Yet during that time, Americans were developing a national pride of the natural wonders in their land--scenic beauty that surpassed, they believed, anything Europe had to offer. In the 1830s, when few European-Americans had travelled west of the great plains, most people considered Niagara Falls to be "the nation's most magnificent natural spectacle." But that spectacle was quickly desecrated as developers harnassed the falls for power, cut the timber that surrounded them, and turned the best scenic overlooks into curios stands selling cheap souvenirs.
According to historian Alfred Runte, the shame people felt about Niagara led to the national parks. Even then, there was still a significant element of chance. When painter Albert Bierstadt presented to America his images of Yosemite Valley, people insisted that the area be protected from Niagara's fate. Instead of allowing the valley to be subdivided by settlers, Congress in 1864 gave Yosemite to the state of California, to be held "inalienable" for all time.
A few years later, Thomas Moran's paintings and William Henry Jackson's photos revealed that Yellowstone was even more spectacular than Yosemite. Congress probably would have similarly given Yellowstone to the state, but for one problem: neither Wyoming, Montana, nor Idaho were states, and even territorial boundaries were unclear. If the states had preceded the paintings, as happened in California, there might be no national parks today. As it happened, Yellowstone was made the world's first national park in 1872.
Over the next few decades, Congress established several more national parks: Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite (lands not in the state park) in 1890; Mt. Rainier in 1899; Crater Lake in 1902; and a few more. In the 1890s, Congress also set aside a number of Civil War battlefields to be managed by the War Department as memorials.
The next big step came in 1906: passage of the Antiquities Act, which gave the president the authority to establish "national monuments" on federal land to protect historic, prehistoric, or scientific values. Whatever federal agency had the lands continued to manage them--most often the Department of the Interior or Forest Service, but sometimes the Army or Navy.
By 1915, there were thirteen national parks, but the management over them was confused and inconsistent. Nominally, they were under the Department of the Interior, which also managed eighteen monuments. But when General Land Office personnel--more used to disposing of land than protecting it--proved inadequate to the task, Congress often handed the parks to the Army.
Thus, the superintendent of Yellowstone was an Army officer, while the engineer who designed the park's roads was from the Army Corps of Engineers, not answerable to the superintendent. Mt. Rainier and Crater Lake were run by civilians, but their roads were built by the Corps. Yosemite and Sequioa were run by Army officers, but they had no Army engineers building roads.
Meanwhile, most people visiting the parks relied on stagecoaches for travel, stayed in hotels or campgrounds, and ate at restaurants, all of which were operated by private businesses with concession permits from the Department of the Interior. The quality of the service was variable and many dissatisfied people wrote letters of complaint to the Secretary of the Interior. One of those letter-writers ended up becoming the first director of the Park Service.
Mather promoted the parks by sponsoring trips for members of Congress and other influential people. He hired a park publicist with his own funds and (with the help of a number of railroads) paid for a lavish photo book on the parks that was distributed to 275,000 people. And he helped finance the founding of the National Parks Association (later the National Parks and Conservation Association), a group that lobbies on behalf of the parks.
Beyond that, Mather's approach to basic problems that still confront the Park Service was often very different from that of later directors:
All of the national parks under Mather's regime were natural areas--mountains, valleys, forests, plains, hot springs--plus a number of ancient Indian ruins. But Albright quickly moved into a new area: history. As director he supported the creation of a park commemorating George Washington's birthplace, and the construction of a replica of the house on the site.
Albright had many reasons for wanting to expand the National Park System. One of the more minor reasons--but one that must have been influential--was that, as director of one of the Interior Department's "largest and most important bureaus," he was entitled to both a bigger staff and a bigger salary--a 20 percent boost over his previous salary, or the equivalent of more than $1,000 per month today. This was irrelevant to Mather--but, unlike Mather, Albright wasn't a millionaire.
With George Washington's birthplace as a precedent, he convinced the newly-inaugurated president, Franklin Roosevelt, that all of the Civil War battlefields then being administered by the Army should be run by the Park Service instead. He also wrested control of dozen or so national monuments that had previously been managed by the Forest Service.
In just four years, Albright more than doubled the number of areas managed by the Park Service--an achievement that Mather did not reach in twelve years. Albright happily wrote that, due to his new personal relationship with the president, he "could see opportunities at every turn," and "money was coming in [for the national parks] in a golden flow."
Feeling that his job was done, Albright resigned to become general manager of a potash mining company. But he lived another 50 years and often acted as a sort of senior statesman for the Park Service.
Writing many years later, Albright offered three reasons for taking over the battlefields and monuments--two of which were frankly bureaucratic and one of which was untrue. First, he felt that the action saved the Park Service from being taken over by the Forest Service, "which had eyed us hungrily for years." The additional areas, Albright felt, made the Park Service too big a morsal for the Forest Service to swallow.
Second, while most of the original parks were in the West, most of the newer ones were in the East, "thereby increasing interest and financial support in Congress." Albright recognized that, just as the ideal defense project is one that has subcontractors in every Congressional district, the ideal land management agency is one that manages land in every state.
Finally, Albright argued that "economy was achieved by consolidation of the administration of sites from three agencies into one." This was almost certainly untrue. After all, neither the Army nor the Forest Service disappeared and both maintained offices in many of the same towns where the Park Service now had to open new ones. Moreover, the diversity of the new sites no doubt required a major boost in Park Service bureaucracy.
--Barry Mackintosh, Park Service historian
We recognized that most of the areas under our jurisdiction were in the western part of the United States, while little of the power and influence in the Congress was from there. So there was a conscious effort to locate national parks in the more populous east-of-the-Mississippi region.
-- Horace Albright
Although the National Park System did not grow as fast under Cammerer as it had under his predecessors, it did see the addition of nearly 30 new parks with over 5 million acres of land. These included the Everglades (1.2 million acres) and Big Bend (0.7 million acres) national parks, Joshua Tree (0.5 million acres) and Organ Pipe Cactus (0.3 million acres) national monuments, the first national recreation area, Boulder Dam (later Lake Mead, 2.0 million acres), and the first national seashore, Cape Hatteras (initially 62,000 acres). Park visitation grew from fewer than 3.5 million in 1933 to more than 15 million in 1939.
During the 1930s and 1940s, the Jackson Hole controversy affected every level of Wyoming politics. There were many men in public office whose careers had been built almost exclusively on their opposition to the National Park Service taking control of Jackson Hole.
Newton Drury had been executive secretary (the functional equivalent of executive director today) of Save-the-Redwoods League, an organization founded in 1919 with the help of Stephen Mather. During Drury's tenure, Save-the-Redwoods directly purchased some 50,000 acres of redwood groves and convinced the state of California to buy nearly half a million acres more for state parks.
Drury had actually been offered the job of Park Service director when Albright retired, but rejected it because he opposed Albright's expansion into areas that Drury felt were properly the concern of state and local governments. In accepting Ickes offer in 1940, Drury hoped that he could return the Park Service to its original mission of managing and preserving great natural areas such as Yellowstone.
Drury might have had a greater effect on the Park Service had his directorship not coincided with World War II. When the war began, the Park Service and other "nonessential" agencies were moved to Chicago. The war plus the agency's lack of contact with Congress led to a 50 percent reduction in park budgets and staffing.
In 1941, park visitation had reached an all-time high of 21.2 million people. But at the height of the war, it fell below 7 million. It bounced back after the war, but growth was still below that of the 1920s and 1930s. In those earlier decades visitation doubled every three to five years; between 1946 and 1950, when Drury resigned, it increased by only 50 percent to 33 million.
Part of the problem was that the agency did not return to Washington until 1947. Out of touch from Congress, its budget remained stagnant. While its budget increased somewhat in 1948 and 1949, the Korean War in 1949 threatened further cuts. With the help of Horace Albright, Drury was able to fend off such cuts.
Fewer than 20 new areas were added during Drury's eleven years as director, and most were small. The largest--Coulee Dam National Recreation Area (99,000 acres) and Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park (70,000 acres)--were both areas that Mather had opposed.
Also during this time, Grand Teton National Park was expanded after more than two decades of bitter controversy. A 310,000-acre Grand Teton National Park had been created in 1929, but the Park Service wanted much more. First, it hoped to add nearly a million acres of adjacent national forest lands. Second, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., had purchased tens of thousands of acres of Jackson Hole and wanted to donate it to the Park Service.
Both steps met with fierce opposition. The Forest Service didn't want to lose its land and local ranchers didn't want to lose their grazing rights. The counties objected to Rockefeller's donations because they would reduce their property tax revenues. But ironically, the first bill to create an enlarged Grand Teton Park was killed by the preservationists in 1934, because of their objections to a small dam within the proposed park boundaries.
By 1938 the dam was forgotten as Wyoming park opponents successfully won seats in Congress and the statehouse on a campaign opposing "federal invasion." Since the property taxes were a stumbling block, park supporters agreed to have the federal government pay tax equivalency, but others in Congress objected because of the precedent it would set.
By 1942, a frustrated Rockefeller threatened to sell his lands if action wasn't taken soon. This led President Roosevelt to designate a Jackson Hole National Monument, including 140,000 acres of the Teton Forest other public land as well as Rockefeller's lands. Since Congress had already rejected this idea several times, this only led to more controversy. Through a rider on the appropriations bill, Wyoming's delegation prevented the Park Service from accepting ownership of Rockefeller's lands.
In 1946, Republicans won control of both the House and the Senate, and the Wyoming delegation introduced a bill to abolish the Jackson Hole Monument. Since Drury was still in Chicago, he could do little. But the bill was killed, with the help of Horace Albright, by the Sierra Club, Wilderness Society, National Parks Association, and other conservation groups.
In what was almost an anticlimax, the Wyoming delegation and conservationists agreed to a scheme in which the federal government paid the property taxes, to be phased out over several years. Also as a part of the final compromise, elk hunting was allowed in the park under certain conditions, part of what had been the Jackson Hole Monument was to be managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the president lost any authority to create new monuments in Wyoming. The final bill was passed in 1950.
Drury played a greater role in another controversy that ultimately led to his resignation. The Bureau of Reclamation wanted to build dams in Dinosaur National Monument. According to Park Service legend, Drury opposed such dams and, when the Secretary of the Interior decided to build them anyway, Drury resigned in protest.
Historian Susan Rhoades Neel believes that there is more to the story than the legend suggests. When Drury first became Park Service director, he met with employees from the agency's Santa Fe regional office who convinced him that water resources in the arid West were more valuable than recreation. He agreed to the idea of multiple-use studies of several Western parks, including Dinosaur.
In 1944, Drury signed off on a Park Service study of Dinosaur that suggested that dams could be constructed within the monument. To protect the purity of the national monument concept, the area would be downgraded to a national recreation area. The report was given to the Bureau of Reclamation, which began planning for such dams.
Drury did not have second thoughts about the idea at least until 1947, when he saw Dinosaur Monument for the first time. Impressed by the scenery, he began to back away from the dam proposal. In 1948, the Park Service gave a report to the Bureau of Reclamation concluding that a dam would be incompatible with Dinosaur.
Feeling betrayed, the Bureau leaked the report to dam supporters, who barraged Congress with demands that the dam be approved. Under seige, Drury agreed to a compromise that would allow dams in Dinosaur, but at different, less damaging, locations than originally proposed. But the situation was already too polarized, with other park officials opposed to any dams, while the Bureau attacked Drury for his supposed hypocrisy.
Finally, Drury resigned in 1950. Encouraged by his martyrdom, dam opponents successfully stopped the Dinosaur projects, but only after several more years of acrimonious debate. Drury took the job of directing California's state park system.
To replace Drury, the Secretary of the Interior appointed Arthur Demaray, who had begun work for the national parks as a draftsman in 1915. But this appointment was merely to honor Demaray for his years of work before he retired, which was after less than a year.
-- Susan Rhoades Neel, historian
Wirth soon conceived of an ambitious program. The Park Service would be 50 years old in 1966. To celebrate, he proposed a ten-year program of construction and rehabilitation in the parks costing $800 million. He called it Mission 66. The idea appealed to President Eisenhower and to Congress, which ultimately spent over $1 billion ($4.5 billion in 1994 dollars) on the program.
Mission 66 built more than 130 new visitors centers, 2,000 new homes for employees, and training centers at Grand Canyon and Harpers Ferry. It built new roads and repaved old ones, rehabilitated and expanded concessioners' facilities, and greatly increased the number of campsites in the parks. In 1994 dollars, more than $1.4 billion was spent constructing roads and $1 billion on buildings.
By increasing park capacities, Mission 66 led to--or helped prepare the parks for--the greatest absolute increase in tourism in park history. In 1951 the parks hosted 37 million visitors. By 1956, when Mission 66 began, this had exploded to more than 60 million, and park planners projected a 25 percent increase to 80 million by 1966. In fact, usage more than doubled: 1966 saw 133 million people visit the parks. Visitation would not double again for another twenty years, and since 1987 it has not really grown at all.
Wirth's regime also saw huge increases in park budgets. Of course, construction--mainly Mission 66--increased by six times, from $42 million in 1955 to $260 million in 1966. But in addition, the budget for operating the parks nearly tripled, from well under $93 million in 1954 to $246 million in 1966.
While most people in the Park Service saw Mission 66 as an unmitigated boon, preservationists viewed it as a boondoggle, trampling on parks like an invading army. Referring to a reconstruction of Yosemite Park's Tioga road, for example, Ansel Adams complained that, where the old road had "tiptoed across the terrain," the new one "blasts and gouges the landscape."
Within a few years, many in the Park Service agreed with the view that Mission 66 projects intruded upon, rather than aided, the parks. The 1975 master plan for Tuzigoot Monument, for example, described the facilities built by Mission 66 as "disruptive" and "highly intrusive upon the integrity of the ruins." Just a few years after the visitors center was built, the park proposed to spend several million dollars to eliminate or replace the "encroachments."
The Park Service acquired about three dozen new parks during Wirth's tenure, most of them under 500 acres in size. The biggest one, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, surrounded Glen Canyon Dam, regarded by preservationists with horror. Except for three national seashores and a park in Hawaii, the only other area over 20,000 acres was another dam-related recreation area in California.
William Everhart, The National Park Service (New York, NY: Praeger, 1972), p. 37. 275 pp.
Hartzog continued Mission 66, of course, but with Udall's support he also conceived of an ambitious plan to expand the National Park System. In 1964, he published a "preliminary plan" that called for 76 new parks and expansions of 17 others in 40 states for a total of 5 million new acres. Today, some of the proposals seem modest: for example, only 1.1 million acres were proposed in Alaska. But as it turned out, more than 40 of the new park proposals never happened.
Nevertheless, the basic concept was realized. While Hartzog was director, the Park Service added more than 70 new parks, including North Cascades, Canyonlands, Redwood, Biscayne, Guadalupe Mountains, and Voyageurs national parks, Golden Gate and Gateway urban recreation areas, five national seashores, five national lakeshores, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and numerous historic sites. These parks tended to be smaller than the early ones, but nearly 3 million acres were added to the National Park System (including half a million non-federal acres).
Expansion was partly made possible the Land and Water Conservation Fund, created by Congress in 1964. This fund diverted government revenues from park user fees, offshore oil production, and other sources into land acquisition. Soon the federal government was spending $100 to $200 million per year buying land for the national parks. In some years after Hartzog left, this increased to nearly $1 billion per year.
When Hartzog first became director, he met with an eastern representative who said, "I don't know why you have called on me because I really have no interest in your program." By the time he left, he was proud to say that the Park Service managed an area in every state but Delaware and that it had identified a "national landmark" in every congressional district. "Never again," wrote Hartzog, "would a member of Congress be able to say to a director of the National Park Service [that] `I really have no interest in your program.' "
During the Hartzog years, the Park Service's budget grew far faster than the number of acres it managed: From $213 million the year Hartzog took over, funds for park operations more than doubled to $437 million the year he retired. Construction budgets fell when Mission 66 ended from a high of $260 million in 1966 to $78 million in 1969. But by the time Hartzog left, they were back above $200 million.
Park visitation did not increase in proportion to park budgets. In 1964, parks recorded 111 million visits; by 1972, these had increased by less than 50 percent to 166 million. That's a pretty meager increase for an agency that had doubled its operations budget and had just finished spending $2.4 billion on construction.
Although park expansion pleased most of Congress, the Viet Nam War had tightened budgets. In 1968, President Johnson's 1969 budget proposed to cut the Park Service's operations budget. In response, Hartzog reduced the hours of operation at many of the parks and even closed a few.
One of the parks with reduced hours was the Washington Monument, and irate tourists who couldn't go to the top of the monument stormed their senators' and representatives' offices, conveniently located a few blocks away. Some in Congress, particularly Wyoming Senator Clifford Hansen, were irate that Hartzog was blackmailing them, but they voted an additional $17 million to park operations. Ever since, political economists have dubbed the tactic of closing highly visible operations to get bigger budgets the "Washington Monument strategy."
When Nixon became president, Hansen urged him to fire Hartzog. Nixon probably wasn't too happy with park expansion in any case. But when he offered Hartzog's job to California state parks director William Penn Mott and Florida conservationist Nathaniel Reed, both turned it down, in part because they didn't want to be a party to the first firing of a Park Service director. Since Nixon's political power was uncertain--he barely won the 1968 election--he left Hartzog in place.
After Nixon's 1972 landslide re-election, however, he felt more confident. H. R. Haldeman quoted him as saying, "Take that Park Service, they've been screwing us for four years. Rogers Morton won't get rid of the son-of-a-bitch. But he's got to go." Despite Interior Secretary Morton's reluctance, on December 31, 1972, Hartzog became the first national parks chief to be fired.
But he wouldn't be the last. In fact, the next three directors would all be fired after only two or three years in office.
-- George Hartzog, Jr.
The Park Service has lost its way. It's no longer committed to the preservation and interpretation of the cultural and natural resources of America.
-- George Hartzog, Jr.
Hartzog ordered preparation of a National Park System plan, published in 1972. Its history component divided American history and prehistory into themes or topics. . . . By maximizing the number of categories and allowing each park to represent only one of them, the plan determined that at least 196 new parkes were needed to treat all major facets of American history. The plan's natural history component, taking a similar approach, identified more than 300 aspects of natural history requiring initial or greater representation.
-- Barry Mackintosh
Nathaniel Reed, who by this time had taken the job of Assistant Interior Secretary in charge of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, stepped into the vacuum, doing many of the day-to-day tasks that should have been done by a director. Unfortunately, this set a precedent that would haunt the Park Service for the next sixteen years.
Rogers Morton fired Walker almost as soon as Nixon resigned from office in 1974. As a replacement, he picked Gary Everhardt, a career Park Service employee who at the time was superintendent of Grand Teton Park. He is best known for coordinating the nation's bicentennial activities.
During the Walker-Everhardt years, budgets and visitation increased by modest amounts and fewer than two dozen areas were added to the system. All were under 20,000 federal acres xcept for Big Cypress Preserve (542,000 acres), Big South Fork River (107,000 acres), Big Thicket Preserve (86,000 acres), and Canaveral Seashore (58,000 acres).
When Jimmy Carter took office, he wanted a more politically active director. Everhardt was kicked downstairs to superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway, where he remains today. Carter replaced him with William Whalen, another career employee who headed the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
Whalen is best known for putting together the Alaska national monuments that Carter created in 1978--more than doubling the size of the National Park System. Ultimately, when Congress passed the Alaska National Interest Lands and Conservation Act of 1980, Alaska would have far more acres of national parklands than the rest of the U.S. combined.
Whalen was expansionist in other areas as well, overseeing the addition of more park areas outside of Alaska than his two predecessors combined. Except for the Santa Monica Mountains Recreation Area--which was a modest 17,600 acres, all of the non-Alaska areas were under 10,000 acres.
Whalen's regime saw heavy use of "omnibus park" legislation--bills that created many different parks in various states and congressional districts. One bill in November, 1978 created nineteen different parks, while another passed three weeks later created ten more.
Visitation increased by less than 5 percent during Whalen's term, but operational budgets zoomed from just over $700 million in 1976 to more than $1 billion in 1980. Whalen also increased annual construction spending over that of his two predacessors by more than 50 percent.
But Whalen is second-best known for getting fired by Cecil Andrus when he clashed with park concessioners. A speech he made criticized concessioners, who appealed to Morris Udall, the chair of the House Interior Committee. Udall prevailed upon Andrus to fire Whalen and replace him with another career park employee.
Although Congress makes the final determination of areas of national significance proposed for the park system, concern had been raised by NPS and other organizations and groups about the quality, integrity, and merit of some areas brought into the system in the 1970s. A sense of organizational unrest crept into the Service, administrative problems multiplied, and overall morale dropped. . . . It was certainly common knowledge within the Service that the rapid expansion of the system had been accomplished at the expense of existing older areas.
Dickenson's attitude toward new parks was closer to Mather's than to expansionist directors such as George Hartzog and William Whalen, and he publicly expressed concern that too many parks was reducing the quality of park management. This perfectly suited the Reagan administration's ideal of smaller government. When Watt became Secretary of the Interior, Dickenson was the only USDI bureau chief who he kept.
Dickenson considered his job one of "consolidating our gains," not expanding the system--an attitude Watt endorsed. Outside of Alaska, fewer than a dozen areas were added to the National Park System under Dickenson, with a cumulative total of 6 acres of federal land.
Conflicts were more serious in the budget area. As Reagan attempted to reduce federal budgets, the Park Service was targeted for its share of the cuts. Watt replaced Dickenson's deputy with a Reaganite who slashed budgets. Funds for operating national parks fell by 20 percent from their 1980 high. The construction budget took an even bigger blow, from more than $211 million in 1980 to under $70 million in 1981. The administration proposed zero funding for land acquisition.
Yet throughout the Reagan years the park operations budget remained higher than it had been as late as 1977 and 1978. By 1983, construction funding was back above $225 million as Watt endorsed a Dickenson program to fix health and safety problems in the national parks.
Not surprisingly, construction budgets remained low under Mott--hovering around $150 million per year. Operations budgets crept up from the $840 million per year they had been during much of Dickenson's tenure to well over $900 million. Visitation crested at 287 million in 1987--up by nearly 10 percent from the 263 million in 1985--but remained stagnant or declining thereafter.
Yet Mott was also an expansionist, welcoming the addition of such controversial areas as Steamtown. The last four Reagan years saw the addition of twenty new areas, most of them in 1988. These included the 103,000-acre El Malpais Monument and the 77,000-acre Great Basin Park. The remaining areas were all under 10,000 acres.
Improvements in the Park Service under Mott happened in spite of the Reagan-era officials, with whom he frequently clashed. Mott and assistant Interior secretary William Horn repeatedly battled over the agency as Horn attempted to take control as Nathaniel Reed had controlled the Park Service under Ronald Walker.
Additional units of the national park system should truly be places of national significance," Ridenour declared as soon as he took office. He was appalled by all of the new areas that Congress had recently added to the National Park System, many of which he felt did not deserve national park status. These areas were often expensive to operate and drained funds from the older parks--a process Ridenour called "thinning the blood" of the national parks. "
Ridenour worked hard to increase funding for national park operations. but achieved just a 12 percent (after inflation) increase from 1988 to 1992. Meanwhile, Congress increased construction funding by more than 75 percent over the previous four years--which Ridenour freely called "park barrel." These facilities would increase the Park Service's maintenance costs, Ridenour argued, yet Congressional funding for maintenance remained essentially flat.
During the Ridenour years, Congress added fewer than a dozen new areas to the system--some of them over Park Service objection--totalling less than 12,000 acres. Visitation remained essentially stagnant, but operating budgets increased from $940 million in 1989 to $1.1 billion in 1992. Construction budgets increased as well, going from an average of less than $150 million during the Mott years to an average of $270 million during the Bush years.
-- James Ridenour
On taking office, Kennedy observed that the park system "has become shabby, tattered, overused, and underprotected," To remedy this, he vowed to seek bigger budgets and push for reforms. One way to get a bigger budget was to rely more on user fees. Parks, he said, would have to reduce their "nearly sole reliance upon federal appropriations."
The reforms Kennedy proposed were mainly organizational, and included grouping many of the parks into 25 to 30 "clusters" that would be centered on a "lead park." Superintendents of parks in the cluster might report to the lead park superintendent, who might report straight to Washington, by-passing the regional offices. Kennedy suggested that the number of regions might be reduced from ten to seven, but in effect he was proposing to increase them to 30 or more.
Meanwhile, in response to Vice-President Gore's reinventing government program, the Park Service began downsizing its Washington and regional offices. Nearly 500 positions have been eliminated through buy-outs or attrition and the agency's goal is to reduce its overall number of employees from its 1993 peak of 19,700 to under 17,700.
Throughout most of U.S. history, a majority of Americans were strongly suspicious of big government. That majority began to weaken during the Progressive era--when agencies like the Forest Service and Park Service were established--as people's fear of big business overshadowed their fear of big government. The Progressives set up a civil service system, replacing political appointees with bureaucrats who would "scientifically manage" government programs.
The Great Depression saw suspicians of big government crumble as people turned to the federal government to solve their economic problems. From roughly the 1930s through the 1960s a majority of Americans endorsed a bigger federal government. This was, of course, the era of the Park Service's greatest growth.
Support for growth in the federal government faded during the 1960s with controversies over Viet Nam, race, poverty, crime, and other areas. While federal intentions were always good--in Viet Nam as well as in race and other domestic issues--the actions taken always seemed to create more problems than they solved. Significantly, every president elected since Nixon has campaigned against Washington, DC.
The results for the Park Service has been an era of turmoil, with four directors fired in eight years and huge battles over budgets and park policies. While the Park Service like to believe that is an innocent bystander in all this, it is merely one of many agencies fighting in a huge war between the three main branches of late twentieth-century American government--the President, Congress, and the bureaucracy--over who will control the government.
James Ridenour says that when he got to Washington he was surprised to find
that the National Park Service wasn't in the executive branch of government. . . . I expected to be in charge of running the bureau. Instead, I found Congress and, worse yet, congresional staffs running it."What Ridenour didn't realize is that the Park Service isn't in the executive branch; it is in the bureaucratic branch of government. Nixon fired Hartzog, Watt replaced Dickenson's deputy, and Mott clashed with Horn all for the same reason: The executive was trying to get control of a bureaucracy that did not want to be controlled.
In such a situation, Congress quickly becomes the bureaucracy's refuge, since Congress can override the President's funding decisions and greatly influence his staffing and other decisions. If Ridenour found Congress taking too much control in 1989, it was only because the agency had used Congress to fight control by the president for much of the previous two decades.
The National Park Service is thus symbolic of a fundamental dispute over the size and structure of the federal government. Should it be a big government run by politicians? That inevitably means that decisions will be based on local demands for pork rather than the national interest. Should it be a big government run by bureaucrats? That inevitably eliminates the power of the people to decide how their own money will be spent.
Both of these alternatives have proven unworkable. Reformers must seek a third alternative or give up on the idea of a Park Service and national parks altogether.