Guard Duty

The National Park Service's centennial reflects a legacy of conservation
in defense mode

The sanctity of the National Park system is taken for granted in its protection of America's natural wonders. After a century of administration by the U.S. Department of the Interior, there is an assumption of permanence. Yet even if it has taken billions of years for nature to form the areas designated as national parks, such acts of preservation are a new idea in human consciousness. On the 100-year anniversary of the establishment of the National Park Service, to put it in perspective, the agency is barely a decade younger than the official formation of Major League Baseball and only five years older than the National Football League.

On the centennial of the National Park Service, the concept of preserving national parks faces challenges on many fronts. The agency turned 100 on Aug. 25, celebrating the signing of the National Park Service Organic Act in 1916 by President Woodrow Wilson. From that point areas designated as national parks were to be managed by a single system. But that legal declaration came after many years of failures, coming after conservationists lost a nationwide campaign to prevent a dam to flood the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park.

When the 1916 Organic Act was passed, it was controversial after a tough legislative fight with the powerful timber, mining and business lobby. However, a lifetime of work by naturalist John Muir found a voice and movement ratified by law with the act to preserve lands for the national benefit. But this idea of the sacredness of lands is made tenuous by the voices of exploitation that called Muir and his supporters "nature lovers and fakers." For example, Yellowstone National Park was designated by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872, but a dam was proposed for it in the 1930s. A proposal to dam Grand Canyon National Park, established in 1919, was defeated in the 1950s.

Preserved areas are only as permanent as the administration upholding their defense. After the French Revolution of 1789, thousands of acres of private forest groves kept intact by a system of nobles for hundreds of years were de-forested within a decade of the monarch's beheading and the anarchy that followed. The intellectual class of industrialized England, facing the future shock of what William Blake called "the dark satanic mills," fostered the concept of the need to get away from it all. Those poets of that age planted the seeds of a romance with nature. The so-called "Lake Poets" of England, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, reflected Enlightenment attitudes regarding appreciation of the wilds as a human right. Wordsworth described the Lake District in northwest England as a "sort of national property, in which every man has a right and interest who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy."

But that was a contrary view. Since the emergence of democratic institutions, private property interests have pushed preservation efforts into the citadel mode, with the fortress under government control.

In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed an act of Congress giving the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias to the state of California. The stipulation was that the areas would be forever public, but booming America's belief in the sacredness of "progress" always questioned whether any state or federal body had authority to create parks.

Yet mutual interests merged together in on man: Stephen Tyng Mather. The first director of the National Parks Service was a millionaire industrialist who made a fortune as owner of the Thorkildsen-Mather Borax Company, but then became a conservationist who led a publicity campaign to form a federal agency to oversee the national treasures. The man who organized the original NPS is what Mather Point, on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, is named after.

Although it was President Wilson who signed the National Park Service into law, it was President Teddy Roosevelt who led Americans to codify the preservation of natural wonders into a national plan. But Congress resisted Roosevelt's efforts to turn the Grand Canyon into a national park for a decade. He succeeded in proclaiming it as the Grand Canyon National Game Preserve in 1906, and into a national monument in 1908. But only by executive action. Bills to name the Grand Canyon as a national park were defeated in Congress in 1910 and 1911, and it wasn't until 1919 that it became a national park.

Roosevelt, on the importance of the national park, stated, in explaining his use of executive power to preserve it, "In the Grand Canyon, Arizona has a natural wonder which is in kind absolutely unparalleled throughout the rest of the world. I want to ask you to keep this great wonder of nature as it now is. I hope you will not have a building of any kind, not a summer cottage, a hotel or anything else, to mar the wonderful grandeur, the sublimity, the great loneliness and beauty of the canyon. Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it."

Obviously, his pleas have been only mostly observed. Hotels and other amenities were built and roadways were cut for access as our wonders waver between pristine settings and a more Disneyfied interpretation of the word "park." To powerful sectors of the economy, and to the sheer necessities required for millions of visitors, that balance posed by Roosevelt is always in a state of amorphous compromise.

Indeed, permanence is only as real as people who struggle successfully to keep it so.