The Regional Review

Volume IV - No. 3

March, 1940

Biologist Looks at a Recreational Demonstration Area

Assistant Chief, Wildlife Division,

[Editor's Note: "This is intended as an open forum type of article," wrote Mr. Presnall to The Regional Review, "the views of one individual on a subject deserving and requiring the best thought of many of us before definite and concerted action is possible."]

To many of us who started our national park careers in an earlier period, the present scope and magnitude of the Service are both surprising and stimulating. They are surprising because we had been accustomed to think of national park areas largely in terms of primitive wilderness; and stimulating because the great new assemblage of historic shrines, parkways, seashores, and vacation areas offers such a broadened opportunity for all of America to utilize fully the inspirational values inherent to them.

Each new type of area included within the system during the last few years presented a distinct challenge and a distinct problem that could not be met by routine application of methods previously evolved for the original wilderness parks. Upon the basic principle of preserving natural features intact for the enjoyment of present and future generations there had to be developed new concepts and methods suitable to attainment of new objectives. Take two examples: in historical areas the objective is to recreate the atmosphere of a definite event or stage in history so that the significance of the past may be visualized readily; in a parkway the purpose is to provide an attractive pleasure vehicle route through a considerable expanse of country rich in scenic, scientific and cultural features of national significance. The various objectives are recognized quite generally within the Service, but the complexities arising in the course of their practical application are seldom appreciated fully by those not in direct contact with development work.

children playing
Children Making Use of a
Recreational Demonstration Area

All this came rather forcibly to my attention during a recent inspection of wildlife matters at Swift Creek Recreational Demonstration Area, near Chester, Virginia. The visit primarily was for the purpose of studying the question whether the open fields existing in the area at the time of purchase (1934) should be allowed to revegetate naturally, eventually making the entire place a solid forest, or whether it would be preferable to maintain them free of tree growth. It was noted that natural vegetative succession, proceeding unhampered since 1934, had reached a stage of dominance by broomsedge, with a rapid natural pine reforestation beginning in numerous places.

Now if Swift Creek were part of a wilderness park in which preservation of natural primitive conditions is a chief objective, everyone would agree that it should be allowed to revert to forest; but it is not a wilderness park, nor was it set aside primarily for preservation of primitive conditions. It was established as a part of a national land utilization program in which certain areas were designated for the primary purpose of showing how they could be used most effectively for community recreation of a type closely related to nature, hunting excepted.

Studies by recreational planners show that an area having open and forested tracts in the ratio of about 30:70 yields maximum recreational opportunities. The ratio at Swift Creek is 5:95, and is rapidly changing to 1:99 or more. I am told that natural revegetation is having the same effect in many Recreational Demonstration Areas of the southeast. That would be fine, if the areas were intended to be natural reforestation projects. But it does not look so good for conservation of human health and happiness. If a bunch of kids cannot dry out their blankets in the sun they are not going to be too healthy, and if they have nothing but woods to hike and play in they are not going to be as happy as if they could enjoy the more varied experiences of mixed woodlands and fields and the much more varied and abundant wildlife that would be attracted to such an environment.

It happens that a field-woodland ratio of 30:70 is close to the optimum for wildlife as well as for recreation, because young human beings and young animals are not far different in their needs. Despite that correlation, wildlife conservation is not the primary purpose of a Recreational Demonstration Area, any more than is reforestation. It would seem that both animals and trees should be conserved to the extent that they will best contribute to recreational use. In actual practice that ideal probably can never be attained, for it may involve such things as having a swimming pond with clean shores and bottom, and a fishing pond full of snags and bordered with aquatic vegetation, where turtles and water birds might be found. A boy can have a lot of fun with a turtle. There may even be instances where planting would be advisable to attract birds and thereby increase the pleasure of people using the open areas thus maintained. For winter food a few shocks of corn near a fence row or woods border might be justifiable.

These thoughts are not intended to discredit in any way the admirable provisions for protection of fauna and flora from damage by the public (Administrative Manual for Recreational Demonstration Areas, approved April 19, 1937). Such protection is necessary to insure the best recreational advantages to future generations. That protection, however, need not imply a "hands off" policy relative to management by the administrative agency. Such a policy might easily result in a future wilderness of minor value for the types of recreation now believed to be most desirable in Recreational Demonstration Areas.

The subject of management policy for such areas is a difficult one, involving great potential benefits to coming generations if properly handled, and mediocre results if carelessly considered. The intimate contacts with everyday life in numerous communities which are possible through the work in these areas would seem to make them one of the major responsibilities of the Service. It follows that every person concerned with development and management of a Recreational Demonstration Area (or any Service area) should place his actions on an objective rather than a subjective basis. What does that mean? Well, suppose I go charging in to a Recreational Demonstration Area loaded with wildlife ideas and handicapped with limited time, the exigencies of travel schedule being such as they are. The place looks ideal for inauguration of some wildlife projects: a fish pond, some snags for wood duck nests nearby, and a good turkey range on certain ridges. Then I return to the Interior Building in Washington and play a tune on the typewriter: "How to Have Wilder and Woolier Wildlife on Whose Run Recreational Demonstration Area." Suppose a forester, likewise, reports on how to make the area a forested paradise, a landscaper recommends such use of native materials as will result in a dream of esthetic perfection, and an engineer shows how to build a series of dams that are masterpieces of earth construction.

If all these divergent ideas were converted into action the place would be "Whose Run" all right. It would belong to everybody but the kids for whom it was intended.

Of course, none of us would do such a thing, except maybe the wildlifers, but just suppose we did. That would be subjective reasoning. Some judicious bumping together of heads might be necessary in order to jostle them into objective reasoning and action. Then instead of trying to make the areas serve wildlife or other specialized interests, we should all ask ourselves how our particular technical branch could contribute to the major objective of the area. Instead of thinking "How will such and such action affect the natural beauty of the place?" the question would be "How can landscape architecture best aid optimum recreational use of the area?" or "What wildlife practices will give those kids the kind of fun they deserve?" In other words, we should all be park, or recreational demonstration area, or parkway people first, and keep our individual professional skills subservient to primary objectives.

I like to remember something the late Colonel C. G. Thomson once told some of us when we became a little too cocky out in Yosemite National Park: "You fellows are just necessary nuisances around here, and you ought to be damn glad to use what little ability you have to keep this park ticking. It's no good arguing whether public contacts take precedence over traffic regulations. Park objectives have precedence over everything."

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Date: 04-Jul-2002