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Ideals and Policy of the National Park Service

Handbook of Yosemite National Park (1921)
by Stephen T. Mather

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Ideals and Policy of the National Park Service


By Stephen T. Mather

Director, U. S. National Park Service

The first national parks were set aside by Congress with the view of conserving some of our most strikingly scenic natural assets. Thus, previous to 1902, the Hot Springs, Yellowstone, Sequoia, General Grant, Yosemite, Mount Rainier, and Crater Lake national parks were reserved from public entry. These national parks of early date were merely set aside for the future; indeed, no national park policy or central organization which would make them available as vacation centers for the American public was at that time deemed necessary. In the following years to the time of writing Congress set aside twelve other areas as national parks making a total of nineteen parks, seventeen of them within the boundaries of the United States, one in Alaska, and one in the Hawaiian Islands.

Previous to 1915 the parks were all administered with the aid of the War Department, and policies and the interpretation of rules and regulations varied greatly on the different reservations. Up to 1918 road work in Yellowstone and Crater Lake parks was handled by the engineers of the War Department, but since that time all administrative activities in the parks have been handled by the Interior Department, In 1916, Congress passed a bill creating the National Park Service as a bureau of this department. Since its establishment much has been said about the Service both in compliment and criticism and it is with pleasure that the writer hails this opportunity to explain how the ideals and policy of the Service govern the administration of Yosemite National Park.

In his message to the Director of National Parks, former Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane concisely and accurately summarized the policy of the Park Service into three broad principles: "First, that the national parks must be maintained in absolutely unimpaired form for the use of future generations as well as those of our own time; second, that they are set apart for the use, observation, health, and pleasure of the people; and third, that the national interest must dictate all decisions affecting public or private enterprise in the parks." So much for our ideals. Let us now consider each of the three fundamental principles as they are applied by the Service in Yosemite National Park.

The first principle, "that the national parks must be maintained in absolutely unimpaired form for the use of future generations as well as our own," is one that must be upheld by the Service. This standpoint has been attacked time and again by private individuals and corporations who wish to get a foothold in the people’s parks for their own gain—to pasture herds of sheep in our mountain flower gardens, or to turn aside our streams and destroy some of our most beautiful falls for the sake of electric power which might easily be developed elsewhere. There are even now, at the time of writing, applications which, if approved, would ruin the wonderful Waterwheel Falls in the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne and turn Nevada Falls into a mild sedate affair instead of the wonderful torrent that now pours over its granite rim in the spring months. Let the lower levels of streams like the Merced be developed before destroying the beauty of the high country. The Yosemite Power Plant built by the National Park Service well below the Valley is a practical example. If in years to come hydro-electric development demands the destruction of beauty spots of the High Sierra after other sources of power have been exhausted, it will be well to consider then, but that time is not yet.

The public is one of the best allies of the Service in many of its practical problems of "preserving the park absolutely unimpaired." Campers realize the justice of being allowed to use only dead wood for their fires. It is especially gratifying to note that fewer forest fires are caused each year by the carelessness of campers; indeed, many fires are discovered, reported, and fought by them. People are coming to realize that thousands of unafraid live deer and elk are much more to be preferred than a few invisible or dead ones, and hundreds of real sportsmen get more pleasure hunting with camera in national parks than they would with gun outside.

In this task of preserving the park one of the arch-enemies of the Service is fire. Rangers are always on the lookout for the first sign of smoke and others are always ready to go on duty as fire fighters, staying with the fight night and day until the Forest Fiend is conquered.

Often one sees in the Sierras dead or dying trees which have been attacked by insects. A specially qualified ranger is assigned to the work of fighting these pests in co÷peration with the Bureau of Entomology of the U. S. Department of Agriculture—another phase of the preservation of our parks.

Some of the roads in the western part of the park, notably the Wawona Road, traverse private timber holdings. By negotiating with the owners of these timberlands the government has exchanged stumpage in various out-of-the-way sections of the park and thus preserved the scenic beauty of the roads.

It is with the second ideal, "that they (the parks) are set apart for the use, observation, health, and pleasure of the people," that so many of the activities of the Service are concerned. The first idea of national parks seems to have been that they were stupendous natural spectacles, to be seen (or we might say done) in a short time, as one might view an art exhibit or a pageant. Then came the great out-of-doors movement and, especially since the advent of the automobile, people turned to the national parks as places to live during their vacations and to "get next to Nature." Lastly comes the realization that our parks are not only show places and vacation lands but also vast school-rooms of Americanism where people are studying, enjoying, and learning to love more deeply this land in which they live.

In the administration of the parks the greatest good to the greatest number is always the most important factor determining the policy of the Service. During the assignment of army officers to administer Yosemite National Park all motor vehicles were prohibited from entering, but finally, in 1914, under instructions from Secretary Franklin K. Lane, automobiles were admitted under very strict regulations. Since 1915 motor restrictions have been gradually removed until there are now but a few rules and these for the safety of motorist and pedestrian alike. The advent of the automobile with the opportunity for its use freely in all the parks within the last five years has been the open sesame for many thousands; indeed, during the season of 1919 74% of the visitors of Yosemite National Park entered in their own machines.

The road problem then is one of the most important issues before the Service. Outside of possibly Yellowstone there has been but little development in the parks to enable the motorists to have the greater use of these playgrounds which they demand and deserve. Definite projects have been laid out by the Service in all the larger parks calling for important road building, but up to the present time no substantial funds have been available to carry them out. Congress, the appropriating body, has been engrossed with its war problems, but I now feel that the turning point has arrived. As an indication of the interest of that body it might be mentioned that during the present season (1920) the House Appropriations Committee visited seven of the largest parks and expressed themselves as deeply impressed with the needs of the Service.

As regards Yosemite National Park much remains to be done in the way of road development. A substantial piece of work has been accomplished in the reconstruction of the road from Yosemite Valley to the El Portal Entrance, a total of seven and a half miles built at the cost of a quarter of a million dollars. This is the only heavy piece of road work which has been done in any of the parks during or since the war period. This will connect with the all-year-round highway which the State is building up the Merced Canyon and which will make the Valley more readily accessible to motorists in winter than it now is in summer. The certain great increase of travel into Yosemite Valley by this easy grade road makes it necessary to provide a convenient outlet into the back country. This outlet will be the road which has been surveyed from the Valley by Vernal and Nevada Falls into the Little Yosemite Valley, thence connecting with the Tioga Road at Lake Tenaya. The survey has been carefully run so as not to interfere with the beauty of the falls.

The other approach roads to the Valley—the Big Oak Flat and the Wawona—must be widened and their grades lowered, and the Tioga Road should have many of its bad pitches smoothed out. Perhaps a spur road should be built up the Lyell Fork, connecting with the Tioga Road at Tuolumne Meadows, thus opening up additional camping country in the scenic Mount Lyell region.

The beautiful Tuolumne Meadows, considered by John Muir and the Sierra Club the finest camping ground in the High Sierra, will come into much greater use when the new lodge for visitors is established there (1921). A store has been started which is proving very useful to the campers in this section.

While the motorist will find a great area of the park accessible to him under the plans indicated, there will be a large proportion of the park preserved for trail trips only. The rugged canyons north of the Tuolumne River will be for many years to come devoted to trail travel, and Superintendent Lewis has plans for developing the present trail system there which will make this magnificent section of the park more accessible.

Each year sees the park better developed for the use of the people. The Free Public Camps in Yosemite Valley have become very popular, a total of twenty-three thousand four hundred persons having been registered during the season of 1920. Better facilities must be provided in these camps; the sanitary system by which they will largely benefit is already under construction, and all the camps should be lighted by electricity. Time and again European visitors express astonishment that all this service can be free. To them it is as incomprehensible as is our sense of American freedom.

As rapidly as conditions permit, the system of lodges should be extended farther back into the High Sierra so that hikers may walk from place to place on the highland trails and be sure of food and shelter at the end of each day’s travel.

Yosemite National Park is already a fisherman’s paradise, especially in the High Sierra country. Each year many of the lakes and streams are stocked with trout fry, but even more should be done, and each body of water in the park should be made productive. A hatchery which would supply the needs of the park must be built in Yosemite Valley where it will be an object of interest and instruction to thousands of visitors.

To further exemplify the principle of use tne Service allows the. grazing of cattle on lands which are not used by tourists. Overstocking, a condition which in some sections of the High Sierra has made it next to impossible for a camper to obtain feed for his stock, is carefully guarded against.

Upon the principle that the parks are set apart for di observation by the people" are based many of the most recent activities of the Service. The establishment of the Free Nature Guide Service during the season of 1920 proved a great success. The quickening interest in Nature-study work under Dr. H. C. Bryant and Dr. Loye Miller points the way for us to develop this work on a far greater scale in the Yosemite as well as other national parks in future years.

The Yosemite Museum is the outcome of the public demand for authentic exhibits of natural history, geology, ethnology, botany, and other sciences so well exemplified by the region. The museum was made possible almost entirely by gifts and loans of private individuals and will be developed as rapidly as possible by the Park Service.

The Le Conte Memorial Lectures which are given in Yosemite under the auspices of the Extension Division of the University of California have been very useful in bringing to the tourist a better knowledge of the park and of men like Le Conte and Muir who have told its story so well.

In recent years there has been a movement to take classes into national parks for instruction and it is now a common experience to meet university students, troops of Boy Scouts, and other groups studying Nature first-hand. Such use of the parks is strongly encouraged by the Service.

The function of the parks as factors in increasing our national health, vitality, and happiness is a most important one. To encourage clean living in God’s great out-of-doors should be one of the primary ideals of the Service. The European visitor whose ideal vacation so often consists in lounging about a hotel and viewing Nature from the veranda, marvels at the number of people he finds hiking, riding, swimming, or otherwise engaged in strenuous sports in the Yosemite. Let us encourage this American spirit to be up and doing. Of course there are those who require "artificial" amusements and there will always be entertainments, dancing, bowling, pool, etc., at the larger hotels, camps, and lodges. Let us not, however, "vulgarize" the parks as has been the accusation of some visitors.

I hope that winter sports in the park will become a great feature. If Glacier Point with its beautiful hotel were available in winter time, Sentinel Dome with its heavy snowfall could be made to rival St. Moritz. To reach this altitude in winter the suggestion has been made for the construction of a shaft by which the tourist would be carried directly from the Valley to Glacier Point. If this plan is carried out it must be done without marring the beauty of the canyon walls. Anything in the nature of an outside structure could not be considered.

The third ideal of the Service, "that the national interest must dictate all decisions affecting public or private enterprise in the parks," is one phase of the parks policy which is least understood by the public. When the Department of the Interior assumed complete administration of the parks each public utility was handled by a separate individual or company. Under these conditions results were not always satisfactory and prices were sometimes abnormally high. Finally a large corporation, the Yosemite National Park Company, made up of hundreds of stockholders, principally public-spirited citizens of Los Angeles and San Francisco, was organized and all concessions excepting the photographic studios, a bakery, the Yosemite Hospital, and Camp Curry were turned over to it. This organization has been doubly necessary during the past few seasons because of the greatly increased travel and the corresponding increase in investments necessary to allow for unlimited and immediate expansion. The government regulates prices and this very easily by dealing with one central office. Furthermore of all of the profits made by this large company, over and above six per cent. for physical investment, the United States Government receives, 22 1/2 per cent. While much criticism was at first expressed on the part of local concessionaires over the concentration of all public utilities, it is now generally realized that this is the only system of management which could have kept pace with the park development, and being a problem of national interest it was decided by the Service with a view to the greatest good to the greatest number.

In conclusion let me say that the development of the Park Service has been more than gratifying, especially as regards the esprit de corps which has not only made the organization efficient but is daily exemplifying the true meaning of service. The ideal of each individual member of the Service and of the Service itself is to give to the public not merely what they pay for, but everything within power.

Next: Administration of YosemiteContentsPrevious: Indians of Yosemite

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