What Do We Owe Our National Parks?

In 1961, Atlantic readers debated a question Americans are still asking today.

A family photo at Lower Falls in Yellowstone National Park in 1962 (Dean Conger / Getty)

Letters From the Archives is a series in which we highlight past Atlantic stories and reactions from readers at the time.

The 2,221,766 acres that make up Yellowstone National Park now receive 4 million to 6 million visitors annually. But in 1872, the land was practically untouched. That year, President Ulysses S. Grant signed “an Act to set apart a certain Tract of Land lying near the Head-waters of the Yellowstone River as a public Park,” which designated Yellowstone “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people” and sought to shield it from “settlement, occupancy, or sale.” The act paved the way for other lands to be protected under the same criteria, overseen by the Department of the Interior. Today, almost 150 years later, the United States has 61 national parks.

According to Nathaniel P. Langford, an explorer and the first appointed park superintendent for Yellowstone, the idea to protect American land germinated around a campfire at Madison Junction, where the Gibbon and Firehole Rivers meet. He and other members of an expedition that had set out to determine the value of the land, Langford claimed, were struck by its natural beauty, and decided instead to advocate for its preservation.

Yet historical accounts show that Langford’s motivations may not have been as purely altruistic as he implied: Notes from his diary indicate that Langford likely saw national parkland as a potential generator of railroad traffic, and even worked with a financier who was interested in extending the Northern Pacific Railway. Questions of how much tourism in national parks is desirable—and of how the parks should be maintained and who they are meant for—are as old as the parks themselves.

In the first half of the 20th century, many of these debates stemmed from disagreements between lawmakers and environmental advocates on how to interpret vague and sometimes contradictory legislation. The railroad and, eventually, cars made the parks easier to access, and a steadily growing population and intensifying interest in the parks put even more stress on the land. By the 1950s, more than 20 million people were visiting the parks every year—almost three times the highest pre–World War II figure.

Recognizing that the onslaught of visitors was taking a toll on the landscape, in 1956 the National Park Service (NPS) put together a 10-year program—dubbed Mission 66—to carry out infrastructure repairs and modernize facilities, as well as build new visitor amenities. These construction efforts were met with pushback from the authors of a February 1961 series in The Atlantic. In “Our National Parks in Jeopardy,” three articles by three different writers explored the growing imbalance in the ecosystems of national parks due to human presence and development.

Devereux Butcher, Clark C. Van Fleet, and Paul Brooks believed firmly that the NPS should stop new development and limit visitation. In the first article of the series, “Resorts or Wilderness?,” Butcher, the former executive secretary of what was then called the National Parks Association, argued that America’s national parks were “under ceaseless attack” by the public, which he called “the new menace” (commercial interests being the old menace). His piece walked readers through the impact of human interference on six protected areas: Mount McKinley, the Everglades, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Grand Teton, and Yosemite. Each one, he wrote, was being destroyed by new infrastructure built to accommodate a growing number of visitors and their recreational demands. The only answer to the expanding problem, Butcher contended, was to adopt a policy that prohibited building facilities in the middle of the parks. (At the time, the Wilderness Bill, which set out to clearly define the term wilderness and create a more organized system of land protection, was before the U.S. Senate, though it wouldn’t be signed into law until 1964.)

In “Nature Out of Balance,” Van Fleet—an author, a conservationist, and a “native Californian who for five decades [had] roamed the forests and fished the streams of the West Coast”—argued that human presence, sport, and needs were disrupting the equilibrium of the natural environment. Sequoia trees were showing signs of sickness due to injury by humans, meadows were facing erosion and damage from overgrazing, poaching was increasing, and fire was swallowing forests. In addition to curtailing tourism, Van Fleet wrote, the government should increase its funding of the parks.

In the third and final article of the series, “The Pressure of Numbers,” Brooks, “a rugged canoeist” and the editor in chief of the publishing company Houghton Mifflin, wrote pointedly about the growing popularity of parks, and how accommodating crowds had led to “compromise in preservation of the natural landscape”: The idea for creating parks for the people “[had] worked so well that it now [threatened] to work its own destruction.”

While some development was necessary, Brooks explained, too much would be dangerous. If America was going to preserve the land without enforcing quotas on visitors, the country needed to introduce new parks, expand the area outside existing parks, or develop alternative recreation areas for outdoor activities so that protected land would not bear the burden. He concluded: “The parks themselves have been aptly called ‘living museums.’ Like a work of art, the natural scene is something that can be used without being used up. How we use it in America will have a very real bearing on the sort of people we become.”

Atlantic readers’ letters in response to the series, published in April and May of 1961, captured charged and diverse opinions on how national parks should be managed.

Geneva L. Parmley, who was attending Southeast Missouri State College in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, suggested that “ten million copies” of Butcher’s article should be published “in pamphlet form” and “distributed to the American public.”

“In the early days of human history,” the Wilderness Society director Olaus J. Murie wrote, “some places were treated like shrines, to help people in their endeavor to think on a high plane.” America’s national parks were established with “largely the same motivation,” he continued, so that “we might gain inspiration for our living.” He agreed with Butcher’s argument that people had strayed from those ideals, and hoped the public would “honestly study” the series.

Sigfurd F. Olson of Ely, Minnesota, a former president of the National Parks Association, thought the articles covered the current situation of the parks “very well,” especially the “tremendous difficulties” the NPS had in abiding by the congressional mandate to preserve the areas for future generations. He agreed that some development should be curtailed. But the series, he wrote, failed to recognize the “courageous fighting” by the NPS to keep 95 percent of the park areas in a wilderness condition; that most of the infrastructure added, such as roads, could not be “eliminated easily or without tremendous cost”; and that any change would require “congressional authorization and interagency cooperation as well as funds.” While the process would be “slow and painful,” he wrote, “some real progress has, nevertheless, been made,” and many of the problems presented could be solved if citizens’ groups and the NPS held “amicable discussions.” (Olson would go on to help edit and enact the Wilderness Act.)

“To argue that only five per cent of the park areas is developed,” Butcher replied to Olson, “ignores the principle that any intrusion shatters the whole.”

The then–U.S. Senator Clinton P. Anderson of New Mexico wrote a diplomatic response. As the chairman of the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, he supported the Wilderness Bill, which was before the committee. This measure, along with a bill that would protect certain shoreline areas, Anderson wrote, was “made urgent by the burgeoning demands of a growing population.”

E. C. Robertson of Silver Spring, Maryland, wrote that the articles were “important and useful in stirring the American people to stop the encroachment of civilization on the wilderness.” But Robertson worried that the authors’ argument for less development was exclusionary: “There are whole generations … who have exactly the same right to see the wilderness as they do.” Robertson continued, “Are Butcher, Van Fleet, and Brooks the only men in the country who can enjoy nature? No, they will be the first to say. But, are Butcher, Van Fleet, and Brooks the only men who know how to enjoy nature? Well, almost, they will say.”

“Before your readers take Mr. Butcher’s unconstructive diatribe too seriously,” H. Oehlmann, the executive vice president of visitor services at Yosemite wrote, they should know that “sitting in my office some years ago, [Butcher] seriously told me that if he had his way, all visitors to Yosemite Valley would come by bicycle from El Portal.” The ride, Oehlmann wrote, was 14 miles from Yosemite Village, and climbed 2,000 feet in about five miles. “Anyone for a bicycle?” he asked.

The wishes of the citizens for “whose welfare the national parks were established … should not be denied to comply with the selfish demands of a small group of nature worshipers,” Antoinette Friedman of Washington, D.C., wrote. If the authors—whom she referred to as “the evangelists of the wilderness cult”—spent “one tenth” of the time they spent on “preserving the wilderness of the West” developing “adequate recreational facilities for citizens of the crowded industrial East,” she suggested, they would be providing a service “rewarding to human beings as well as to nature.”

It is “inconceivable that people would or could enjoy a great park like Yellowstone” if legislation cut back on infrastructure, requiring them to travel longer distances within the park and from their hotel to the park and back, Horace Marden Albright of New York City wrote: “They would take just one look and keep going. Most travelers do not have more than two weeks’ vacation.”

Albright, the editors noted below his letter, was the second director of the NPS, had served 10 years as the superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, and was one of the four men who organized the Civilian Conservation Corps.

“I find myself in complete sympathy,” wrote U.S. Alaska Senator Ernest Gruening. “But I must dissent emphatically” on the applications of Butcher’s argument to Mount McKinley National Park, with “which I am very familiar.” Without access, he concluded, “what value are wilderness areas?”

Finally, Mrs. George Begun of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, saw this conflict as a broader reflection of society. She wrote that it was “a revealing fact of our way of life” that the national parks—which comprised only three-fourths of 1 percent of the total land area of the United States—were “constantly in danger of commercial inroads and overdevelopment.”

Today, 55 years after the passage of the Wilderness Bill, “overtourism” is a worldwide phenomenon, and America’s national parks continue to face widespread maintenance issues. Years of congressional underfunding has not provided the parks with adequate resources to keep up with the impact their millions of visitors have on infrastructure and on the land. Last year, nearly 85 million people visited national parks.

Bipartisan legislation was introduced in the summer of 2018 in the House and in the Senate which, if passed, would direct a combined $6.5 billion to repairs over five years. (Both bills are still under review.) But the parks are not a priority for the executive branch. In March, President Donald Trump proposed a fiscal-year-2020 budget for the Department of the Interior that was $2 billion below the department’s total budget for 2019. Of the $12.5 billion in the 2020 budget, only $2.7 billion would be allocated to the NPS, including $393.5 million for deferred maintenance projects. In 2017, Yosemite Park alone required more than $582 million worth of rehabilitation.

Meanwhile, The Washington Post reported this week, the NPS has diverted nearly $2.5 million in entrance and recreation fees to help cover the costs of Trump’s “Salute to America” Fourth of July event in Washington. “By tapping entrance fees to cover the presidential event,” the Post’s reporters wrote, the Department of the Interior “is siphoning money that is typically used to enhance the visitor experience either on the Mall or at smaller parks across the country, with projects ranging from road and bridge repair to habitat restoration.” The $2.5 million may not seem like much, but according to the Post it represents “nearly 5 percent of the funds that less-profitable parks used last year for upgrades.”

This year, it seems, some of those upgrades will have to wait.