Although I had known Connie Wirth for some years, I
never realized the full measure of his devotion to his country and to
the service of his people until we hiked together into the towering
coastal redwood trees of California's Rockefeller Forest. It was 1958,
and the graceful giants in the grove where we paused for a breather were
then believed to be the world's tallest living things.
"Mel," said Connie, "suppose we lie on our backs and
look up through the crowns of these trees into the sky. Not in this
life, not even in a great cathedral, will you then feel closer to your
Maker. For men built the cathedral, but God created the trees.
"And I am sure He created them for peopleall
the people of our country and of the earth, not just the few who want to
cut them down for their personal profit. Now I am a servant of the
people, and I think the best way to make sure these trees remain forever
the property of the people is to get them into parks. Naturally, since
I'm director of the national parks, I'd like to see as many redwoods as
possible placed under the protection of the National Park Service."
Connie wasn't just talking. Just ten years later,
Congress established Redwoods National Park. The National Geographic
Society, I am proud to say, was able to help the legislators decide upon
the size and boundaries of this important park by granting funds for a
complete survey of the coastal redwood belt in northern California. The
idea was born as Connie and I walked out of the Rockefeller Forest.
"Are these really the tallest trees in the world?" I
"We don't really know," Connie said. "There's never
been a thorough survey made, not even by the lumber companies. The Park
Service has a little money we could use for the job. Do you think you
could talk your Geographic trustees into putting up the rest?"
I did. The survey was duly made, concentrating on the
broad question of what groves worthy of national park status were still
available. Meanwhile, a National Geographic Magazine staffer, Dr.
Paul Zahl, discovered the 367.8-foot giant that thus far holds the
record as the world's tallest living thing. Hidden along the banks of
isolated Redwood Creek, the tree and its neighbors were subsequently
purchased from the lumber company that owned them, and the grove is now
part of the national park.
The battle to establish Redwoods National Park was a
bitter one. Without Connie Wirth to lead it, the cause could never have
been won, and the American people he served would have been the losers.
He cajoled congressmen. He browbeat people who could be swayed no other
way. When he had to, he accepted insults with a smile. Loggers cursed
him at public meetings, while lumber barons, in their plush offices,
insulted him in more sophisticated terms.
But insults and other unpleasantries can be turned to
advantage when one is a "magnificent bureaucrat," as a high federal
official once called Connie Wirth. In his book Connie writes: "One
should never forget his experiences, no matter how unpleasant, because
experiences are the foundation of the road to the future." Sound advice
for anyone, that, but especially for the public servant, the ready
target of criticism from congressmen, from the top people in the
executive branch of government, and from all the organizations and
individuals with special interest in the public servant's field of
jurisdiction. You can find this sort of advice, implicit or offered
through example, throughout the book, making Parks, Politics, and the
People a valuable manual for those who seek careers in government
and for those already embarked upon them.
It is, in addition, a history. The exciting period
during which the author served in government has been well documented by
serious historians. Connie makes no attempt to duplicate their efforts
but rather illuminates their accounts. He sheds light upon the
government people at the working level who had much to do with shaping
events for which the top brass received the credit but who drew little
notice in the broad history of the era. This fleshing-out of history is
a most valuable service.
Necessarily, the book is considerably
autobiographical. The author describes the background that led him into
government service: the influence of a father who, before there was a
national park system, gained renown as a designer and administrator of
local parks; Connie's venture into business as a landscape architect;
and finally, his entry into a long career in the federal government.
Much of the bookagain necessarilyconcerns
the National Park Service, in which the author served for thirty-three
years. Of his many accomplishments in senior staff positions and as
director of the service for twelve years, two were outstanding: his
direction of Civilian Conservation Corps activities of his own and other
bureaus of the Department of the Interior as departmental representative
on the CCC Advisory Council and his initiation of the service's Mission
66 program through which our national parks were rehabilitated after
years of unavoidable neglect during World War II.
Even when he was seconded to the Civilian
Conservation Corps during the New Deal, Connie didn't leave parks
entirely behind. His job was to build CCC camps, and many of these were
in national and state parks. The work he did in the CCC was certainly
one of his finest contributions to the welfare of the country. The CCC
took city boys off the streets in the depression years, sent them into
the wilds, and there built them into men sound in body and character.
They planted trees, cut trails, fought fires, and built lasting structures.
We are still reaping benefits from their work.
Perhaps the high point in Director Wirth's career was
his inspiration and organization of Mission 66, a giant proposal to
rejuvenate the parks. By 1956, the national parks had grown so numerous
and become so run-down because appropriations had not kept up with
growth that something dramatic, mammoth had to be done to restore them.
It couldn't be a simple one-year appropriation but must be a long-term
push. Connie proposed a ten-year effort, called Mission 66, whose
culmination in 1966 would coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the
National Park Service. He kicked off the program with a huge banquet in
the halls of the Department of the Interior and had rangers and others
give illustrated talks that would dramatically point out the low
condition of the parks and what ought to be done to bring them up to par
for the millions of annual visitors.
Invited to the dinner were important members of
Congress and all the committees that dealt with the parks, cabinet
members, government officials, and distinguished friends from civilian
life. The dinner was to be something different. From western parks
Connie obtained surplus buffalo and elk, which were served as tempting
roasts. Pictures flashed on the screen showing rangers families living
in squalor, poor facilities for tourists, congested and bumpy roads, and
other defects. In contrast, architectural drawings conjured up villages
of neat homes for park personnel and beautiful visitor centers designed
to interpret the culture, history, and other information about the
parks. Then Connie inveigled high-ranking government officials who were
fond of the parks to give pep talks emphasizing the low state of the
parks and what should be done. The whole program was dramatic,
fast-moving, and enthusiastic. So well did Connie plan and carry out his
project that he indeed accomplished everything he wanted, and in the
fiftieth anniversary year the new wonders were dedicated with great
ceremony and admiration.
Connie left the parks only once. Just after World War
II the late Harold L. Ickes, then secretary of the interior, sent him to
Europe to help work out a peace treaty with Austria. Then Connie
returned to his beloved parks.
If Parks, Politics, and the People is largely
the story of one man's service in the national parks, the fact does not
diminish the value of the book as a public servant's guide. Except for
the fields in which they function, one government bureau is much like
another. Those who administer them face the same unrelenting pressures.
If they are to be successful bureaucrats, they must employ the same
techniques to find their way through the tortuous federal jungle.
Describing his methodology, Connie leaves out
nothing. He tells of the battles he won and lists those he lost. He
gives us full texts of the reprimands he received. He criticizes those
he feels deserve criticism. But he tempers his barbs with kindness. When
I first read his manuscript, I told him I couldn't understand why he was
so temperate, since he was now out of government and not exposed to
"Well," he replied, "it's like Voltaire is said to
have put it: 'I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to
the death your right to say it.' So when a fellow bucked me, he was only
exercising his right as a citizen of a democracy.
Democracy, American style, is really what Parks,
Politics, and the People is all aboutnot democracy coldly
defined, but democracy at work, serving the people under the skilled,
devoted guidance of a "magnificent bureaucrat."
MELVILLE BELL GROSVENOR
Chairman Emeritus and Editor Emeritus
National Geographic Society