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NPS Expansion: 1930s







New Deal



NPS 1933-39




Expansion of the National Park Service in the 1930s:
Administrative History

Chapter Six: The National Park Service, 1933-1939
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D. Retrospect

Park Service officials grappled in the 1930s with a whole range of issues that rose from a great expansion of the park system, new and unfamiliar programs, and a massive infusion of emergency funds. Coincidentally, they faced the problem of maintaining traditional values and principles in an organization that was suddenly both larger and more complex. As they did so, they found themselves subject to considerable criticism, some of it from unaccustomed sources.

On one hand, Park Service administrators were criticized for the perceived failure to properly integrate the new historical areas into the Park System. Many of the strongest critics were those within the Service who were involved in the new areas. Edward A. Hummel, who came into the Service as an assistant historian doing ECW work in the Omaha office, remembered that the historical areas remained the "step-children" of the Service throughout the decade. The reason for this, he said, was that administrators simply had no interest in those areas. Indeed, he concluded, the National Park Service was two separate organizations in the 1930s. [72] Roy E. Appleman, another historian who came into the Service under the ECW program in the 1930s, wrote that while the system generally worked well during that decade, the background of NPS administrators (forestry, "ranger-type," etc.) prevented them from recognizing that new and different policies and procedures were needed for the historical areas. [73]

Historians were not the only ones concerned. In 1940 Regional Director (Region I) Minor R. Tillotson, a man whose Park Service background was in the natural parks in the West, agreed. Speaking before the Historical Technicians Conference in 1940, Tillotson stated his opinion that "the National Park Service has thus far, to a great degree, failed in its task relating to the historic areas under its administration, not so much in their selection and development as in the interpretation of them to the public." [74]

While historians and others argued that the Service did not adequately integrate the new areas into the system, others, and many old friends of the Park Service were among them, charged that the Service had strayed too far from its traditional course. Even in the days of Stephen Mather the Park Service had suffered criticism from those who believed that the National Parks should consist of great unspoiled temples of beauty. By the mid-1930s these "purists," as Donald Swain calls them, were in full cry against what they considered to be excessive construction and development in the parks, an over-zealous concern for tourism and the increases that it brought, and the heightened concern for recreation. [75]

Most important, however, was what these critics considered to be a shift of interest from protecting the great scenic areas in the West. In February 1936, for example, Robert Sterling Yard, editor of The National Parks Bulletin, published an article entitled "Losing Our Primeval System in Vast Expansion." [76] While the general tone of Yard's article was less strident than was the title, he nevertheless wrote that the expansion of the system and new directions taken by the National Park Service had ended the long intimate relationship between the National Park Service that existed in "upbuilding of the primitive system and defense of standards." The next year, James A. Foote, representing the National Audubon Society, published an open letter to Secretary Ickes in which he charged that:

The National Park Service has been expanding in recent years--so rapidly that the original precepts and ideals upon which the Service was founded appear to have become lost or forgotten. State parks, recreational areas, national parks and primeval national parks have been shuffled and jumbled until today a confused American public scarcely knows which is which. [77]

In 1936, four staunch friends of the National Park Service--the Sierra Club, Wilderness Society, National Parks Association, and Audubon Society--united in calling for a reorganization that would create a "National Primeval Park System":

The National Parks System, once the expression of the highest ideals and uses to which primeval wilderness of exalted beauty could be applied, has been required in recent years to embrace areas which do not justify the adjective primeval. The original system is now virtually lost sight of among innumerable recreational activities, local, regional and national, assigned to the National Park Service.

The present day popular conception of National Parks as open-air reservations of different kinds owned by the nation and maintained largely for playground use make no distinction between the primeval kind of national parks and other kinds administered by the National Park Service. To save the primeval national parks an.d all they once meant to the nation, we must find a special title for them which will exclude all others from the system by definition.

Such title is National Primeval Park System. [78]

Park Service officials were sensitive to these criticisms, particularly to those of their erstwhile friends. Again and again, from the mid-thirties onward, they stepped forward to defend themselves. George Wright, NPS Chief of Planning, for example, denied in a speech before the Council Meeting of the American Planning and Civic Association that the expansion of the system had resulted in lowered standards:

I no longer worry as I used to for fear the National Parks System will be loaded with inferior areas. Once this was a concern. Now we have a system of national parks and monuments which in their aggregate set the standards. [79]

"Let the friends of our national parks leave it to the National Park Service to safeguard itself against intrusion of trash areas," he concluded, and "devote their energies instead to completing the park system while there is still time to do it."

Speaking before the same group at a later date, Associate Director Arthur E. Demaray addressed the issue of overdevelopment in the parks. Demaray admitted that the park administrators faced "tough problems" as they made the parks available for the use of the people while at the same time carrying out Congress' mandate "that they leave the parks 'unimpaired for the benefit of future generations."' An examination of the record, he argued, would show that the Service had succeeded, and that through "greater efficiency in planning, construction, and administration, the facilities and accommodations provided have been implements of conservation, and that nature is actually less disturbed in the parks today than it was in 1917." "In the face of widespread misunderstanding and criticism," he concluded, the National Park Service remained "one of the most forceful and honest agencies of conservation in the Federal Government." [80]

Actually, however, Park Service officials need not have been so defensive about their actions in the 1930s. For, despite surface appearances, the inclusion of War and Agriculture department areas in 1933, development and construction in the parks under the emergency programs, the publicity campaigns and increased tourism that it brought, and growth of historic preservation programs did not represent a break with past traditions as many thought. Rather, save for the duties involved in building maintenance, what happened to the National Park Service in the 1930s was a logical extension of the traditions established by Stephen Mather and Horace Albright. In fact the directorship of Arno Cammerer, who was replaced by the first man who did not serve under Stephen Mather, was a culmination of that earlier tradition. [81]

The 1930s, then, witnessed the full bloom of policies established earlier. As such it had been the most exciting and creative in the Service's history. By the end of the decade Service officials were ready to retrench. Part of this had to do with outside events--the winding down of emergency programs and steadily declining funds and outbreak of war in Europe which drew attention elsewhere. Beyond events, however, was a general feeling among Park Service officials that it was time to pull back, to consolidate gains and to become, as former director Albright indicated, a land administration bureau, whose focus was on the national parks. [82] The declaration of war in December 1941 certainly brought the period to an end. The effort to deal with issues raised in the 1930s would have to wait.


Last Modified: Tues, Mar 14 2000 07:08:48 am PDT

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