National Parks for the Future

In answer to the question of whether our national parks are in jeopardy. STEWART UDALL, the new Secretary of the Interior, has written the following reply. A natire of Arizona. Mr. Udall was admitted to the Arizona bar in 1948 is and served in the 84th to Stilh Congresses before being appointed to the Cabinet.

IN THE summer of 1953, Bernard De Voto, the Cambridge conservationist and chronicler of the West, made his way through some fifteen of our great national parks. With him traveled, figuratively speaking, some seventeen million Americans who sought, with De Voto, to renew their spirits in the wild and scenic places of our land. On his return De Voto pronounced a verdict on what he had seen, and a disturbing verdict it was to all who knew his deep affection for our national parks. “Let’s close the National Parks,” De Voto wrote caustically. “Let us, as a beginning, close Yellowstone. Yosemite, Rocky Mountain, and Grand Canyon National Parks — close them and seal them, assign the Army to patrol them, and so hold them secure for a more enlightened future.”

De Voto’s anger was directed at the rot. decay, and neglect he had encountered everywhere. Sewage was seeping into Yellowstone Lake, and the campgrounds of the park looked like outdoor slums because, as De Voto put it, “they are slums.” On the breath-taking run of Black Canyon of the Gunnison, the guard rails had rotted away; not one ranger was assigned to the area; and even the visitor’s register had been stolen. Fire, health, and safety hazards were prevalent at every turn.

At about the same time, the Reader’s Digest warned prospective visitors that “your trip is likely to be fraught with discomfort, disappointment, even danger,” and Conrad Wirth, then as now the director of the National Park Service, had to agree that “We actually get scared when we think of the bad health conditions.” The Saturday Evening Post took its turn at bat and editorialized that the “great canyons, pristine lakes and the endless beauties of nature of our National Parks” were being displaced by “traffic jams on beat-up highways, beer cans in the geysers, honky-tonk commercialism . . . outdoor slums.”

America’s glory has been its natural wonders; how, then, did we allow our national parks to suffer such disfigurement?

The answer is that up until 1941 the resources of the National Park Service, the custodian of our parks and monuments, were reasonably adequate. But with the onset of World War II, money and manpower were cut to the bone, and when millions of Americans turned to the parks in the postwar period, the rangers were overwhelmed.

In 1940 some seven million people visited the parks. By 1953, the year of De Voto’s trek, the figure had more than doubled, and the Park Service, with a smaller ranger force, had to administer eighteen new areas as well.

Today few in Washington would dispute the proposition that the esprit and dedication of the men who run the National Park Service are unexcelled in our government. Yet the post-war years found some rangers and their families living in ratinfested shacks and paying the government a painful percentage of their modest salaries for the privilege. Not only the parks but the morale of the men charged to conserve them had become eroded to the danger point. These were the conditions which in 1956 called into being the restorative work of Mission 66.


Mission 66 was designed as a ten-year rehabilitation program to accommodate the flood tide of visitors without compromising basic conservation values. A series of master plans was developed for each of the 181 areas administered by the Park Service, and sizable appropriations were obtained from a responsive Congress to enhance maintenance and underwrite new capital improvements. Thus, a frontal attack was made on the conditions that aroused De Voto’s ire and caused misgivings in his fellow Americans.

Mission 66 is now at the halfway mark; a new Administration has come to power; and it is an opportune moment to review the scope of the program and assess its work.

The Park Service takes justifiable pride in maintenance systems that now protect the health and safety of park visitors. And, unquestionably, the main new capital development projects — roads, trails, campsites, interpretive exhibits — have made the parks more hospitable and have quickened appreciation of their wonders. But problems of delicate judgment have been created also.

For example, take the problem of roads. In 1924, Stephen Mather, the first director of the Park Service, enunciated the basic guidelines: “It is not intended to have the parks gridironed with roads, but in each it is desired to make a good sensible road system so that visitors may have a chance to enjoy them. At the same time, large sections of each park will be kept in a natural wilderness state without feeder roads, and will be accessible only by trails for the horseback rider and the hiker.”


In the late forties, the road systems in the parks were miserably inadequate and unsafe. However, 653 miles of existing roads have now been improved under Mission 66, while nearly 144 miles of new roads provide scenic vistas and access to new campground areas.

Camping is one of the more intimate park experiences. To encourage it, 7000 new campsites have been created, and an additional 4000 sites renovated. For access both to the spectacular and the humbler sites of natural beauty, 300 miles of trails have been built or improved. For many visitors, the most meaningful moments in the parks come when they join together around the fire in the evening to learn from ranger naturalists more of the natural history that surrounds them. There are now campfire circles for more than 25,000 persons, and 54 new interpretive centers to encourage the vital educational work of the Park Service.

Yet Mission 66 has inevitably evoked both praise and blame from those who love and use our parks. The truth of the matter is that in 1916 the Interior Department was pitched onto the horns of a dilemma by Congress’s directive “to conserve the scenery . . . and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such a manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

Examining this singular congressional mandate, Wallace Stegner, the well-known novelist and conservationist, once wrote perplexedly: “Provide for use, but leave unimpaired. Use, but protect. Keep the parks primitive, but open them to millions. Make the scenery accessible with roads, trails, lookouts, but don’t scar it up. Provide — invisibly — campsites for millions, lodge and motel accommodations for hundreds of thousands, and the facilities of whole towns to take care of them. . . . Protect and restore wildlife, even wolves and mountain lion, in order to keep the balance of nature, but do it in a show window where millions can thrill to see it.”

Over the years, some of the wisest men in the Interior Department have wrestled with this dilemma, and it is not surprising that many policy directives have touched off controversy. There have been mistakes; I would cite Tioga Road in Yosemite and the tower on Clingman’s Dome in the Great Smokies as two. But when you view the many Mission 66 projects in perspective, it is amazing that so few egregious errors have been committed.


During the Kennedy Administration, special care will be taken that in the planning of roads, buildings, and village developments, nature will take precedence over the needs of modern man. The Park Service cannot be too zealous in its work to maintain, and raise, the standards of the facilities and the services it provides. No road or lodging is an end in itself, but exists to enhance the value of the park it serves.

But too often critics have failed to concede that many of the “wrong” decisions have actually been dictated by conditions and compromises which preceded the establishment of the parks. For example, Floridians stipulated a developed area outside its heartland when they donated the land and money which led to the establishment of the Everglades National Park. And the Santa Fe Railroad and others owned land on the rim of the Grand Canyon long before it became a national park.

In my view, wise park administrators must steer judiciously between those who would ignore the park standards and those who construe each alternative according to their personal tastes. In any event, the pressure of tens of millions of people on a limited and often fragile land mass will surely grow more intense. Can our parks be both used and preserved at the same time?

The answer is, they must be if we are to keep faith with future generations and serve the men and women of today.

One concept long respected by the Park Service in its approach to the inherent dilemma has been the development within the wilderness of “zones of civilization" linked by roads. The result is that today 99 per cent of our national park land still enjoys wilderness status, and a visitor need only wander two hundred yards off any road to enter primitive and untouched country.

In Yellowstone, our oldest and most intensively used national park, the road system has been improved to carry the hundreds of thousands of cars that use it annually, but the natural wilderness has not been penetrated one foot farther than when the first motorcar was admitted forty-five years ago. And here it should be borne in mind that Yellowstone is nearly three times the size of Rhode Island. All too few of the millions of visitors venture beyond these paved corridors, yet the opportunity is there for anyone who wants to seize it.

Looking at the vast panorama of our parks, one is impressed by the wisdom with which the Park Service has resolved the conflict between use and conservation. There are no more zealous guardians of our places of extraordinary beauty than those who cherish the purity of our wild lands. Fortunately for all of us, each noble stand of trees, each solitary mountain promontory, each desert canyon has its devoted band of friends. And this is as it should be, because wilderness land, paradoxically, is a fragile asset.


However, it is also plain that parks are for people, and not people for parks. And these people are entitled to what De Veto has called “amiable diversions” in keeping with the purpose of their visit and the character of the park. The test of whether to allow such diversions as winter sports, for example, should be whether participants scar the terrain. Furthermore, we must consistently ask ourselves whether a particular organized activity adds a worth-while dimension to the purpose for which our parks were established.

This brings into focus the central domestic crisis which confronts America today, the fact that population tends to outrun space, and that the very spaciousness which has formed the face and character of our people is now threatened. The most noticeable scarcity in this society of abundance is land. The pressures on our land — especially land suitable for parks and outdoor recreation — are relentless. Another four million Americans will be born into this country this year. Given fair weather each day, another 300,000 acres of countryside will fall to bulldozers, cement mixers, and logging crews.

If we want to save some of this land for parks and for the enjoyment of the outdoors, we must act now. The enemy is time, not people. And time has run out for piecemeal action. The day is long past when a stroke of the pen could create new national parks out of the public domain. The time is now past when we could hoard a few more acres of park land in the West, where it is still relatively plentiful, and hope that some philanthropist would give us a little more elsewhere.


What is needed today, and needed urgently, is a truly national and wisely balanced program of land acquisition and park development. Last February, within a month of assuming office, President Kennedy spelled out in a message to Congress the broad goals of a national land-conservation program.

We have already come to the second phase of Mission 66. From 1956 to date, we rescued the national parks from rot and erosion; now, quickly, we must round out our park system by the inclusion of the remaining areas of exceptional scenic beauty. But new national parks are only a part of the answer to the exploding demand for outdoor recreation in all parts of the country. Our great national parks represent one of the few remaining opportunities for vacationing families to enjoy the “early morning" experience of the wilderness. We did not set aside our parks for casual inspection. These unique areas were meant to provide what Laurance Rockefeller has called “the cathedral experience” of nature.

Furthermore, most of our finest parks are located in the Western part of the United States, a considerable distance from centers of population. Yet America’s families should have opportunities for outdoor recreation within easy reach ol their homes. And, properly, they should rely lor such recreation on their state and local governments. State and local action to set aside land for outdoor recreation would take pressure off the national parks, but more important would be the benefits which carefully developed open land would bring to the communities themselves and to their residents.

In most areas of our country, enough land is still available if we act now. But in the heavily industrialized parts of America, the only hope of salvaging what remains lies in inspired, and inspiring, leadership from our governors and mayors.

The challenge is a double one: to preserve the face of our country for ourselves and our children, and at the same time to provide plentiful and varied opportunities for people to enjoy the outdoors.

I should like to see new national parks to protect such unique areas, for example, as the deep, sandstone canyons that surround Rainbow Bridge in southern Utah; the last remaining prairie lands in Kansas; Santa Cruz Island, California: and the proposed Great Basin Park in Nevada. We must also move quickly to add the Great Beach and adjoining land of Cape Cod; Padre Island, Texas; and Point Reyes to the national seashore system.

Nowhere are the opportunities for outdoor recreation more limited than in or near our cities. What little open country separates the sprawling urban complexes on the East and West coasts is being pre-empted by various “developments.” Only bold action can save what remains. For example, at the Delaware Water Gap a magnificently varied recreation area could be created surrounding the proposed Tocks Island Reservoir. This would give nearly one third of the nation’s population 75 miles of shore front for outdoor sports and recreation.

America’s land and water are on the block. The highest bidder is seldom the wisest user. Short-term developments and short-term gains will be debited a thousandfold against the assets of future generations, whose claim on America is as valid as ours.

Some of us in Washington sense an everincreasing interest in the land and in man’s relationship to it. President Kennedy has already struck the keynote. If we seize the opportunity and act to save the spaciousness and grandeur of our land, later generations may record this period as one of the most significant in the American conservation movement.