The Regional Review

Volume II - No. 6

June, 1939


Informal Comment on and Reactions to the 1939 Meeting of the National Conference on State Parks

By Herbert Evison,
Associate Regional Director.

The Nineteenth Annual Meeting of the National Conference on State Parks, held early this month at Itasca State Park, Minnesota, doubtless produced as many different collections of reactions as there were persons in attendance -- slightly more than 100 in all. One common to everyone, I am sure, was that it was held in one of the loveliest state parks in America. Itasca is a really big state park, with a gorgeous stand of ancient white and red pine, hundreds -- yes, actually hundreds -- of lakes, big and little, and an abundance of wildlife. The beaver whose lodges appear along the shores of several of the lakes got a lot of attention; those who hiked early in the morning or late in the day invariably reported seeing numerous deer; bird life was especially varied and abundant.

Except during the very early days of the conference, few of the twelve meetings I have attended have been marked by livelier discussions. Several things stand out prominently in my memory of those discussions. One of them is the red flag called "organized recreation"; another is "fees and charges".

To most of the group in attendance, "organized recreation" was just another way of saying "regimented recreation", recreation so wholly directed that the participant is left with little opportunity either for freedom of choice, or for self-expression - and it was a thing to make a lot of the delegates a little hot under the collar. That seemed to me most unfortunate. Admittedly there may be those who would like to pick up urban, directed play and transport it bodily to those samples of the out-of-doors that comprise our state park systems. But let's admit that this field has been notable on the one hand for land acquisition and development, - and on the other hand for creation of a plant which is not put to more than 10 per cent of its potential effective use on at least five days of every week. Because of this situation, it seemed to at least one observer at or close to ringside that there is a lot of room for a quite different organized recreation, - which will result in stimulation of public use of those facilities for enjoyment that belong in a natural or naturalistic environment; that will at least show urban folk, still unaccustomed to such places and whose tendency is to demand the same types of recreation that they get at home, what in the way of new and different experiences these areas have to offer. That takes wise organization, wise, unforcing, stimulating leadership, and the provision of supplementary public use facilities, of all of which there is still a noticeable dearth in the great majority of states, whether they are new or old in the business of creating and running parks.

Somewhat apropos of all that, there were excellent talks on "Conservation Education", by Sam Brewster of Tennessee, who read a paper but who has the faculty of doing so in a rarely effective manner; on "Week-Day Use of State Parks", by Charlie Elliott of Georgia, and on "Naturalist Programs in State Parks", by George Baggley of the National Park Service. (The latter two were delivered by candle light when a heavy storm put the electricity out of commission.) There is a close kinship among all three subjects that is readily apparent. Among the means of building up week day use of parks, a sound naturalist program looms up as possibly the most important and, to the park visitor, the most valuable. Another of importance and value, in many ways, is bringing an understanding of conservation - all that it means - to the younger generations, certainly a stimulus to closer acquaintance with such examples of conservation as state parks. These in turn can be and should be used; to an immensely greater degree than is now the case, as classrooms for a different and more inspirational type of conservation education than the usual classroom can possibly offer.

There was sporadic, and, on one occasion, slightly acrimonious reference to "fees and charges", and there were certainly two camps, though by no means all those present joined one or the other. As nearly as I could make out, however, the division was not actually of those for and those against fees and charges in state parks. Virtually the sole actual difference was on whether there should be entrance fees or not. There seemed to be no person (at least none was apparent) who felt that all facilities and all services in state parks should be free. At the same time statements heard in the general meetings, and in the small-group arguments that were more or less heatedly in progress all the time between sessions, indicated a considerable feeling that in many places there was serious over-insistence that state parks be made to "pay their way" and that social usefulness was being relegated to second place in the park operation picture. The latter point was more forthrightly put than at any previous meeting in my experience.

Two of the best papers were delivered -- and well-delivered -- at the last afternoon session. They were by Roberts Mann, of the Cook County Forest Preserve, who did the heavy work in arranging for the holding of a one-month course in "Landscape management" at the New York State College of Forestry last February and March, and Dr. Laurie D. Cox, Landscape Architect of the Central New York State Park Commission, who ran the course. It was designed to be of particular service to those engaged in any aspect of operation of parks of naturalistic character, though the majority of the 30-odd who attended were superintendents or foremen from CCC camps which carry on under the general supervision of the National Park Service. There were several employed by metropolitan and county parks, but New York was the only state represented by state employees.

Though nobody said it in quite this way, the underlying idea of the whole undertaking is this. Those concerned with state and county and metropolitan parks have been very largely preoccupied of recent years with acquisition and development, and hundreds of men have learned a technique of development such as few schools in the country can teach and with which most landscape schools are still too little concerned. But training in how to manage -- to operate -- a park or a system has not kept pace with training in development. In fact, the quality of planning has not been what it should be because so few of those engaged in it have been able to visualize their results in terms of operating efficiency or operating economy. Headaches are being endured now and others are ahead because of this fact, which would cause operating difficulties even for the trained operator, if there were anything like enough of him. So while the course as given at Syracuse concerned itself with design, its concern with it was from the standpoint largely of practicality. It supplemented this with a sort of bird's-eye view of all the professions concerned with development - and protection. This was in order that the person or the agency charged with operation might overlook no bets when it came to getting a finished product in the form of a usable, economically operable park capable of performing all the functions properly to be expected of it.

I wish I might quote Bobs Mann's and Laurie Cox's papers entire. Since they will appear in the American Planning and Civic Annual, however, I am going to take only a part of one paragraph out of Bobs Mann's paper, and Laurie Cox's "credo". Mann writes:

. . . .When the schools of landscape architecture relegate to proper emphasis the design of Italian gardens for wealthy widows and recognize the practical limitations in the design of recreational areas for actual operation and public use, then we can safely entrust the training of our successors to them. We are willing to concede that the basic technique of the landscape architect is an indispensable element in the background of a successful landscape manager. Also that the basic training of the forester and that of the engineer tend to be so technical as to neglect the esthetic, cultural and social values inherent in the landscape. But we hold their training to be broader, more administrative and equally indispensable. Therefore we propose to "meld" the three - as they say in pinochle - with training in business administration, public relations, some of wildlife management, and a little of architecture. We've left recreational planning out of it because we believe organized recreation has no place in the state park and forest picture.

That practical observer and pungent writer has something there. I think his last sentence contains his only major error, and that is based on a misconception of what a recreational planner is. Since, no matter what the character of a park may be, its purpose comprises one or several types of recreation, sound planning for them, so that they can be satisfactorily enjoyed, without either under- or over-development, is basic. It certainly has been our experience, in the consideration of master plans and layout plans, that the recreation planner has a very concrete contribution to make. Perhaps Bobs needs to pay a visit to the Planning and Development section of a Regional Office, where he could both learn and teach. We should like to see him in Richmond.

And here is Laurie Cox's seven-point credo, "A Basic Philosophy for State Park Administrators," one of the real gems uncovered at the meeting.

First, naturalistic recreational areas such as parks or forests or whatever we may call them are not luxuries but are vital and essential factors in our life and time, if our modern mechanized civilization and our American individualistic culture are to endure.

Second, there are two forms of recreational use or recreational values for such areas -- we may call them active and passive recreation, as Mr. Wirth named them; or intensive and extensive recreation, as Mr. Mann prefers; or as I have named them to you, play recreation (thinking in terms of the body) and rest recreation (thinking in terms of the spirit); or just recreation and scenic appreciation. Of these two definite forms, whatever we call them, although the great mass of the general public prefers and emphasizes the active or intensive form much more keenly, it is the scenic appreciation or rest recreation which is, in the last analysis, by far the more vital and important.

Third, while the "public" must be served, if it is to be served best and in the long run, its use of such recreation areas must be such that it does not use them up, and the determining factor of use is wise use --- a use which leaves no slightest question but that the area will supply indefinitely this vital factor of rest recreation. Perhaps the best catchword to express this wise use is "scenic saturation" --- a phrase I coined some years ago and which is now in quite general use. If it is within our power to do so, we must always try to keep our use of natural areas safely within the limit of such scenic saturation.

Fourth, to accomplish these aims we must have good design; and the great fundamental questions of public need, recreation possibilities, and sound economics, are the chief considerations on which a design must depend. Personal whim, old precedent or standardized detail have no place in good design. The best method of arriving at good design is probably the master plan method, but always remember that even with such a master plan no design --- no park plan --- is ever static. If the design is not good, satisfactory use and administration are hopelessly handicapped, and likewise bad administration permitting unwise use will eventually destroy even the finest design.

Fifth, no one park executive, however able, can know everything or successfully function without the aid of the various sciences, arts and techniques. The successful park and the successful design need the aid of all, such as the landscape architect, the engineer, the forester, the architect, the science technician, etc.

Sixth, while nature is generally a rather safe guide to follow, we must always realize that there are very few (practically no) examples of scenery with which we have to do in state parks and forests today that really are natural scenery. They are virtually always the result, to a greater or less degree, of man's long-continued abuse, and it is very clear that what man has abused he can also improve or possibly in time restore. I sometimes think there are fully as many evil results in park and recreational planning and administration which emanate from the false premise that all natural-appearing landscapes are natural, and therefore that in handling them we should adopt a hands-off policy, as there is destruction of "scenic values" by unnecessary man-made improvements; and there are an awful lot of both.

Seventh, and finally, there is one and only one complete test of any park or recreation area, both as regards its design and its administration. Submit it to these three criteria:

1). Does it perform its major functions of supplying rest service with reasonable assurance of permanence?

2). Do the people like to go to it over and over again?

3). Is it beautiful?

If it fails in any one of these respects, it fails in toto.

Through a letter quoted in full in an address by Frederick C. Sutro, Executive Director of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission, my old friend Albert M. Turner of Connecticut probably drew as many chuckles as anyone on the program. His jibes were at those who plan, and it is unfortunate that the jibes went largely unanswered.

"If I get the Big Idea", he wrote in his concluding paragraph, "it is that when the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, they should have sat down and drawn up a Master Plan for America, and so saved us all the headaches and cut-throat devil-take-the-hindmost free-private-initiative and all the rest of it, - mebbe - mebbe not."

Well, I believe Mr. Turner has good Biblical precedent for advice against taking thought for the morrow, which of course is what the planners do. I suppose the combination of Turner and Bible ought to be sufficient discouragement to the planner to make him crawl back into his corner. But knowing that there are good plans and bad ones, and feeling certain that the experience of the past must have produced something that can be applied to the future, I suspect that many of us still will prefer to follow Daniel Burnbham's advice, not only to plan, but to "make no little plans". As Mr. Turner himself likes to say "Nuf sed".

sketch of mountains

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Date: 04-Jul-2002