Reckoning with History: The parks have been fixed before

How the government tackled the post-war threats of national park ‘disfigurement’ and ‘destruction.’


Reckoning with History is an ongoing series that seeks to understand the legacies of the past and to put the West’s present moment in perspective.

When the Great Depression and World War II concluded, the national park system was in disarray. The extractive industry sought greater access to resources, such as timber in Olympic National Park, while bureaucrats eyed sites for future dams, including in Dinosaur National Monument. Most importantly, the park system was growing as new units were added and more visitors came. Costs accumulated, but congressional appropriations did not keep pace. By the late 1940s, the writer Bernard DeVoto was sounding the alarm about the parks’ “alarming rate” of deterioration, while many roads and trails had to be closed because of safety concerns. DeVoto first drew attention to the problem in his “Easy Chair” column in Harper’s in 1949, hoping that an enraged public might demand action. That hope was in vain. Four years later, he reported, the Park Service was “beginning to go to hell.” Until Congress was “willing to pay,” he wrote, we should close the parks, with the Army patrolling them to keep them secure. Congress, he declared, needed to act promptly to end this national disgrace.

National Park Service Director Conrad L. Wirth agreed that problems existed. In 1955, he acknowledged the dire sanitary situation, likening some campgrounds to “rural slums.” Embarrassed by such conditions and tired of congressional cuts, Wirth and his allies pushed “Mission 66,” an ambitious plan to mark the agency’s upcoming 50th anniversary in 1966. President Dwight Eisenhower supported the idea, writing Congress to urge funding and an immediate start.

Beginning in 1956, for a decade the Park Service invested more than $1 billion, adding 2,767 miles of new or repaired roads; nearly 1,000 miles of new or improved trails; parking capacity for 155,306 vehicles; nearly 30,000 new campsites and 114 visitor centers. The agency also added utilities, improved administrative buildings, increased employee housing and rehabilitated historic structures. Besides the physical changes, the Park Service realigned its staff, bolstering the number of landscape architects and engineers. All these amenities and changes meant to facilitate a better — an easier — tourist experience. It worked. Visitors rushed into the new and improved parks. The year Mission 66 began, visitation reached 61.6 million; the year it finished, it topped 133.1 million. By most metrics, Mission 66 was a rousing success. 

Men work on the Bryce Canyon National Park Rim Road, which was part of an effort to create a "tourist loop" between Cedar City, Zion National Park, Cedar Breaks National Monument, Bryce Canyon, and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. The road was created under guidelines developed cooperatively between the National Park Service and the Bureau of Public Roads in the 1920s and 1930s as part of Mission 66.

Mission 66 attracted both welcome and unwelcome attention. Construction permeated the parks, and not everyone embraced the steamrollers. A powerful protest countered agency ambitions. In one well-known instance, the Sierra Club, led by famed photographer Ansel Adams, protested plans to improve and reroute Tioga Road in Yosemite National Park. Adams and his allies recognized that improved roads would increase visitation – which would require building more facilities to accommodate yet more visitors. The momentum would be irresistible and, in Adams’s fearful words, Americans would “see the complete adjustment of the material and spiritual aspects of the parks to human need.”

For Adams and others, the preservation of nature mattered more than visitor convenience or park commercialization. In important ways, the Wilderness Act, which passed in 1964, received a boost from the Park Service’s paving, constructing and development priorities and the increased political activity it prompted among groups like the Sierra Club. As the Park Service modernized and urbanized the parks, it ushered in what iconoclastic writer Edward Abbey condemned as “industrial tourism.” At the same time, others within ecological circles critiqued the Park Service’s management emphasis. Rather than build more roads, campsites or visitor centers, the famous 1963 Leopold Report recommended the agency make parks “a vignette of primitive America.” This, along with a National Academy of Sciences report that appeared a few months later, chastised the agency for lacking scientific rigor in management. The late Richard West Sellars, longtime Park Service historian, called these reports “a kind of ecological countermanifesto.” From both within and without, the parks were pressured to restrain development.

From the Organic Act of 1916 through Mission 66 and beyond, the Park Service stumbled along the fine line embedded in its mission: “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.” Finding an acceptable balance continues to bedevil the agency.

Trail Ridge Road, which was initially contructed between 1926 and 1949, is the highest continuous highway in the United States and was critical for the development of the Rocky Mountain National Park road system.

Budgets reveal priorities, and priorities swing like pendulums. Science lost to commercial development in the 1980s, just as concerns over ecosystem resilience, biodiversity and climate change rose during the Obama administration. Now, citing record numbers of visitors, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke stresses the parks’ deferred maintenance and infrastructure problems because, as in the 1940s and 1950s, congressional appropriations are failing to keep pace with needs. Resolving such issues will require sometimes intrusive construction, and Zinke recommends ramping up extraction activities elsewhere, often on the virtual doorsteps of parks and other protected lands, to pay for it.

DeVoto warned in the 1940s that “some of the wilderness, scenery, and natural spectacles in which the public takes the greatest pride are threatened with disfigurement and even destruction.” Today is no different. The parks remain as popular as ever, but how lawmakers and administrators within the Department of the Interior support the agency remains crucial. A program that finds money for roads and buildings, but not endangered species and climate change, is all but guaranteed to undermine landscapes and generate a backlash among those who wish to see the nation’s parks unimpaired and inviolate.

Adam M. Sowards is an environmental historian, professor, and writer. He lives in Pullman, Washington.

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