land. It was seen as an early victory of a resurgent conservation movement.
After a short interim, Conrad L. Wirth became Director in December of 1951. He was park professional and a member of the Park service since reorganization. He found the incoming Eisenhower administration mildly friendlier to the Park System and conservation concerns as the economy shifted into an unprecedented extended boom. Wirth began his term with a systematic survey of Park Service facilities and found them badly neglected and inadequate to still soaring public usage.
As a result in 1955 Wirth proposed a decade-long program of capital improvements, to be funded as a single program by Congress aimed at modernizing all Parks properties by the Service’s 50th Anniversary in 1966. The program, dubbed Mission 66 represented the most significant re-allocation of resources since the Reorganization and the first capital development since the CCC days. It also represented a change in philosophy.
The Park Service wanted to create facilities that were modern and up to date, abandoning the rustic style that had been its trademark. New visitor’s centers and museums were sleek, low-strung, and apt examples of Mid-Century modern design and architectural tastes. A controversial shift from showcasing nature to accommodating visitors who were increasingly using the parks as family vacation destinations led to road and highway building in the parks and the development of some large scale resort-like developments reaching the proportions of new towns in popular destinations Parks like Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Sequoia.
The project also involved for the first time large scale urban redevelopment. In St. Louis, Missouri the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial cleared 40 blocks of crumbling warehouses, business, and residential slums for a landscaped open space to showcase the Gateway Arch, purposefully designed tourist attraction monument. Similar urban clearance razed hundreds of buildings in Philadelphia, several of them of historic significance to create the Independence Mall to better display a resorted Independence Hall at the heart of the Independence National Historical Park.
Somewhat ironically considering the destruction of historic building in these projects, Wirth’s revival of the Historic American Buildings Survey which had been suspended since the War years let to the creation of the National Historic Landmarks and National Register of Historic Places programs in 1960.
An emphasis on developing recreational use of the Parks spurred development of National Seashore and National Recreation Area programs and the additions of Cape Cod, Point Reyes, Fire Island, and Padre Island into the system.
Wirth retired in 1963 as his grand project neared its culmination. He recommended his deputy, George Hartzog as his successor. He started as an attorney for the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management and moved over to the Park Service in 1945. He had been superintendent in charge of development of the Jefferson Expansion park in St. Louis. He served under an administration even friendlier to conservation than Eisenhower’s. Interior Secretary Stuart Udall was an enthusiast for natural preservation. Together they pushed for the development of included 62 new parks, the adoption National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, and the Bible Amendment to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act that led to establishment of the Alaska parks. He also aggressively pushed forward with the creation of urban parks, especially Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore near Gary, Indiana and Chicago.
In 1969 under the Nixon Administration budget, the Park Service faced its first significant cuts in years. Hartzog argued that the cuts were so severe that they would force cutbacks in service to the public. To prove his point he closed popular facilities such as the Washington Monument and Grand Canyon National Park for two days a week arguing that he couldn’t afford full staffing. The move inconvenienced and angered tens of thousands of tourists and enraged members of Congress and the conservative press who called the political gambit the Washington Monument Syndrome. None the less, it worked, and public pressure resulted in the restoration of the cuts. But an outraged Nixon forced Hartzog to resign.
It was the beginning of a long struggle between the rising expectations of the rapidly growing Ecology Movement on one hand which was supplanting traditional conservationism and rising conservative hostility on a number of fronts. Conservation and the Parks had generally enjoyed bi-partisan support but the rise of environmentalism, which was evidenced in changing priorities and educational programs by the Park Service, was seen as an attack on American industry. Demands were made to open the Parks again for extractive exploitation, especially oil and gas exploitation and proposals that would have leveled much of the Colorado Rockies for oil shale while environmentalists were demanding ever-stricter protections from damage done to parks by even peripheral development.
Regan Administration Interior Secretary James Watt of Wyoming, was a born again Christian who believed that the end of days was imminent. In his view, with the apocalypse looming there was no need to conserve resources, but people had a full right to consume as much as they desired since there would be no human inheritors of the Earth. I am not kidding, Watt really professed to believe that and made it the cornerstone of his policy, which put him at odds with the non-political, professional management of the Park System. Luckily public outrage and Congressional opposition were enough to block most of Watt’s most ambitious plans, but the battle was far from over.
|The Lincoln Memorial and Park Service properties across the country were closed to visitors during the Government Shutdown of 2013.|
The Park Service became an annual prime target of Congressional budget hawks of both parties who sought to slash discretionary spending in pursuit of the ever elusive balanced budget and debt reduction. Budget lines actually fell in some years or more often were frozen failing to keep up with inflation and resulting in massive de facto cuts. Funds for land acquisition were slashed to near zero, capital projects halted, and maintenance deferred. Meanwhile infrastructure in the Parks has taken a beating to the point that roads and bridges have had to be closed as unsafe. In this fiscal year, after a slight uptick, $90 million in general deferred maintenance and $28 million in road and transportation repair, the total deferred maintenance stands at an estimated at nearly $12 billion dollars with no relief in sight unless Republicans lose control of Congress.
Beyond penny pinching, two other issues have made conservatives increasingly hostile to the Park Service. It turns out that National Parks are teaching visitors, including children that evolution over eons and millennia is accepted science. That means the Earth is more than 6000 years old and that humans evolved from earlier species of apes. Worse, the service acknowledges global climate change and has developed special educational programs to demonstrate it. That makes the Park Service a prime target of the war on science.
|The war on public land nearly got hot early this year when armed alleged Patriot Militia siezed the Malheur Wildlife Refuge.|
Finally, a one-time fringe theory that the Federal Government has no right to retain public land, including Parks and that they should be turned over to the states, or even to counties. This has dovetailed with the libertarian and Tea Party horror at the supposed “tragedy of the commons”. At its most benign it has resulted in moves by the House of Representatives to sell all or parts of the National Park system along with Forest Service and other public lands and in the state of Utah officially demanding Federal lands be turned over to the states. On the more extreme level it played out in the armed seizure of the National Fish and Wildlife Service managed Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon by right-wing militia earlier this year.
Countering this trend Barak Obama has been the most supportive President of the Park Service since Lyndon Johnson and has dueled repeatedly with Congress about it. In 2013 the Service was front and center in the government shutdown crisis when much like Hartzog back in 1969 Director Jonathan Jarvis shut down monuments on the National Mall and other Park attractions nationally. Even when the crisis passed and the facilities reopened, thousands of employees were furloughed.
Meanwhile the President used his authority to create new federally protected land in the system more frequently than any President since Roosevelt. He has authorized 20 new Park System units and approved 5 more pending land acquisitions. Many of these sites were highly controversial. Many of these sites reflect an interest in broadening the historic scope of Park Service sites to include more minorities and urban experiences. Additions under Obama have included Castle Mountains National Monument in the Mojave Desert that checkmated further development of a devastating open pit gold mining in the area; the unique Manhattan Project Historic Park with separate units in Tennessee, New Mexico, and Washington state; the Pullman National Monument in Chicago; the Valles Caldera National Preserve in New Mexico; the World War I Memorial in Washington, D.C.; the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument in Ohio; the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument in Maryland; the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument in California; the Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park, a significant industrial and labor history site in New Jersey; the Fort Monroe National Monument in Virginia; the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in D.C.; the President William Jefferson Clinton Birthplace Home National Historic Site in Arkansas; and the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial; and just days before the 100th anniversary the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in Maine, now the Monument in area east of the Mississippi.
Yet the struggle with Congress to adequately fund the Park System is ongoing. Which is why the Park Service and the Obama Administration has so heavily promoted the centennial of the Park service over the past year, kicking off with the annual Independence Day Concert and fireworks broadcast from the National Mall last year. It has been a full year of special events and programs at Park facilities across the country, television public service announcements, social media promotions, magazine and newspaper articles, coffee table picture books, documentaries, and a special series of postage stamps. It has been an unprecedented public relations push aimed at getting public support and neutralizing right-wing anti-park propaganda. And it all culminated with free admission to all parks, special events around the country, the big show at Yellowstone Park, and a living Park Service logo by employees near the World War II Memorial in Washington.
Hey, I was impressed.