CURRICULUM / Ideas / National Parks

Part 6: The Morning of Creation, 1946-1980

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Since its beginnings in the mid-19th century, the national park idea had embraced two equally important yet apparently contradictory goals: to preserve America's special places in their natural conditions forever; and to keep them open and accessible for the enjoyment of all Americans.

Early park leaders had glossed over any philosophical conflicts by arguing that the best way to protect the parks was to build public support for them by encouraging more visitors.

But with the end of World War II, an increasingly affluent and mobile nation would place increasing demands on the parks, severely testing the balancing act between preservation and use.

The very definition of what constituted a national park would be challenged and expanded. A new park would be created in the backyard of one of the nation's fastest-growing cities; while far to the north, in the nation's "last frontier," the park idea would be invigorated for a new generation.


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A STRAIN ON THE SYSTEM

Before the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 plunged the United States into World War II, half a million people a year had visited Yellowstone. But wartime gasoline rationing and railroad travel restrictions soon pushed the annual number of visitors down to 61,696.

In 1946, with the war finally over and restrictions lifted, attendance quadrupled from 189,000 to 807,000. Two years later, it would cross the one-million mark.

But the people who flocked to Yellowstone found that there weren't enough campgrounds or hotels to accommodate them, and other park facilities were in bad shape. By 1950, nearly 32 million Americans were heading for their national parks each year, and the entire park system was under strain. 

PROTECTING THE PREDATOR

In the summer of 1922, a young college student from Moorhead, Minnesota named Adolph Murie arrived at Mount McKinley National Park in Alaska. He was one of only seven tourists who showed up that year, and he was there to help his older brother Olaus, a biologist, conduct a study of caribou migrations.

Inspired by his five weeks in Alaska, Murie pursued a doctoral degree in biology. George Melendez Wright recruited him for the Park Service's newly formed Wildlife Division.

By the 1940s, Murie had made a name for himself as a top-notch field biologist, but his views on the direction of park policies often put him in conflict with his superiors. At Olympic National Park, where wolves had been hunted to extinction years earlier, he called for their reintroduction. No one listened.

At Yellowstone, he spent two years studying the park's coyotes and then issued a report opposing the park policy of hunting the predators. Yellowstone's superintendent was so upset, he shelved the report and nearly got Murie fired.

Murie was dispatched to Mount McKinley in Alaska, where he embarked on the first in-depth study of wolves ever undertaken. Despite a Park Service policy against the extermination of any animal species, wolves had been systematically eliminated at many national parks. Alaska was virtually the only place left in the United States where wolves still existed, and many Alaskans felt the animals should be wiped out there, too.

At McKinley, Murie walked more than 1,700 miles gathering data in the park. He analyzed more than 1,000 samples of wolf droppings to determine the predators' eating habits, and studied the skulls of Dall sheep to determine the age and health of the animals when they died.

He would continue his study for nearly a decade, moving his wife and children to a remote cabin in the park and temporarily adopting a wolf pup he named Wags, so he could study its growth and development.

The report Murie produced would become a landmark in understanding wolves. But his conclusion – that wolves actually strengthen sheep and caribou herds by culling out the sick and the weak – was denounced by hunting groups as "pro-wolf propaganda."

When federal Fish and Wildlife Service officers initiated a campaign of killing wolves throughout the rest of Alaska, pressure mounted for the park to eradicate its wolves, too. The Park Service agreed to a limited wolf-control program, but the person selected to oversee it was none other than Adolph Murie, who kept the number of kills to the barest minimum.

And when the sheep herd rebounded as Murie had predicted, the Park Service quietly instituted a ban on all wolf killings. McKinley's wolves had survived thanks to the efforts of one man.

THE PARKS VS. THE MOST DANGEROUS ANIMAL

By 1950, the battle over the construction of dams in the national parks had been raging for 50 years, pitting Americans who wanted dams built for irrigation and city water supplies against those who wanted national parks protected from development.

John Muir's failed attempt to save the beautiful Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemit had galvanized the nascent conservation movement into pushing for creation of the National Park Service, to make sure nothing like the loss of Hetch Hetchy would ever happen again.

In the aftermath of World War II, as the populations of states in the arid West began to skyrocket, the pressure for more dams intensified. Plans were drawn up for $9 billion in dam projects, including two in a remote corner of Utah and Colorado, where the Green and Yampa rivers converge in a place known as Echo Park.

But Echo Park was also the site of Dinosaur National Monument, first set aside in 1915 to safeguard an important discovery of prehistoric bones, and expanded in the 1930s to include the dramatic sandstone canyons upstream. The few people who had visited the monument or paddled through its network of canyons considered it almost sacred.

Even though the Park Service opposed the dams, President Harry Truman and his Secretary of the Interior supported building them. But lessons had been learned from the battle over Hetch Hetchy. This time, even more people were willing to stand up for the protection of their national parks.

One of these people was Harold Bradley, a retired chemistry professor who made it his mission to prevent Dinosaur National Monument from suffering the same fate as the Hetch Hetchy Valley.

WEARING OUT THE SCENERY

By the mid-1950s, the number of Americans crowding into their national parks each year reached close to 62 million. Most of the visitors arrived by car, and the parks weren't ready for them.

In Yosemite, meadows had been paved for parking lots and campgrounds were overcrowded. "The people are wearing out the scenery," said one park official. The situation was the same across the park system. To make matters worse, staff levels and budgets had not increased since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

As President Dwight D. Eisenhower pushed plans through Congress to spend $25 billion over 10 years to build an interstate highway system, the new Park Service director, Colin Wirth, proposed a similar 10-year plan for the parks. He named the ambitious project "Mission 66," timing its completion to coincide with the agency's 50th anniversary in 1966.

MISSION 66

Wirth called for spending $787 million, more than half for new construction and the rest for repairs, better maintenance and more staff. Once the president agreed, work began almost immediately. Roads were fixed, sewer systems upgraded, campgrounds improved, and visitor centers added.

The visitor centers were modern structures which brought museums, restrooms, and information offices together under one roof. Before Mission 66 was through, 110 of them would be built.

But many of the parks' oldest allies became Mission 66's harshest critics. They hated the increased development, and the new buildings reminded them of suburban shopping centers. Environmentalist David Brower and the Sierra Club opposed highway construction, particularly a plan to pave the old Tioga Road in the high country of Yosemite.

In the end, though, the road was built, and some Sierra Club members began to question the entire premise of helping more people visit the parks. John Muir had argued that in order for people to value their national parks, they had to experience them firsthand. But could too many visitors actually ruin the parks?

The controversy would forever tarnish some of the real accomplishments of Mission 66. From then on, the emerging environmental movement would be as likely to confront the National Park Service as to support it.

But the American people continued to flock to their national parks. Going to the parks was becoming an American rite of passage – journeys creating memories that would last a lifetime.

STEWART UDALL & THE EXPANSION OF THE PARKS

Throughout the 1960s, Stewart Udall would serve as Secretary of the Interior to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. He would oversee the most ambitious program of creating new parks since the time of Franklin Roosevelt.

The pace of population growth and development in the West gave Udall a sense of urgency. "What we save now," he said, "may be all we save."

He joined forces with the Sierra Club to push for creation of Redwood National Park, along the northern coast of California, home to the tallest trees in the world. By the 1960s, logging had already cleared 85 percent of the original redwood forest. The new national park saved half of what remained.

In West Texas, Udall oversaw the creation of Guadalupe Mountains National Park in an area that had once been the home of grizzly bears, wolves, and buffalo – as well as the Mescalero Apaches before they, too, were driven out.

Udall also supported North Cascades National Park, a roadless wilderness on the border of Washington and Canada containing nearly a third of all the remaining glaciers in the Lower 48 states.

And in the stark desert of eastern Utah, where the Green River meets the Colorado amidst a seemingly endless maze of canyons, he helped create Canyonlands National Park.

But it wasn't just places with canyons and glaciers and tall trees Udall wanted to save. He persuaded Congress to set aside other parts of the American landscape and place them under Park Service protectio

  • National seashores, from Cape Cod in Massachusetts to Point Reyes in California.
  • National lakeshores, such as Indiana Dunes and Pictured Rocks in the Great Lakes.
  • The Ozark National Scenic Riverway in southwestern Missouri, the first in a string of rivers that would have portions kept in their free-flowing, natural conditions.
  • National trails, such as the Appalachian Trail.

Udall also championed the creation of Biscayne National Monument near fast-growing Miami, Florida. The monument later became a national park.

Interior Secretary Udall appointed George Hartzog to be the new Park Service director. The energetic Hartzog would push the Park Service to have a greater presence in urban areas, to increase its number of historic and cultural sites, and to serve minority populations that did not yet have a relationship with the parks.

For Hartzog, the park system's role in preserving and interpreting American history was just as crucial as its mission to protect the large natural parks. Together, he said, they represent the "delicate strands of nature and culture that bond generation to generation."

Hartzog had been at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, when a quarter of a million people gathered on the National Mall as part of the March on Washington to protest Jim Crow laws. He listened to Martin Luther King Jr. give an electrifying speech that would be considered a turning point in American history.

Hartzog was proud that the massive protest took place at a National Park Service location and that on the steps next to Dr. King stood two park rangers. "What higher purpose can a national park serve," he said, "than to be responsive to the crisis in our society, to the voice of the underprivileged, to the voice of the protester who's objecting to the institutional status quo?"

Five years later, Dr. King would be assassinated. Twelve years after that, his birthplace in Atlanta, Georgia, would be dedicated as a historic site, part of the national park system.

PRESERVING THE WILDERNESS

When the Mission 66 plans for Mount McKinley National Park were unveiled in 1956, they called for widening and paving the park's 90-mile gravel road.

"I am afraid," Adolph Murie wrote to a friend, that "they will try to make McKinley into another Yellowstone or Yosemite." He submitted a detailed analysis calling for preservation of the wilderness spirit in the Alaska park.

But no one was interested in his views and he was quickly reassigned to Grand Teton National Park, where he was told to catch up on writing about his studies of McKinley's flora and fauna. Returning to McKinley two years later, Murie was dismayed to see 13 miles of newly paved park road and a partly completed visitors center.

Murie was determined to stop further road construction. He turned to his older brother Olaus, who was now the director of the Wilderness Society. With the help of other groups, including the National Parks Association, the brothers persuaded George Hartzog to shelve most of the Mission 66 plans for McKinley.

Hartzog also brought an end to two longstanding national park traditions. At Yosemite, he stopped the "firefall," a nightly summertime practice of pushing a lit bonfire off the edge of Glacier Point to cascade down toward the valley floor. At Yellowstone, he made a concerted effort to stop the feeding of bears.

Other new Park Service policies called for using scientific research as the basis for management decisions – reflecting a new commitment to restoring the complex ecology of each park. Even predatory animals were given their due; the wolves that had been hunted down during Yellowstone's early years would be reintroduced to the park by the end of the century. 

Slowly, in the tension between preservation and use, momentum had begun to shift a little back in nature's direction. George Melendez Wright's old vision of the parks as sanctuaries for wildlife was finally being taken seriously.

YELLOWSTONE TURNS 100

Yellowstone, the world's first national park, celebrated its centennial on March 1, 1972. The famous geyser Old Faithful would thrill 2.2 million people that year, and the entire park system would host 165 million visitors. There were now 38 parks and roughly 200 historic sites and national monuments in the national park system.

By the 1970s, the park idea had spread around the world. It was becoming, like the idea of freedom itself, one of America's greatest exports: more than 4,000 parks in nearly 200 nations.

ALASKA: THE FINAL FRONTIER

Just when it seemed as if the age of adding large natural areas to the park system was winding down, a new opportunity to preserve vast portions of wilderness area arose in Alaska. A dramatic rebirth of the park idea was about to take place.

Ever since Secretary of State William Seward purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867 for $7.2 million, some believed such a remote territory had been a waste of money.

After Alaska was granted statehood in 1959, a federal law was passed to settle the claims of Alaska's native peoples, including the Inupiaq and the Tlingit, the Aleut and the Athabascan.

The land was to be divided up: some for the state to open for development if it wished; some for the tribes; and a portion to be withheld in the "national interest" for all Americans. As the discovery of vast oil deposits and the construction of the Trans-Alaska pipeline demonstrated, the stakes were enormous.

The fight over what to do with the federal lands would quickly become a national battle. Powerful commercial and industrial groups allied themselves against the Alaska Coalition, a collection of fifty environmental groups that ultimately represented 10 million Americans. It was the largest grassroots conservation effort in U.S. history.

In the mid-1970s, Congressman Morris Udall of Arizona, the brother of former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, sponsored a bill setting aside 110 million acres of federally owned land in Alaska. Udall's bill passed overwhelmingly in the House, but in the Senate, a threatened filibuster by Alaska Senator Mike Gravel prevented a vote before Congress adjourned.

Acting on the advice of his Interior Secretary, President Jimmy Carter decided to bypass Congress. On December 1, 1978, he invoked the Antiquities Act to create 17 national monuments covering 56 million acres. In Alaska, all hell broke loose: people protested in the streets, and President Carter was burned in effigy.

To handle the volatile situation, the administration chose John Cook, a Westerner who had earned a reputation as a tough problem solver. Cook promised that the new national monuments would be Alaska's "permanent pipeline," a source of tourist revenue that would still be flowing long after the oil ran out.

While Cook tried to dampen the local hostility to Carter's proclamations, the Alaska Coalition pushed Congress to settle the state's land issues once and for all. After another year and a half of debate, on December 2, 1980, President Carter signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act into law.

It wasn't everything the Alaska Coalition had once hoped for, but it was still the largest single expansion of protected conservation lands in world history. The national park system, with 47 million acres added to its care, had suddenly more than doubled in size.

Mount McKinley National Park, which had been in existence since 1917, was nearly tripled in size. The park was officially designated a wilderness, granting increased protection to the land and wildlife, and its name was changed to Denali, the Athabaskan Indian name for the tall mountain at its center.


A SHIFT IN FOCUS

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.

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In the last decades of the 20th century, more historic sites were saved – including reminders of painful episodes in American history, set aside on the belief that a great nation could openly acknowledge them. These new national historic sites included:

  • Kingsley Plantation in Florida, preserving not only the owner's grand home, but also the small cabins used by the slaves who made his comfortable life possible.
  • Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, where in 1957 federal troops had to escort nine African-American teenagers past angry mobs to their classes, crystallizing the crisis of school desegregation.
  • Andersonville, a Civil War prison camp and national cemetery in Georgia.
  • Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., which lists the names of 58,000 dead and missing soldiers.
  • Sand Creek and Washita on the Great Plains, where peaceful Cheyenne villagers were massacred by American soldiers in the 1860s.
  • Manzanar in the high desert of eastern California, where American citizens of Japanese descent were imprisoned during World War II.
  • Oklahoma City National Memorial, where 168 empty chairs commemorate those killed in a 1995 act of domestic terrorism.
  • Flight 93 National Memorial, a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where the sacrifices made by passengers aboard United Flight 93 on September 11, 2001 are commemorated.

As the nation headed into a new century, Americans would continue expanding the number of national parks – and continue using them in ever increasing numbers: from 220 million visitors in 1980 to 255 million in 1990, then edging toward 300 million a decade later.

Like the idea of America itself, the national park idea continues to be constantly debated, constantly threatened, and constantly evolving. "One learns," John Muir had said, "that the world, though made, is yet being made. That this is still the morning of creation."