America’s National Parks

Their principles, purposes, and prospects

Old Faithful Geyser, Yellowstone National Park

Old Faithful Geyser at sunset, Yellowstone National Park, 1920s

Henry G. Peabody, courtesy of the National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection
To permit intrusions in such places, however small in size, is to impair the opportunity to experience the natural scene in the only places that most first-time visitors are likely to see. It is especially ironic that proposals for developments in the park are justified on the ground that they will provide services for the inexperienced, most of whom are leery of the rugged backcountry. Yet if such developments are allowed, the visitor arrives to find that the only area of the park that is easily accessible to him is not the celebrated scene that John Muir depicted, but a congeries of trailers, shops, restaurants, and cabins.

Even this contradiction is not enough to dissuade some developers. They respond that the parks cannot serve Olmsted’s aspirations if people do not visit them, and that it is a necessary part of the educational ambition of the park system to bring the people to the parks so that these timeless areas can begin to work their magic on visitors. Even Stephen Mather once suggested that the parks should set out to attract people by building golf links, tennis courts, and swimming pools.

There is more than a little irony in reviewing today that aspect of Mather’s approach to the national parks, for while he spent his life winning friends and popular support for the park system, the measure of his success is that the most serious current problem of the parks is that they risk being loved to death. Indeed, from their very first years, the national parks have grown steadily in use and popularity (except for temporary remissions during wartime and economic depression). And they have grown in use despite the reluctance of the National Park Service, even during its periods of greatest developmental enthusiasm, to build facilities such as golf courses, swimming pools, or tennis courts.

To the extent that the park service has allowed urbanizing influences to dominate park management, as in the Yosemite Valley, a quite different lesson has emerged. It is that the parks become a magnet for those who are seeking the kind of uses that these areas permit. The building of elaborate hotels, shops, and modern campgrounds attracts more and more people in search of the kind of recreation those facilities promote. Of course there are vast numbers of tourists who are in pursuit of what might he called high-intensity urban recreation and who are glad to have it in the striking setting of a Yosemite Valley. And there are many who want to go to any place where many others are going. A few years ago, Bryan Harry, the chief naturalist at Yosemite, said: “People used to come for the beauty and serenity. Those who come now don’t mind the crowds: in fact, they like them. They are sightseers, and they come for the action.”

The managerial principle seems to be that the parks become whatever the parks are permitted to be. Moreover, those who come to participate in high-intensity recreation inevitably create a demand for the supportive services appropriate to that activity. Olmsted fully understood this. He knew that even with the most sensitive management the parks would attract more people than they could reasonably accommodate at a given time, and in his Niagara Report he explicitly recommended techniques for limiting access. To Olmsted there was nothing inherently democratic about a crowd.

Perhaps the saddest element in the controversy over the national parks is that in a sincere effort to make the parks democratic, we have felt constrained to make them familiar; and in making them familiar, we have threatened to deprive them of their distinctive natural rhythms. Not many years ago, in a policy report now happily no longer the dominant view, the park service was advised that the majority want “the comforts and conveniences of modern travel and living. It therefore seems undemocratic and unrealistic not to provide such housing or camping accommodations as most visitors desire.” Even as thoughtful and committed a supporter of the national parks as Bernard DeVoto, writing in Harper’s in 1953, expressed a view of park problems that indicates how far perceptions of the park purpose had strayed from its origin. Calling for increased appropriations to the National Park Service, he reports:

A middle-aged couple with a Cadillac makes a formal protest: it is annoying that they must wait three-quarters of an hour to get a table at Lookout Point Lodge. . . . Another woman reports that the toilet at Inspiration Cliff Camp Ground has been clogged since early last evening. . . . A man pounds the desk and shouts that he hit a chuck hole on Rimrock Drive and broke a spring.

These are reasonable enough complaints, but they are essentially a list of grievances identical to those people have at home: potholes in the streets, inadequate plumbing, slow service. They are the urban complaints of urban denizens, produced by a park system that is providing an urban experience.

The greatest danger the parks face is the subversion of Olmsted’s vision of democracy by the notion that the parks must serve the taste for convenience that cities have spawned. As recently as this year the National Park Service proposed a mechanical tramway to take visitors to the summit of Guadalupe Peak in Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas. The reason, it said, was that “all visitors should he offered the opportunity to reach such a strategic point, and by a mode of access convenient to . . . the majority.” But what shall these visitors have reached when they attain the top of a mechanized mountain? Perhaps we can do no better than leave a final response to the always wise Aldo Leopold:

Let me tell of a “wild” river bluff which until 1935 harbored a falcon’s eyrie. Many visitors walked a quarter mile to the river bank to picnic and to watch the falcons. Comes now some alphabetic builder of “country parks” and dynamites a road to the river, all in the name of “recreational planning.” The excuse is that the public formerly had no right of access, now it has such a right. Access to what? Not access to the falcons, for they are gone.

    National Park Service links:

  • For more archival photographs see www.nps.gov/applications/hafe/hfc/npsphoto.cfm.
  • For the history of the National Park Service, specifically, see www.cr.nps.gov/history/hisnps/.
  • For further information on the National Parks see www.nps.gov.
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