CURRICULUM / Ideas / National Parks

Part 5: Great Nature, 1933-1945


As the 1920s ended, the United States was about to enter two of the most frightening decades of the 20th century. An economic cataclysm would threaten the foundation of American society, and a war would threaten the existence of freedom throughout the world.

During those dark years, the national parks would both thrive and undergo a series of dramatic changes. A new president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, would vastly expand the number of parks and transform the very notion of what a national park could be. And a young biologist, George Melendez Wright, would insist that the preservation of wildlife is as important as the preservation of scenery.



When Horace Albright took over as director of the National Park Service in 1929, he wanted to secure even more places under Park Service protection. One goal was to transfer the national military parks, battlefields, and monuments away from the War Department and Department of Agriculture, and into the national park system.

He saw his chance to realize that dream in April 1933, when newly inaugurated president Franklin D. Roosevelt invited him on a day trip to Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. On the way back, Albright rode with the president and pointed out sites important to the Second Battle of Bull Run in the Civil War, which led to a broader discussion of other battlefields and historic sites in the area.

When they got back to the White House, the president asked Albright to put his proposal in writing. Within days, Roosevelt signed two executive orders that would transform the Park Service. The agency was given responsibility for more than 20 military parks, historic battlefields, and monuments.

Under the new plan, the Park Service was also expected to protect more than a dozen non-military historic sites. Among them were the Statue of Liberty and Mount Rushmore, as well as many of the District of Columbia's most hallowed places, including the Lincoln Memorial and the National Mall. National parks now preserved more than natural wonders and wildlife; they embraced the idea of America itself.


George Melendez Wright was working in Yosemite as assistant park naturalist when he became convinced that the park managers had overlooked a responsibility which Wright called "the very heart of the national park system:" preserving wildlife in its natural state.

The young Wright managed to persuade his superiors to authorize a scientific survey of wildlife conditions in the parks. In the summer of 1930, he set off with two colleagues on an 11,000-mile tour of the western parks. Their task would take them four consecutive years.

Everywhere he went, Wright discovered disturbing evidence that the equilibrium of nature was out of kilter in the parks. Coyotes, wolves and mountain lions – even badgers, hawks and owls – were routinely shot as unwelcome predators. Elk, deer, and antelope were being fed hay in the wintertime, and buffalo were kept in corrals like domestic cows.

At Yellowstone, rangers stomped on the eggs of white pelicans because it was feared that grown pelicans deprived anglers of too many fish. Bears were encouraged to beg for handouts from tourists.

Wright proposed a radically new policy: unless threatened with extinction within a park, each native species should be left to "carry on its struggle for existence unaided."

Wright also called for other changes, including the end of winter feedings and the closing of open-pit garbage dumps that attracted bears. Most park managers were unconvinced, but Horace Albright, intrigued by the surveys, established a new wildlife division in 1933. He named George Melendez Wright, only 29 years old, as its chief.

By 1936, the division employed 27 biologists, all working to promote Wright's vision that park policies had to take the animals and plants into account, not just the tourists. Wright's personal interest in Yellowstone's rare trumpeter swans turned into a crusade to save the birds from extinction. He succeeded in creating a special wildlife refuge that ultimately brought the swans back from the brink.

Wright also supported the call to establish South Florida's Everglades as a national park, warning that if action was not taken soon all the wildlife there would become extinct. Thanks to the efforts of landscape architect Ernest Coe and journalist Marjory Stoneman Douglas, as well as the support of Horace Albright, Everglades National Park would become the first national park to be created solely for the preservation of animals and plants and the environment that sustains them.

In February 1936, on the way back from a meeting in Big Bend National Park in southwest Texas, Wright and Park Service colleague Roger Till were killed in an automobile accident. George Melendez Wright, only 31 years old, would be remembered as the savior of wildlife in America's national parks.

Without him, the Park Service's interest in wildlife waned. By 1939, of the 27 biologists who had been under Wright's supervision, only nine were left.


Franklin Delano Roosevelt's deep love of the outdoors was inspired by boyhood hunting, fishing and hiking expeditions on his family's country estate in New York. He considered himself a conservationist in the mold of his famous cousin, Theodore Roosevelt. With another Roosevelt as president, the national parks once again had a great friend in the White House. Adding historic sites and battlefields to the national park system was merely a first step in the reorganization FDR was contemplating. But the Great Depression, a much bigger issue, demanded his urgent attention.

The Depression affected everyone in the United States. One out of every four American wage earners was out of work and many people wondered where their next meal would come from. Factories shut down, farms were foreclosed, and unemployed young men, concerned that they had become a burden to their families, roamed the countryside by the hundreds of thousands.


Among the many programs Roosevelt's New Deal created to combat unemployment was the Civilian Conservation Corps. The CCC was especially dear to the president's heart because of its focus on conservation.


The CCC put young men to work in national forests, state parks and national parks, clearing brush and replanting forests, fighting fires, building visitor shelters and ranger cabins, and improving campsites and trails.

Horace Albright was part of the early planning for the CCC, and because the Park Service had projects ready to go, it was given a lead role in the new program. Within three months, 1,000 CCC camps were up and running, with nearly 300,000 young men at work in them.

For many, it was their first time away from home – and their first real encounter with the natural world. The young men were paid $30 a month, most of which was sent home to their families.

Besides the conservation work they did, the men also participated in organized sports, hobby clubs, discussion groups, and classes meant to prepare them for getting jobs once they left the camps.

In all, more than 3 million men found work with the Civilian Conservation Corps during the course of the Depression. Members of the CCC were responsible for building more than 97,000 miles of fire roads in national forests, combating soil erosion on 84 million acres of farmland, and planting 3 billion trees.

Some $218 million was pumped into projects in the national parks, including trails and buildings that remain to this day. 


Despite hard times, the number of park visitors continued to rise during the 1930s, from roughly 3 million a year at the start of the decade to 15.5 million in 1939. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was intent on setting aside even more places for people to visit.

He created Isle Royale National Park in the northwestern corner of Lake Superior, and used his authority as president to create numerous national monuments that would eventually be elevated to park status. Among them:

  • Joshua Tree in southern California, named for the distinctive plants whose silhouette Mormon pioneers believed looked like the prophet Joshua raising his arms to beckon them forward.
  • The Dry Tortugas, a cluster of seven tiny islands 70 miles off the southernmost tip of Florida. On one island sits the largest brick fortification in the world: Fort Jefferson, used during the Civil War as a prison for Union Army deserters and for Dr. Samuel Mudd, who was exiled there as punishment for treating the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of President Lincoln.
  • Capitol Reef in Utah, where the 100-mile Waterpocket Fold exposes a panoply of differently colored rock formations that the Navajo Indians called the "Land of the Sleeping Rainbow."
  • The Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, home to the largest seal and sea lion breeding colonies in the nation, as well as more than 100 uniquely native species including the California brown pelican.


No one was more willing to take on entrenched interests than the president's quick-tempered Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes. Ickes was one of Roosevelt's closest – and most controversial – advisers; Horace Albright later called him "the meanest man who ever sat in a Cabinet office in Washington" and "the best Secretary of the Interior we ever had."

Ickes fought battles on every front. He abolished the department's segregated lunchrooms and instructed the national parks in the South to ignore local Jim Crow laws requiring separate facilities for blacks. Ickes was also tirelessly effective in advocating new parks, regardless of the opposition.

In 1937, Franklin Roosevelt and Harold Ickes entered into a park controversy that had been raging for 30 years. On the Olympic peninsula west of Seattle, verdant rain forests contained the largest specimens of Douglas fir, red cedar, western hemlock and Sitka spruce in the world. For centuries, the area was the homeland of native tribes like the Makah and the Quinault, the Hoh and Skokomish.

In 1909, Theodore Roosevelt had used the Antiquities Act to set aside 615,000 acres as Mount Olympus National Monument. Since then, every bill introduced in Congress to make it into a national park had been defeated, caught in a seemingly endless battle between the Forest Service and the Park Service.

Meanwhile, loggers were approaching the last virgin stands of rain forest. The president decided to assess the situation for himself – but his visit was arranged by the Forest Service and its allies in the lumber industry, who were intent on convincing Roosevelt that a national park would ruin an already suffering local economy.

The Forest Service ensured that Park Service officials were excluded from the invitation list. They scheduled a logging train to rumble past the president's lodge during his breakfast, a reminder of the jobs at stake. And they moved a sign marking the national forest boundary, giving the impression that a heavily logged area was not on federal land. "I hope the son-of-a-bitch who is responsible for this is roasting in hell," Roosevelt said when he saw the devastation, not realizing that he was looking at a national forest and his guide was the forest supervisor.

When Roosevelt learned about the deception, it only spurred his desire to protect the forest. On June 29, 1938, Congress converted the national monument to Olympic National Park and gave Roosevelt the authority to expand its boundaries. The president saved two of the most threatened valleys by stripping an additional 187,000 acres away from the Forest Service.


In 1938, a book entitled Sierra Nevada, the John Muir Trail arrived at Harold Ickes' office. It was filled with stunning images of California's Kings River Canyon region captured by an aspiring photographer named Ansel Adams. When President Roosevelt was shown the book, he liked it so much he quickly appropriated it for his own. (See sidebar video.)

Ansel Adams was on his way to becoming an influential photographer for the cause of national parks. The sensitive only child of a patrician San Francisco family, Adams first visited Yosemite when he was 14. He was transfixed by the waterfalls and rock faces and later wrote, "I knew my destiny when I first experienced Yosemite."

In the 1920s, after two long hiking trips into the Kings Canyon country, he became convinced that such spectacular beauty deserved federal protection. Both John Muir and Stephen Mather had battled unsuccessfully to protect the area in the past, but Adams and the Sierra Club believed they had an ally with the power to make the dream come true: Interior Secretary Harold Ickes.

Ickes saw in Kings Canyon his chance to create a new kind of park: a "wilderness park" in which roads, hotels, and other large developments would be banned. He threw himself into the fight against the forces that instead wanted dams, irrigation projects, grazing, timber harvesting, and elaborate tourist resorts.

Through a series of shrewd maneuvers, Ickes turned one private-interest group against the other, waged ceaseless battle against the Forest Service's efforts to retain control over the land, and persuaded conservation groups not to abandon their support because of the compromises he felt he had to make.

But even Ickes' political mastery was not enough, until the park bill's fiercest congressional opponent tried to ensnare the bill's sponsor, California Republican Bud Gearhart, in a phony bribery scandal. Indignant colleagues rallied behind Gearhart and his bill, which now passed easily.

On March 4, 1940, President Roosevelt signed the law creating Kings Canyon National Park, a roadless park that he would never be able to visit in person because of his inability to walk unaided. Instead, he would appreciate its magnificence through the photographs of Ansel Adams.


In August 1941, Ickes put Ansel Adams on the Interior Department's payroll at $22.22 a day, and told him to bring back photographs of all the parks. Over the next eight years, Adams would compile thousands of images of the national parks and visit every one of them except the Everglades.

Just a few months after Adams began his travels, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States was thrust into another world war. Like everything else in American life, the national parks now found themselves subordinated to the war effort. The CCC camps closed down, as the men who had been working in the parks became soldiers and shipped out overseas. Park budgets were drastically cut and pressures mounted to open the parks to timber cutting, mining, and grazing.

Harold Ickes did his best to minimize the damage. When pressure mounted to close the national parks for the duration of the war, he argued that in times of national stress and sorrow the people needed precisely what the national parks could offer.

When Ickes informed Roosevelt that a proposed bombing range would endanger the breeding grounds of the rare trumpeter swan that George Melendez Wright had worked so hard to preserve, the president ruled in favor of the birds. "The verdict is for the Trumpeter Swans and against the Army," Roosevelt declared. "The Army must find a different nesting place!"

With the onset of war, the number of park visitors plummeted from a record 21 million in 1941 to 9 million the next year, and then to 6.8 million in 1943. Many park rangers changed uniforms and went off to war.

Despite cutbacks, the parks still had a role to play. At Mount Rainier, units of what would become the 10th Mountain Division were taught how to survive high altitudes and cold weather. Desert training took place in Joshua Tree National Park, and military equipment and clothing were tested at other parks.

War planners also realized that national parks could provide rest and recuperation for battle-weary soldiers. Rest camps went up in Sequoia, Carlsbad Caverns and the Grand Canyon. Mount McKinley National Park in Alaska was transformed into an Army recreation camp where soldiers stationed in the Aleutian Islands could fish, hike, ski, skate and relax. In 1943, 1.6 million soldiers found solace in a national park – one-quarter of the parks' total visitors.

That same year, Ansel Adams interrupted his photographic survey and went to the Owens Valley of California to document the Manzanar internment camp.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt had signed an executive order requiring all people of Japanese descent living on the West Coast – even those who were United States citizens – to be sent to internment camps for the duration of the war.

Among the people uprooted from their homes and sent to the camps was Chiura Obata, a California artist whose work was inspired by the beauty of Yosemite. In some cases internment separated families; Iwao and Hanaya Masushita, a husband and wife who had been living in Seattle, were held in different camps for most of the war.

Ansel Adams was troubled by the government's internment policy. His photographs of Manzanar were turned into a book entitled Born Free and Equal that was published in 1944, when the U.S. was still at war with Japan. Many people thought the book was disloyal to the American cause, and it sold poorly.



Back in the 1920s, Horace Albright had dreamed of preserving the Teton mountain range and the valley next to it as a national park. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. had been a great supporter of this dream. But when Congress created Grand Teton National Park in 1929, it left the valley alone and set aside only the mountains.


Undeterred, Rockefeller continued anonymously buying up land in the valley with the intention of donating it all for the park's expansion. But Wyoming politicians, who had learned of Rockefeller's scheme, did everything they could to thwart his plan, not wanting Washington to tell them what they could and could not do with their land.

Although Albright was now a private citizen, he was more determined than ever to see his dream fulfilled. In 1943, with Congress still unwilling to enlarge the park, he, Rockefeller and Harold Ickes decided that their only hope lay in the president's authority to create a national monument under the Antiquities Act.

Rockefeller sent a letter to the White House, advising President Roosevelt that he was about to sell his land in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. He explained that for 15 years he had been trying unsuccessfully to give this land as a gift to the federal government in the hope that it would be added to the national park system.

The letter spurred the president into action. On March 15, 1943, Roosevelt signed an executive order establishing Jackson Hole National Monument, placing 221,610 acres of public land on the eastern border of Grand Teton National Park under Park Service control.

In Wyoming, the response was a declaration of political war. Roosevelt's action followed "the general lines of Adolf Hitler's seizure of Austria," wrote one journalist. Wyoming's governor threatened to use state police against any national park official attempting to assume authority in the new monument. Hoping to draw attention to their cause, some armed local ranchers – led by the aging movie star Wallace Beery – defiantly herded 500 head of cattle across the monument without a permit.

In Washington, Wyoming's delegation pushed through a bill abolishing the national monument and turning the land back to the Forest Service. Roosevelt vetoed it.

The state of Wyoming then went to court, claiming that Jackson Hole lacked the objects of scientific or historic interest necessary for national monument status. Postcards showing a ramshackle outhouse were circulated with a message saying, "these are some of the historic structures here; this is one known to have been occupied several times by Horace M. Albright." A federal court dismissed the case.

In 1945, Roosevelt died and World War II ended, but the battle of Jackson Hole roared on. In 1950, after it became clear that the bitter fight would never end in unconditional surrender by either side, a compromise was worked out. Teton County would be reimbursed for lost property taxes; ranchers' existing grazing rights were grandfathered in; and the migratory elk herd would be managed by both the Park Service and the state, which would be permitted to stage supervised hunts.

In return, the bulk of Jackson Hole National Monument became part of a vastly enlarged Grand Teton National Park. Included in it was the 30,000 acres John D. Rockefeller, Jr. had been trying so hard to give away.

A provision in the agreement banned future presidents from ever again using executive action to establish national monuments in Wyoming, except by the express permission of Congress. Wyoming – the state with the distinction of having the world's first national park, Yellowstone, and the first national monument, Devils Tower, now had another distinction: the only state where the Antiquities Act is null and void.


In 1939, the world-renowned contralto Marian Anderson had been denied the opportunity to perform in Constitution Hall, the 4,000-seat Washington, D.C. auditorium controlled by the Daughters of the American Revolution, because of the color of her skin.

At the urging of Eleanor Roosevelt, Harold Ickes quickly issued Anderson permission to sing at a different venue: the Lincoln Memorial, a recent addition to the national park system.

The concert was free and drew a crowd of 75,000 of all races and creeds. After being introduced by Ickes, Anderson stepped to the microphone and began her program.

Her first song was "America." In light of the events that had brought her to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Anderson made two changes to the words. Instead of, "My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing," Anderson substituted "to thee I sing," subtly altering the context from simple praise into an appeal to the nation's higher ideals. And she thought the final phrase of the first verse so important, she repeated it a second time: "From every mountainside, let freedom ring."

Nearly 25 years later, Anderson would again sing from the Lincoln Memorial's steps, just before Martin Luther King Jr.'s iconic speech in which he too would intone, "let freedom ring."