Pick from the Past
Natural History, October 1976

America’s National Parks:
Their principles, purposes, and prospects

“It’s not just another American convention hotel. . . . It’s a great American castle. . . . All your worldly needs are provided for . . . when you go to the barber or the hairdresser or the gift shops. . . .This isn’t no-man’s-land. Or primitive wilderness. This is civilization.”

Old Faithful Geyser at sunset, Yellowstone National Park, 1920s

Photo by Henry G. Peabody, courtesy of the National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection

osemite National Park is not exactly civilization, despite these advertising claims of Music Corporation of America, which took over the park’s concessions in 1973. Like a number of other major recreational developers, MCA in recent years began looking to the national parks as a great unexploited resource of one of America’s fastest-growing industries. The National Park Service has thus been importuned to allow the building of new hotels, improved roads, ski developments, aerial tramways, and a host of other such facilities. These proposals raise one of the perpetual issues in our public lands policy—the purpose of the national parks. Although “the national parks idea” is a familiar phrase, the governing statutes speak in very general and unrevealing language. The founding of the parks is itself shrouded in a good deal of mystery, but it is there that our search must begin.

In the midst of the Civil War, on June 30, 1864, President Lincoln signed a bill granting Yosemite to the state of California for “public use, resort and recreation,” The national parks were born at that moment. There was no tradition of great scenic parks anywhere in the world, there was no organized public movement in favor of parks, and Congress did not seem to have any particular interest in the idea. Even the most assiduous scholarly efforts over the years have turned up only fragmentary suggestions of the notion in the writings of figures such as Jefferson and Thoreau.

The lands themselves were barely known. The October 1859 issue of Hutchings California Magazine recounted the details of a voyage into the then remote Yosemite Valley. Visitors had to take a boat from San Francisco to Stockton, followed by a 16-hour stagecoach ride to Coulterville, and finally a 57-mile, 36-hour trek by horse and pack mule into the valley.

Scarcely any definite knowledge exists concerning the establishment of Yosemite. A bill to turn the land over to California, to be held by it as a public park, was introduced in Congress by Senator John Conness of California. Conness said that he was putting the bill forward in response to a request from some constituents, whom he described only as gentlemen “of fortune, of taste and of refinement.” A letter to Conness from Israel Ward Raymond, recommending the reservation of Yosemite, has been preserved; all that is known of Raymond is that he was the California representative of the Central American Steamship Transit Company.

Others who are believed to have supported Raymond’s suggestion were Jessie Benton Frémont, the wife of John C. Frémont and the daughter of Senator Thomas Hart Benton; Galen Clark, a pioneer who lived in the

Early Hunters in Yosemite, ca.1890

Photo courtesy of the National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection
Yosemite Valley and became its official greeter and guardian; Thomas Starr King, a well-known Unitarian preacher and author, who had written vivid descriptions of Yosemite in 1860 and 1861; Josiah Dwight Whitney, the chief of the California Geological Survey; Judge Stephen Field; John F. Morse, a San Francisco physician; and Frederick Law Olmsted, who in 1863 had come to California to manage the Mariposa mining estate, following one of his periodic clashes with the bureaucracy.

Although the Yosemite legislation set a unique legal precedent, little is known of its background. The language of the bill is taken directly from the letter that Raymond wrote to Conness, yet all it says by way of explanation is that “it is important to obtain the proprietorship soon, to prevent occupation [of the valley by homesteaders] and especially to preserve the trees in the valley from destruction.” The bill was not debated in the Congress even though it was the first time that federal land had been dedicated to a nonutilitarian purpose, a policy that would subsequently be seriously, although unsuccessfully, challenged in the Supreme Court on the ground that the federal government was without authority to promote conservation and recreation. Not surprisingly, the statute contains no hint of what (if anything) Congress had in mind about the kind of recreational experience it thought visitors to Yosemite ought to have or about the conflict between preservation and use, although, as we shall see, that was already becoming an issue at popular vacation resorts such as Niagara Falls.

We shall never know exactly how Congress was induced to take so unprecedented a step in fashioning a new public policy, but the explanation probably lies in the influence enjoyed by those who supported the Raymond letter. Josiah Dwight Whitney, whose writings evidence a powerful attraction to places of scenic grandeur, was the scion of a prominent American family that had founded a great mercantile house and given three presidents to Yale. Whitney knew Conness, who, as a member of the California legislature, had written the law creating the California Geological Survey, which Whitney headed. He also knew Judge Field and Thomas Star King. whose church he attended. Whitney’s brother-in-law, who was secretary of the California Steam Navigation Company, may have been the link between Whitney and Raymond. A letter emanating from these sources was nothing less than a message from the leaders of San Francisco society and would inevitably be given more than ordinary attention.

Many have assumed that Frederick Law Olmsted was the theorist behind the creation of Yosemite National Park, but no evidence exists to suggest that a theory preceded

Park visionary Frederick Law Olmsted at Lake Landing in Yellowstone National Park, 1921

Photo by Harlan P. Kelsey, courtesy of the National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection
the establishment of the park at all. Olmsted probably was one of the gentlemen of taste, fortune, and refinement to whom Conness had referred, and it is true that immediately upon the creation of the Yosemite Park, Olmsted was named chairman of its board of commissioners. Laura Wood Roper, Olmsted’s biographer, calls him “the unsung theoretician of the national parks movement” because in 1865 he wrote a report that “formulated the philosophic base for the establishment of state and national parks.”

This report has a history as uncertain as that of the Yosemite legislation. The first and obvious point is that it was not written until the year after Yosemite was established. After being appointed head of the board of commissioners, Olmsted drafted the report to articulate his views on the purpose of the park—and on the measures to be taken to assure the fulfillment of that purpose. But the report was suppressed, presumably by Whitney, because it sought state funds that might have cut into the Geological Survey’s appropriations. According to Laura Wood Roper, who discovered the report in 1952, there is no evidence that anyone knew its contents during the eighty-seven years of its disappearance. There were only fragmentary references to it in the press, and park advocates seem never to have relied upon it. Olmsted may have been not only the unsung but also the unknown theoretician of the movement for national parks.

Olmsted’s curious position necessarily raises the question of the origin of support for the creation of the park system. Speaking of places like Central Park in New York and the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, he once made a statement that was equally true of the national parks:

Parks have plainly not come as the direct result of any great inventions or discoveries of the century. They are not, with us, simply an improvement on what we had before. . . . The movement . . . did not run like a fashion. It would seem rather to have been a common spontaneous movement of that sort which we conveniently refer to the “Genius of Civilization.”

Yet something about the notion of creating the parks must have struck a responsive chord in a great many people, for numerous independent groups of citizens in various places, a lot of writers and journalists, and many people in Washington joined in a single thought—with the result that by 1916, when the National Park Service was established, there were already fourteen national parks in existence.

There has been a good deal of searching for deep meaning in the scanty information surrounding the establishment of Yosemite and Yellowstone and the other early parks. But the most likely explanations are pretty straightforward. In this period of relentless disposition of the public domain, it was reasonable to fear that even the most magnificent scenic sites might soon be turned over to the plow and to the destructive grazing practices that John Muir immortalized in the phrase “hoofed locusts.” The pressures for private settlement were accompanied by the prospect of tourism. By 1869, more than eleven hundred visitors had come to Yosemite.

Visitors at a hot spring in Yellowstone National Park, 1904

Photo by O.W. Dean, courtesy of the National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection

For all its remoteness, exactly the same prospect was in store for Yellowstone, established eight years alter Yosemite. It did not take much imagination to realize that the area’s rock formations and geysers, so fantastic that early reports of them were widely disbelieved, would become one of the world’s great attractions just as soon as decent means of access could be arranged.

Part of the mythology of Yellowstone is that the idea for the park was conceived by one of the area’s early exploratory parties at an after-dinner campfire in 1870. One member of the group is supposed to have suggested a money-making scheme that involved land claims near the geysers, when another interposed to say that private ownership of so wonderful a region ought never to be countenanced; that it ought to be set apart by the government and forever held for the unrestricted use of the public. “This higher view of the subject,” according to Hiram Chittenden in his early book, The Yellowstone National Park, “found immediate acceptance . . . . It was agreed that the project should be at once set afoot and pushed vigorously to a finish.”

The story is an attractive one, but it has been put in proper perspective by the scholar Hans Huth. In his book Nature and the American, Huth reports the discovery of some letters written in 1871 by A.B. Nettleton, an agent for the Northern Pacific Railroad Company. Nettlelon passed on a suggestion which struck him “as being an excellent one, viz: Let Congress pass a bill reserving the Great Geyser Basin as a public park forever. . . . If you approve this would such a recommendation be appropriate in [the] official report [of the U.S. Geological Survey]?” Subsequently, the Northern Pacific became the principal means of access to Yellowstone and its first major concessionaire.

The recognition that Yellowstone and Yosemite would soon become places of great public attractiveness created an urgent sense that means must be taken to protect these treasures from destruction—a concern that was by no means hypothetical. Only a few years after Yellowstone National Park had been established, and before the federal government was yet fully in control of its acreage, an official report lamented that

hunters have for years devoted themselves to the slaughter of game, until within the limits of the park it is hardly to be found . . . the ornamental work about the crater and the pools had been broken and defaced in the most prominent places. . . .The visitors prowled around with shovel and ax. chopping and hacking and prying up great pieces of the most ornamental work they could find; women and men alike joining in the barbarous pastime.

President Theodore Roosevelt and naturalist John Muir on Glacier Point, Yosemite Valley, California, 1906

Photo courtesy of the National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection

A similar concern had received wide publicity in regard to Yosemite. In 1854 some quick-money promoters visited the Mariposa Grove and denuded several of the sequoia trees of huge portions of their bark, which they shipped to London to be exhibited for a fee. Ironically, the size of the trees from which the bark came was, to Europeans, so large as to be beyond belief, and the exhibition, thought to be a fraud, was a financial failure.

The callous misuse of these natural marvels was widely reported and sympathetically attended to, doubtless because there already existed at least one famous example of a great scenic area that had not been preserved as a public park and had suffered badly as a result.

Until the beginning of the automobile era, the most famous and popular tourist attraction in the United States was Niagara Falls. Beginning in 1806, the land around the falls began to be sold into private ownership, and by mid-century two evil consequences of private acquisition were already notorious. Entrepreneurs, to take advantage of the water power, had leveled large areas, stripped away the magnificent native foliage, and built a succession of claptrap buildings, factories, and shops that made Niagara one of the earliest victims of American cityscape blight. At the same time, swarms of petty swindlers took up posts at every point near the falls; tourists were importuned, cajoled, lied to, harassed, and abused by hack drivers, landowners, and every sort of self-appointed guide. By the 1860s not a single point remained in the United States from which the falls could be viewed without paying a landowner an entry fee. Niagara was already a well-known lesson when the first western parks were being created, although it was not established as a public reservation until some years later.

The idea of national parks was not only a natural response to the unhappy experience of Niagara, it also harmonized with a principle that was at the very crest of its influence in American public-land policy. The Yellowstone-Yosemite era was the period of the freeland policy, of the Homestead and Desert Land Acts. Every American family was to have the opportunity to own its farm free of monopolization by the rich. The application of that principle to the great scenic wonders could not be realized by granting a sequoia grove or Grand Canyon to each citizen. But it was possible to preserve the great scenic wonders and prevent their appropriation by private interests by holding them as public places to be used and enjoyed by all.

Olmsted put forward exactly that idea in his 1865 report. Those who are rich enough, he said, reserve for themselves rural retreats as large and luxurious as those of the European aristocracy. They take the choicest natural scenes, and the means of recreation they provide, as “a monopoly of a very few, very rich people.” Unless government intervened to keep the nation’s scenic grandeur in the public domain, “all places favorable in scenery to the recreation of the mind and body will be closed against the mass of the people.”

View of Grand Canyon, 1930

Photo George A. Grant, courtesy of the National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection

To a reader of Olmsted’s report, the most striking fact is that while the parks movement may have been initiated by the elite, it was certainly not for the elite. It is at once obvious why Olmsted’s kind of park policy commended itself to a Congress that had recently enacted the Homestead Act. Jeffersonian idealism and practical concern with preventing despoliation of great natural resources conjoined to make the establishment of the national parks a far less surprising decision than it might at first appear. And, of course, proposals to preserve scenic places followed a period of romantic idealism that had swept the country—the religious naturalism of Thoreau and Emerson, romanticism in the arts, and nostalgia for what was obviously the end of the untamed wilderness, already in submission to the ax, the railroads, and the last campaigns against the Indians.

The parks also appealed to a tenacious American desire to measure up to European civilization. What little discussion one finds in early congressional debates over the parks is full of suggestions that our scenery compares favorably to the Swiss Alps and that we can provide even more dazzling attractions for world travelers. In the awesome scenery of the mountainous west, America had something with which it could at last compete with Europe on an equal plane.

Beyond this, the parks movement, both in its beginnings and later, was extraordinarily fortunate in the quality of its leadership. Simply to mention three of the people most prominently associated with the national parks during their first half-century—Olmsted, John Muir, and Stephen Mather—is to identify three of the most effective shapers of public opinion the country has ever produced. They make an interesting trio—each very different from the other, yet each an American prototype.

Olmsted was the model of a respected establishment figure. He distinguished himself by his intellectual attainments as well as by his administrative and organizational ability. His books on the pre-Civil War South brought him early and lasting prominence. His leadership during the war, as executive secretary of the U.S. Sanitary Commission (predecessor of the Red Cross), together with his struggles with the Tammany mob over the management of Central Park, established him as a man of affairs. His success as a founding figure in landscape architecture gave him enormous professional stature. And, not least, his comfortable background and social standing gave him easy access to the rich and powerful.

Stephen T. Mather, the first director of the National Park Service (in motorcycle side car), Yellowstone National Park, 1923

Photo courtesy of the National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection

Although Olmsted is associated with the national parks principally as a creator of ideas, he was plainly an effective shaper of events as well. He was responsible for the organization and direction of the long and difficult campaign for the establishment of a park around Niagara Falls. As early as 1869 he began meeting with influential opinion makers to plan how to combat the desecration of the falls. He directed the preparation of many magazine articles and of a petition that contained as dazzling a list of signers as any such document has ever had, including the signatures of all the sitting justices of the Supreme Court. The Niagara effort ended in success in 1883 when a bill authorizing creation of a state reservation was enacted by the New York legislature. Olmsted was plainly one kind of American hero, an idealist who could translate his ideas into effective political action.

John Muir was a very different, but at least equally appealing, figure. Muir embodied a great many of the personality characteristics of the western fantasy hero: a lonely, independent, self-reliant figure, sure of his values and uncorrupted by the softening ways of urban life. One can hardly think of the national parks without bringing to mind those photographs of John Muir, lean and austere, as unyielding in appearance as in principle, framed against the no less rugged peaks of the Sierras.

Muir was a folk-figure, but beyond that he, too, was a skillful shaper of public opinion. Unlike Olmsted, who wrote little after his early books on the South, and that with difficulty and awkward stiffness, Muir was a master of vivid, descriptive prose. He made the mountains come alive for millions to whom a voyage to California was a hoped-for, once-in-a-lifetime aspiration.

John Muir was no less impressive in person than he was in print. His landmark tour of the high country with Teddy Roosevelt, a public relations triumph of the highest order, was only one of many such experiences. Robert Underwood Johnson, editor of the influential Century magazine, describes in his autobiography an 1889 meeting with Muir and a subsequent tour of Muir country under the master’s tutelage. Thereafter, Century opened its pages to Muir, who used them to very great effect in the later battles over Yosemite.

Stephen Mather was in no sense a founder; he did not become a figure in national park history until 1915, but as the first director of the National Park Service, he dominates the whole first era of the national parks system as a governmental institution. A millionaire businessman, Mather was a disciple of John Muir and an indefatigable admirer of the Sierra Nevada mountains. And he was the very model of an American salesman. He brought to the park service the identical traits—enthusiasm, imagination, a keen public relations sense, lavish spending, and an eye for good young talent—that had made him a commercial success.

Mather perceived that any public enterprise needed friends in the legislature, frequent and continual praise in the press, and the goodwill of vast numbers of ordinary people. He set out to achieve each of those goals and did so with incomparable success and a generous dose of the personal flair and color that always made for good publicity. When the government would not make money available for the construction of the much needed Tioga Road in Yosemite, he used his own funds. He drove around the parks in a big black motorcar with a special and much-photographed license, “US NPS 1.” And he went from park to park personally greeting astonished tourists. He was the perfect opposite of everything that is encompassed in the expression “faceless bureaucrat.”

Stephen T. Mather at Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park, 1926

Photo by Stone, courtesy of the National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection

Perhaps Mather’s most characteristic, successful, and widely known achievement occurred in 1915 as part of an effort to garner support for the upcoming congressional consideration of the bill to create a National Park Service. The need for such legislation had long been recognized, for every one of the fourteen parks then in existence was being run as a separate entity. There was no central park policy or budget, and the parks, having been managed to a substantial extent by the U.S. Cavalry, were in urgent need of both money and intelligent coordination. Bills had been introduced since 1910, and Congress had held hearings twice, but no law was brought to the point of enactment until Mather came on the scene.

To set the stage for the coming legislative session, Mather decided to have a little outing with some opinion leaders, to imbue them with the mystique of the parks and persuade them to put their influence behind the bill to establish the National Park Service, all the while having a splendid time in the high country. Among Mather’s guests were Fairfield Osborn, head of The American Museum of Natural History; Emerson Hough, one of the most renowned writers of the day; Fred H. Gillett, the future Speaker of the House of Representatives and the ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee; Gilbert H. Grosvenor, editor of National Geographic; E. O. McCormick, vice president of the Southern Pacific Railway; and Burton Holmes, a travel lecturer. For nearly two weeks, the distinguished party saw the best of the Sierras. As one magazine article put it,

Mather had spared no expense in outfitting his guests. Each man had a new sleeping bag and air mattress which combined to make a classy and perfectly comfortable wilderness bed. There were horses to carry the men and mules to carry the supplies, which included a bountiful stock of fresh fruit, fresh eggs and other delicacies. . . . As camp was pitched, Tie Sing, a marvelous camp cook whom Mather had borrowed from the U.S. Geological Survey for the occasion, would construct a dining table, usually out of logs, and then . . . a linen table cloth would show up, and real napkins for everybody. Tie Sing would put together his collapsible stoves and calmly prepare soup, lettuce salad, fried chicken, venison and gravy, potatoes, hot rolls, apple pie, cheese, tea and coffee.

Just as Mather had hoped, generous support and lavish publicity in favor of the parks began to roll out; the April 1916 issue of National Geographic was wholly devoted to the national parks. By August 25, right on schedule, President Wilson signed the bill creating the National Park Service and Mather became its first director.

As one reviews the early history of the national parks, what at first seems an astonishing anomaly begins to take shape as a series of events very much in tune with contemporary American attitudes, helped along mightily by friends of extraordinary skill, ability, and influence.

The attractiveness and success of the idea of creating national parks, however, is easier to understand than the content of “the national parks idea.” In recent years, as tourism has grown, the parks have been at the center of many controversies over the question, What kinds of recreational uses ought the national park system serve? All agree that the parks are for public use and that their great scenery must be protected from destruction. To recognize these fundamentals, however, is hardly to begin to deal with the questions raised by the competing claims of the many constituencies of park users. Should hotels and other accommodations be permitted within the parks or should they be located outside the park boundaries? Should the park service put in more camping facilities and supportive services to accommodate the ever growing number of people who want to use the parks or should access and use be limited so as to provide an uncrowded recreational experience? Is it proper to open the parks to snowmobiles or elaborate downhill skiing operations? Other, less obvious questions arise, such as, Should the park service permit concessionaires to advertise to attract business conventions to the parks—even in the off-season when their facilities are not otherwise full?

The usual place to look for answers to such questions is in the history of congressional enactments establishing the national parks, for it is Congress that is supposed to make national park policy. A detailed examination of that history, however, would not only be tedious but fruitless because in the many decades that have passed since Yosemite was first established, Congress has never resolved or even grappled with these hard questions.

Congress long ago established that the parks should be protected against destruction and that they should be made available to the ordinary citizen, rather than preempted as a preserve for the rich. But to say that the parks are for the people is not necessarily to say that they are for intensive mass recreational use.

A Locomobile in Yosemite National Park, 1900, probably the first auto to enter Yosemite

Photo courtesy of the National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection

All we really know about congressional intent is that there were some activities that Congress did not want in the parks. With rare exceptions, mining and dam building have been prohibited in the parks for many years. Unlike the national forests, the parks have not been set aside for multiple use—recreation and grazing, timber harvesting and wildlife conservation. Gifford Pinchot, then chief forester of the United States and a spokesman for scientific forest management, fought and lost that battle against the conservationists—he called them “nature fakirs”—in 1916. In that year, despite Pinchot’s best efforts, Congress enacted the only general policy mandate it has ever issued for the parks, and it continues to be the central statement of park policy today. The so-called Organic Act is a clear repudiation of those who wanted the parks to be used for industrial purposes as well as conservation and recreation, but it says nothing about the balance to be drawn between preservation and use so as to resolve the issues that are being raised today by MCA and other aggressive concessionaires. The Organic Act simply says:

The [National Park Service] shall promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks . . . by such means and measures as conform to the fundamental purpose of said parks . . . which is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.

Conservation for posterity is the stated purpose of the parks, but that hardly tells us whether ski lifts, winterized roads, and improved hotels are appropriate. A more recent law, enacted in 1965, adds nothing to our understanding; it merely says it “is the policy of the Congress that such development [in the parks] shall be limited to those that are necessary and appropriate for public use and enjoyment of the national park area in which they are located and that are consistent to the highest practicable degree with the preservation and conservation of the areas.” The intent of Congress is simply not known. It would probably be more accurate to say that there does not exist any explicit intention.

To understand national parks legislation, we must adopt a rarely taken approach. In passing laws, Congress often does not initiate the ideas that it transforms into statutes; rather it acquiesces in, and associates itself with, the views of private citizens who have urged those ideas on it. Without fully exploring those ideas for itself, Congress acts to give legitimacy to a point of view that has captured the imagination of the public. It would be impossible to appreciate the legislative battles in England over factory reform legislation in the early decades of the Industrial Resolution without understanding the impact on public thought of an Adam Smith, on the one hand, or of social-reform novelists such as Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell, on the other. Nor, as scholars of constitutional law have long understood, can cryptically stated provisions in the Bill of Rights be appropriately interpreted without a thorough knowledge of the historical experience out of which they grew.

Rather than merely picking over the sterile fragments of official history that have been left us, we should turn our attention to the aspirations of those who devoted their lives to persuading the American public of the efficacy and importance of parks. Within that small but influential group, one figure, Frederick Law Olmsted, stands out above all others. It would be impertinent to insist that Congress must be charged with having mandated Olmsted’s beliefs into legislation, and it must be noted, with sadness, that Olmsted’s ideas have been substantially betrayed in each of the places he worked to save—Yosemite Valley, Niagara, Central Park. But it is not too much to suggest that the values he sought to advance in his professional life provide an appropriate background against which to test our national parks policy.

The key to understanding Olmsted’s thought is the recognition that he had more than merely a theory about recreation—he had a philosophy of leisure. His writings reveal that he held the same view of urban parks as of the national parks and, indeed, the same view of suburban residential developments as he did of urban and national parks. Every important idea in his 1865 Yosemite Report also appears in his work on Central Park, Niagara Falls, and the other places to which he turned his formidable talents.

Olmsted was not just a builder of parks; he was the author of a distinctive theory about the role parks ought to play in a democratic society. Nothing was further from his view than the now widely held idea that in a democracy the sole acceptable park policy is to facilitate access for the greatest number of people that can be accommodated and then to establish whatever activities the popular sentiments of the hour appear to demand. Instead he held to what might elaborately be called an intertemporal theory of democratic legitimacy: that the justification for the use of the parks must be sought in the long-term judgment of the people and that there was a legitimate role for leadership in a democratic society.

Buffalo herd near Fort Yellowstone, 1905

Photo by William Henry Jackson, Copyright © 1905 Detroit Photographic Co., courtesy of the National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection

Olmsted never had the slightest doubt that he would be vindicated by history. In what was probably the most revealing statement he ever made, he reflected late in his life that there were “scattered through the country seventeen large public parks . . . upon which . . . I have been engaged. . . . They are a hundred years ahead of any spontaneous public demand.” To the charges, made repeatedly during his career, that he was what we would call an elitist, Olmsted had a two-word reply—Central Park. The great achievement of his life was the design of a park that met no extant public demand because no such park had been conceived of until he created it. He said of Central Park, “A large part of the people of New York are ignorant of a park, properly so-called. They will need to be trained to the use of it. . . .”

When a question arose in Central Park’s early days about its remote location from the great bulk of the populace, so that it was accessible mainly to the affluent, Olmsted coolly responded that the park had been designed to be in the middle of the city when New York doubled its size. Long before Manhattan became a treeless vista of vast towers that dwarfed the individual, Olmsted had the dazzling idea that the New York resident of the future would appreciate nothing so much as a rural vista. And in 1865, writing about then virtually unknown Yosemite, he could calmly and confidently talk about visitors in the “millions” that the next century would bring.

His vision, however, was not merely an exercise in prophecy. He saw the popular demands of the moment as being principally the product of self-interested manipulation by those who had much to gain by a determined shaping of public opinion to their own ends. In his Yosemite Report, he observes that the governing classes of Europe had preempted the great scenic resources to their own exclusive use not simply out of selfishness but because they had persuaded themselves that the masses were incapable of rising above a brutish existence. Thus they thought it was pointless to make available a form of leisure designed to elicit from the ordinary citizen the exercise of the “esthetic and contemplative faculties.”

The product of such a view was a policy that treated ordinary people as passive objects to be entertained at the most superficial level. The mass recreation that existed was not, in Olmsted’s view, a response to popular demand, but rather the calculated provision by those in control of a program of “bread and circuses.” The governing elite, Olmsted complained, think it desirable “so far as the recreations of the masses of the nation receive attention from their rulers, to provide artificial pleasure for them, such as theatres, parades, and promenades where they will be amused by the equipages of the rich and the animation of the crowds.” Of course, those who profited from the provision of mass entertainment were more than happy to make such passive “artificial pleasures” available.

The great test case for Olmsted was Niagara, for the campaign to “save” Niagara was, after all, a battle in service of a place that was the single most popular tourist attraction in the United States. Four years before the New York legislature authorized acquisition of the land bordering Niagara Falls, Olmsted responded to criticisms from those who had been making money providing tourist attractions and who thus opposed the park. According to them, Olmsted said, the flow of tourists had continued to grow despite all the developments that he and his associates so vigorously condemned.

Were all the trees cut away, quarries opened in the ledges, the banks packed with hotels and factories, and every chance open space occupied by a circus tent, the Falls would still, these think, draw the world to them. Whatever has been done to the injury of the scenery has been done, say they, with the motive of profit, and the profit realized is the public’s verdict of acquittal.

Just as fourteen years earlier, in the Yosemite Report, he had attacked those who condescended to the public by providing them with passive entertainments, here he made explicit his conviction that the public is perfectly capable of being led and can be induced to acquiesce in that which is put before them. His response was that “the public has not had the case fairly before it. The great body of visitors to Niagara come as strangers. Their movements are necessarily controlled by the arrangements made for them. They take what is offered, and pay what is required with little exercise of choice. The fact that they accept the arrangements is no evidence of their approval.”

To Olmsted, mere public acquiescence was not the hallmark of democracy. He was sophisticated enough to see that Niagara as it was represented the imposition of a standard of taste no less than Niagara as he sought to make it. In the former case it embodied the standard of taste imposed by those whose goal was to exact as much money as possible from the tourist. In the latter it would reflect the aspiration of those who believed that an experience of quiet solitude in a setting of untrammeled natural scenery could attract and stir the contemplative faculty in even the most ordinary citizen.

Auto tour at Sylvan Lake, Yellowstone National Park, 1916

Photo by Haynes, courtesy of the National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection

The proof, of course, is now before us. Niagara lost not a whit of its popularity after the state park was created and the most obtrusive structures and most strident hawkers removed from its premises. The national parks, kept largely untrammeled, have grown in popularity with each passing decade. The wilderness system has proved itself beyond the most extravagant expectations of those who struggled for its creation against continued charges of antidemocratic elitism. At the same time, the landscape is strewn with the remnants of once-popular resorts developed down to the last acre of available land. Is there anyone today who would trade Glacier National Park or the Everglades for Atlantic City, or who, recoiling today from the power lines and neon in the vicinity of Niagara, does not believe that its environs ought to have been reserved in the national parks model a century and a half ago?

As Olmsted demonstrated, the question in a democratic society is not the acceptance or rejection of what the people want. People get the recreation that imaginative leadership gives them. No one wanted Disneyland any more than they wanted Yosemite National Park. The question is whether there is a legitimate place in this society for recreation that is not likely to be sufficiently profitable for private entrepreneurs.

It is to this question that Olmsted provided the distinctive answer that lies at the heart of his achievement. The essence of recreational policy in a democratic society, he believed, was the willingness to treat the ordinary citizen as something other than a passive customer to be managed and entertained. Olmsted based his theory of recreation on what he called “a faith in the refinement of the republic,” a faith in the possibility of liberation from self-interested manipulation.

Many years ago, he said, before Niagara had become a tourist industry, “a visit to the Falls was a series of expeditions, and in each expedition hours were occupied in wandering slowly among the trees, going from place to place, with many intervals of rest. . . . There was not only a much greater degree of enjoyment, there was a different kind of enjoyment. . . . People then were loath to leave the place; many lingered on from day to day . . . revisiting ground they had gone over before, turning and returning.”

All that had changed by the 1870s; the visitor had become the object of prepared entertainment. “Visitors are so much more constrained to be guided and instructed, to be led and stopped, to be ’put through,’ and so little left to natural and healthy individual intuitions. The aim to make money by the showman’s methods . . . is so presented to the visitor that he is forced to yield to it, and to see and feel little else than that prescribed to him.”

Leisure was the counterpoint of life for Olmsted. It was the occasion for putting all the busy, filled hours of daily routine into perspective. He fully appreciated that in the hurried pace of urban life in an industrial age, nothing was more essential than occasions for testing the importance of one’s daily tasks against some permanent standard of value. Like other observers of the industrial world, he perceived the dangers of a life of meaningless activity where all that had stood for permanence and value in the traditional world had been swept away—the centrality of the church, continuity of place and position, the binding forces of tradition itself.

Unlike some great scholars of industrialism, Olmsted was fundamentally hopeful. He believed it was possible to engage the contemplative faculty by inserting in the physical setting of the modern world a rhythm of nature as a standard of permanent value.

Everywhere in his work one basic idea is dominant—the idea of contrast. Modern man must have an opportunity to contrast the pace, setting, values, and activities that dominate his daily life. He must be permitted to stir the contemplative spirit by being provided an experience that literally removes him from all the forces that impel his daily routine.

We want a ground to which people may easily go after their day’s work is done, and where they may stroll for an hour, seeing, hearing, and feeling nothing of the bustle and jar of the streets, where they shall, in effect, find the city put far away from them. We want the greatest possible contrast with the streets and the shops and the rooms of the town. . . . We want, especially, the greatest possible contrast with the restraining and confining conditions of the town . . . a simple, broad, open space of clean greensward, with sufficient number of trees about it to supply a variety of light and shade . . . to completely shut out the city from landscapes. . . . What we want is tranquility and rest to the mind.

A buck begs at car in Yellowstone National Park, 1926.

Photo courtesy of the National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection

When Olmsted spoke of “pleasure or recreation,” he had something quite different in mind from what we commonly comprehend by terms like “recreation,” Indeed, Olmsted spent a good part of his life fighting off various attempts to use Central Park for “towers, houses, drinking fountains, telescopes . . . Aeolian harps, gymnasiums, observatories and weighing scales, for the sale of eatables, velocipedes, Indian work, tobacco and segars.”

A park full of human improvements will of necessity be a place that reflects the fashions and interests of the moment; it will emphasize and glorify the values of the moment. A natural park has nothing so much as the quality of timelessness. It stands outside the scale of human achievement.

The provision of parks to make available this sense of contrast led to the second of Olmsted’s fundamental premises: his unyielding opposition to artifice. It would be easy to misconstrue this position as simply advocacy of wilderness, but a careful study of his view makes clear that Olmsted had something quite different in mind. He never lost sight of his principle that the parks were to be designed to accommodate large numbers of people without depriving them of the kind of experience for which the areas had been created. Thus in his 1887 Niagara Report he stated the principle as follows:

Nothing of an artificial character should be allowed a place on the property, no matter how valuable it might be under other circumstances and no matter at how little cost it may be had, the presence of which can be avoided consistently with the provisions of necessary conditions for making the enjoyment of the natural scenery available.

In proposing a detailed plan for the Niagara reservation, Olmsted described his principle of necessary artifice. He thought it quite appropriate, for example, to equip a train stop with toilets, shelters, picnic facilities, and the like. And he further recommended the building of walkways, as well as restorative efforts to combat erosion and restore barren areas.

He was opposed to fancy landscaping, because “it is calculated to draw off and dissipate regard for natural scenery” in favor of an exaltation of human ingenuity. Since his report was a practical planning document, he carefully responded to a variety of developmental proposals. One plan urged that a fine restaurant he built on Goat Island, a wild place just above Niagara Falls. Olmsted conceded that any structure would to some degree obscure and distract attention from the natural scene, but that alone was not sufficient to disqualify it. Rather, he asked, “will the absence of places of refreshment cause such hardship to visitors, reasonably prudent for themselves, as to seriously interfere with the general enjoyment by the public of the scenery?” Noting that a modest drive would bring visitors to hotels and restaurants located outside of the reservation boundaries, he opposed the planned restaurant.

Probably the most revealing expression of Olmsted’s approach was his opposition to a proposal to permit people to see the falls without having to leave their carriages. Olmsted was by no means a wilderness advocate, and for him the question of people being asked to walk, rather than ride, through the reservation was a serious one. Being a professional planner, he always had a highly practical response. In this instance, he began by observing that each carriage took up much more space than a pedestrian, and in a place where as many as 10,000 people a day visited, even in the 1880s, he argued for the exclusion of carriages as an effective means of enlarging the carrying capacity of the park.

But that was not his principal concern. To experience the park as a contrast, to get inside the scenic experience, it was necessary to take some time to see the falls at length and at leisure. To design the scenic viewing areas to accommodate numbers of carriages would “interpose an urban, artificial element plainly in conflict with the purposes for which the Reservation has been made.” The point is a powerful one. There is nothing malevolent in seeing the park from a carriage moving rapidly from one fixed, scenic overlook spot to another, but Olmsted regarded it as an urban experience, a man-dominated experience rather than a timeless experience in which the falls were the overwhelming presence. Niagara, Olmsted insisted, should be managed to encourage people to view the falls “in an absorbed and contemplative way.” To such an experience, the carriage is an obstruction.

Atcheson, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad Advertisement in Harper’s Weekly, December 3, 1910

Image courtesy of the National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection

If there is any perspective that dominates contemporary thinking about the parks, and about recreation in general, it is the consumer perspective. To this viewpoint, Olmsted presents the elevating contrast of a cultural perception of the uses of leisure. To speak of man as the measure of all things is not only to state a cliché but to describe a world in which the rhythm of life is tuned only to the pace of human enterprise. It is not that we are necessarily going too fast, but that we risk losing contact with any external standards that help us to decide how fast we want to go. It is the function of culture to preserve a link to forces and experiences outside of the daily routine of life. Such experiences provide a perspective—in time and space—against which we can test the value, as well as the immediate efficacy. of what we are doing.

Every culture provides institutions that preserve the possibility of perspective. The Sabbath as a day of rest provides the opportunity to infuse the relentless passage of time with meaning. The Constitution, in our legal system, builds a perspective of time into social decision making, which by creating a link with the values that dominated our past acts as a restraining force on the instincts of the moment. And the museum collects the experience of our predecessors in a display of all that has given value to the generations before us who have experienced the joys and travails of birth, growth, and death. In short, culture gives context to our lives, and context is the indispensable ingredient for a life infused with value.

This view puts many contemporary park controversies in proper perspective. It is clear that Olmsted would have found a golf course in Yosemite Park an anomaly, not because people do not enjoy golfing in the midst of magnificent scenery or because golf is a less desirable activity than hiking, but because the center of attention would be diverted from the experience of nature to the achievements of man. By the same reasoning, Olmsted had no objection, as such, to building roads and to the use of vehicles in a park. To Olmsted, an issue like roads was not an either/or question but a question of speed and congestion. To build highways so that masses of people could be moved through the parks, catching a glimpse of the scenery as they passed, or to stop here and there to add to their list of “things done” the observation of a famous sight was to misconceive the purpose for which the parks were created.

This perspective tells us a good deal about the kinds of facilities that are appropriate within the parks. There is nothing wrong with having some cabins or hotels within the park boundaries, but they should be designed to do no more than facilitate the opportunity to experience the park’s scenery. The park is not an appropriate place to put a masterpiece of human architecture nor is it a place in which to found a distinguished restaurant or a mall of fashionable shops; again, not because it is inappropriate for people to enjoy these amenities, but because they divert the visitor’s attention to the achievements of man. This is not to say, of course, that one cannot enjoy the scenery during the day and a fine dinner and nightclub afterward; it is simply to say that the purpose of the parks is to draw people out of the routine of daily life, to create a total and encompassing experience, to change the entirety of their pace and permit the rhythm of the park to take over. This is the reason Olmsted said, in his Niagara Report, that if “a costly object of art, like the Statue of Liberty, should be tendered to the State on condition that it should be set up on Goat Island; it would have to be declined, as would a museum or library, worthy as they are.”

Here and there in the literature of exploration of the parks there is an explicit statement of the kind of experience that Olmsted sought to engender when he spoke of stirring the contemplative faculty. It is at the heart of the writings of Thoreau and John Muir. It is to be found, more recently, in Cohn Fletcher’s description of his pioneering two-month walk through the Grand Canyon of the Colorado:

The rhythm of the rocks beats very slowly, that is all. The minute hand of its clock moves by the millions of years. . . . And if you listen carefully—when you have immersed yourself long enough, physically and mentally, in enough space and enough silence and enough solitude—you begin to detect, even though you are not looking for it, something faintly familiar about the rhythm. You remember hearing that beat before, point and counterpoint, pulsing through the inevitably forward movement of river and journey. . . . And you grasp at last, in a fuller and more certain way than you ever have before, that all these worlds move forward, each at its own tempo, in harmony with some unique basic rhythm of the universe. . . . We all of us experience this oceanic feeling, I think, at some time or other. . . . I felt, now, a sense of common origin and direction. . . . And while it lasted nothing else mattered, nothing else existed.

Cars meet Yellowstone-bound passengers beside the train at Gardiner, Montana, in June 1930.

Photo courtesy of the National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection

Fletcher’s description, extravagant as it is, nonetheless encompasses the totality of experience that has underlain the impetus for a system of parks—from the limited setting of New York’s Central Park to the vast reaches of the great western national parks—the desire to create a setting in which there can be an immersion in the natural scene. From this perspective, it is plain why there has been vigorous objection to the use of the national parks for conventions, whether or not they take place in the “off-season,” and despite the fact that nothing in the nature of a business convention could be said to “impair the scenery.” A convention tourist cannot, by the very nature of his or her visit, submit fully to the rhythm of the place.

The same reasoning explains why there has been opposition to downhill skiing developments, but no objection to cross-country skiing in the parks. The distinction has seemed too subtle to persuade some, but it is fully in accord with the Olmsted philosophy. Although one of the most delightful leisure activities, downhill skiing exists today as a magnet sport—drawing large numbers of people together in a small place, making them dependent upon rather substantial mechanisms for transportation to the top of the run, drawing a cadre of professional teachers, spawning classes with elaborate hierarchies of achievers, and turning a great deal of attention to a vast panoply of equipment and clothing. The end product, more often than not, is everything that characterizes an urban assemblage of people—crowds, striving, economic distinctions, feelings of dependence, time pressures, and the like. This is the antithesis of everything that the parks were designed to promote.

A failure to appreciate that the parks are more than simply undestroyed scenery has led to another controversy—the proposed development of only a tiny fraction, perhaps 1 or 2 percent, of the total park acreage. The difficulty with this argument is that most developments are proposed for the most attractive and most accessible parts of the park. There may be a great deal of unspoiled Yosemite Park outside the valley, but it is to the valley that most visitors come, especially those least familiar with the park.

To permit intrusions in such places, however small in size, is to impair the opportunity to experience the natural scene in the only places that most first-time visitors are likely to see. It is especially ironic that proposals for developments in the park are justified on the ground that they will provide services for the inexperienced, most of whom are leery of the rugged backcountry. Yet if such developments are allowed, the visitor arrives to find that the only area of the park that is easily accessible to him is not the celebrated scene that John Muir depicted, but a congeries of trailers, shops, restaurants, and cabins.

Even this contradiction is not enough to dissuade some developers. They respond that the parks cannot serve Olmsted’s aspirations if people do not visit them, and that it is a necessary part of the educational ambition of the park system to bring the people to the parks so that these timeless areas can begin to work their magic on visitors. Even Stephen Mather once suggested that the parks should set out to attract people by building golf links, tennis courts, and swimming pools.

There is more than a little irony in reviewing today that aspect of Mather’s approach to the national parks, for while he spent his life winning friends and popular support for the park system, the measure of his success is that the most serious current problem of the parks is that they risk being loved to death. Indeed, from their very first years, the national parks have grown steadily in use and popularity (except for temporary remissions during wartime and economic depression). And they have grown in use despite the reluctance of the National Park Service, even during its periods of greatest developmental enthusiasm, to build facilities such as golf courses, swimming pools, or tennis courts.

View from Glacier Point, Yosemite National Park, 1915

Photo by Keystone View Company Studios, Meadville, Pennsylvania, © Underwood & Underwood, courtesy of the National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection

To the extent that the park service has allowed urbanizing influences to dominate park management, as in the Yosemite Valley, a quite different lesson has emerged. It is that the parks become a magnet for those who are seeking the kind of uses that these areas permit. The building of elaborate hotels, shops, and modern campgrounds attracts more and more people in search of the kind of recreation those facilities promote. Of course there are vast numbers of tourists who are in pursuit of what might he called high-intensity urban recreation and who are glad to have it in the striking setting of a Yosemite Valley. And there are many who want to go to any place where many others are going. A few years ago, Bryan Harry, the chief naturalist at Yosemite, said: “People used to come for the beauty and serenity. Those who come now don’t mind the crowds: in fact, they like them. They are sightseers, and they come for the action.”

The managerial principle seems to be that the parks become whatever the parks are permitted to be. Moreover, those who come to participate in high-intensity recreation inevitably create a demand for the supportive services appropriate to that activity. Olmsted fully understood this. He knew that even with the most sensitive management the parks would attract more people than they could reasonably accommodate at a given time, and in his Niagara Report he explicitly recommended techniques for limiting access. To Olmsted there was nothing inherently democratic about a crowd.

Perhaps the saddest element in the controversy over the national parks is that in a sincere effort to make the parks democratic, we have felt constrained to make them familiar; and in making them familiar, we have threatened to deprive them of their distinctive natural rhythms. Not many years ago, in a policy report now happily no longer the dominant view, the park service was advised that the majority want “the comforts and conveniences of modern travel and living. It therefore seems undemocratic and unrealistic not to provide such housing or camping accommodations as most visitors desire.” Even as thoughtful and committed a supporter of the national parks as Bernard DeVoto, writing in Harper’s in 1953, expressed a view of park problems that indicates how far perceptions of the park purpose had strayed from its origin. Calling for increased appropriations to the National Park Service, he reports:

A middle-aged couple with a Cadillac makes a formal protest: it is annoying that they must wait three-quarters of an hour to get a table at Lookout Point Lodge. . . . Another woman reports that the toilet at Inspiration Cliff Camp Ground has been clogged since early last evening. . . . A man pounds the desk and shouts that he hit a chuck hole on Rimrock Drive and broke a spring.

These are reasonable enough complaints, but they are essentially a list of grievances identical to those people have at home: potholes in the streets, inadequate plumbing, slow service. They are the urban complaints of urban denizens, produced by a park system that is providing an urban experience.

The greatest danger the parks face is the subversion of Olmsted’s vision of democracy by the notion that the parks must serve the taste for convenience that cities have spawned. As recently as this year the National Park Service proposed a mechanical tramway to take visitors to the summit of Guadalupe Peak in Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas. The reason, it said, was that “all visitors should he offered the opportunity to reach such a strategic point, and by a mode of access convenient to . . . the majority.” But what shall these visitors have reached when they attain the top of a mechanized mountain? Perhaps we can do no better than leave a final response to the always wise Aldo Leopold:

Let me tell of a “wild” river bluff which until 1935 harbored a falcon’s eyrie. Many visitors walked a quarter mile to the river bank to picnic and to watch the falcons. Comes now some alphabetic builder of “country parks” and dynamites a road to the river, all in the name of “recreational planning.” The excuse is that the public formerly had no right of access, now it has such a right. Access to what? Not access to the falcons, for they are gone.

National Park Service links:

Joseph L. Sax in 1976

Joseph L. Sax today

At the time this article appeared, in 1976, the biographical note recorded that Joseph L. Sax was an ardent admirer of our national parks who spent much of his time hiking their trails. Based at the University of Michigan Law School, where he taught environmental law, he had studied park history, use, and administration. His writings and other work dealing with environmental laws had led in 1975 to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Environmental Quality Award. In 2006, having continued to teach environmental law, water law, public land law, and property rights for three more decades, Sax is House & Hurd Endowment Professor, emeritus, at the University of California, Berkeley. From 1994 to 1996 he served as Counselor to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, where his areas of responsibility were property rights legislation, water rights, and implementation and reauthorization of the endangered species act. A graduate of Harvard College and the University of Chicago law school, he holds an honorary doctor of laws degree from the Illinois Institute of Technology and is the recipient of many honors, including the Elizabeth Haub Award given in Conjunction with the Free University of Brussels, the Environmental Law Institute Award, the Sierra Club William 0. Douglas Legal Achievement Award, and the National Wildlife Federation Resource Defense Award. Among his publications, Sax is the author of Defending the Environment (1970), Mountains without Handrails (1980), and Playing Darts with a Rembrandt (2000) and co-author of Legal Control of Water Resources (fourth edition forthcoming 2006).

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