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In defense of standards.

Since its outset, NPCA has been concerned with upholding a high level of quality for the National Park System.

Throughout its 75 years, the National Parks and Conservation Association has been the flag-bearer in the struggle to maintain high standards for national parks. Defending these standards has, at various times, been its principal mission. At its founding in 1919, the association committed itself to developing a "complete and rational system" of national parks, which would contain the full range of American flora, fauna, and scenery. Yet, the system would be confined to areas "so extraordinary that they shall make the name national park an American trademark...."

The National Parks Association (renamed NPCA in 1970) began its defense in 1922 shortly after President Warren G. Harding's appointment of Albert Fall as Secretary of the Interior. A former senator and New Mexico rancher, Fall proposed a new national park in his home state to be called All-Year National Park. It would include the Mescalero Indian Reservation and, coincidentally, lie close to Secretary Fall's ranch. The association opposed the proposal as a self-serving pork-barrel project far below the standard of extraordinary significance.

The June 1992 National Parks Bulletin described the proposed park as "a number of little wooded spots, miles apart in the valley bottoms in the Indian reservation, plus a bit of badlands 40 miles away, plus a sample of gypsum desert 38 miles away, plus a ...reservoir 90 miles away, all these across deserts of heavy sand." Fall engineered passage of his park bill through the Senate, and the association and its allies mounted a defense, ultimately killing the proposal in the House.

Early in the system's history, criteria for a national park were vague, a situation that made proposals like Fall's possible and made it evident that a more specific definition was needed. NPA's Robert Sterling Yard (who also worked for the National Park Service (NPS)) described how Park Service Director Stephen Mather and his staff puzzled over the matter as they created the National Park System.

"At the very beginning arose among us the question: What are National Parks anyway? Everyone knew generally, and no one knew specially. [Yellowstone Superintendent and later Park Service Director Horace] Albright, the lawyer, searched the books and records in vain for a definition. Mather and I asked officials, members of Congress, park-makers in the West, seers generally wherever found. A dozen offered definitions differed radically."

They decided "the parks themselves must furnish the definition." Interior Secretary Franklin Lane's famous 1918 national parks policy letter (crafted by Albright with help from Yard and others) asserted that park areas should be unique to "be of national interest and importance." (A precise definition of "national interest" and criteria to judge "importance" were still lacking.)

And this standard for national parks also was tested. Some members of Congress believed establishing a park was an easy way to provide an economic boost for their regions, and park proposals proliferated in the late 1920s. NPA fought an unquestionably inferior Ouchita National Park proposed in Arkansas, an area with few outstanding qualities. Twelve other areas, most of little national significance, were proposed for park status in 1927, and a Wisconsin congressman introduced a bill to create a national park or forest in every state. NPA and its allies mounted what Yard called a "campaign of righteousness" against these proposals.

In 1923 the Camp Fire Club of America, a group dedicated to conservation and enjoyment of the outdoors, drafted a statement on national park standards that was endorsed by many organizations, including NPA. William B. Greeley, who chaired the Committee on Conservation of the Camp Fire Club, was an NPA trustee. At his urging, in 1926 NPA adopted the club's declaration on standards and used it as the foundation of its position for the next 30 years. The three-page list included very specific criteria for parks. NPA committees revised the statement over the years and issued new "declarations of policy" on standards in 1945 and 1956.

In the mid-1920s, NPA faced what was to become a recurring dilemma. The proposed Shenandoah National Park offered the first test. The association favored a park in the southern Appalachians but had reservations about the Shenandoah area. NPA wrestled with the question of whether the Shenandoah - long settled and highly modified by generations of human activity - met the criteria of an extraordinary and nationally significant natural area. Internal arguments raged for years, and because the proposed enjoyed strong support among national park advocates, the association ultimately took no strong public stand.

The motto for NPA during the 1930s might have been: Save only the greatest and most sublime scenic and primeval landscapes for the highest educational and inspirational purposes. The National Park System should be a pure expression of conservation. National parks should be museum pieces; and just as a rare, cultural artifact is given unequivocal protection from alteration and commercial exploitation, so should a national park. Adhering to this high cause placed the association at odds with those intent on exploiting parkland for profit as well as those who believed in national parks but in the pure way embraced by NPA.

NPA took a much criticized public position in opposing proposals for Olympic National Park in Washington and Kings Canyon National Park in California, along with a plan to enlarge Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. The association sided with the National Park Service supporting an Olympic park smaller than one advocated by most of the conservation community. The larger park proposed by Rosalie Edge's Emergency Conservation Committee and others would, NPA believed, compromise standards by including areas that would ultimately be logged. The association believed a smaller, defensible park made more sense, since it would be less vulnerable to the timber industry. The larger park was created, and Edge, Willard Van Name, and other Olympic Park advocates branded NPA "stooges" of the timber industry.

The issue for NPA in the battle over Kings Canyon was whether it could support an inferior park proposal. The Sierra Club led the effort to approve a bill that established a large Kings Canyon National Park, excluding Tehipite Valley and Kings Canyon and setting them aside as reservoir sites. NPA Executive Secretary James Foote, testifying against the park bill, said: "Mr. Mather might have had his Kings Canyon park some years ago had he been willing to compromise and accept a park that failed to unspoiled Tehipite Valley and Kings Canyon." The bill proposed that the Park Service administer for recreation the reservoirs and surrounding land above the high water mark. The effect of this would be "not only to include reservoirs for irrigation and power within the park, contrary to accepted national park standards, but permit the original condition of these valleys to be ultimately altered."

NPA could not support a park containing reservoirs and refused to back down. Kings Canyon National Park advocates, including the Sierra Club, Rosalie Edge, and Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, were furious with NPA. The bill was approved in 1940, the dams were not built, and the Tehipite and Kings Canyon areas became part of the park.

At Grand Teton, NPA maintained that the sage flats and reservoirs in Jackson Hole were unsuitable for addition to the park. Horace Albright, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and the National Park Service among others worked for years to expand the park and acquire private land at the western end of the Teton Mountains. Jackson Lake - enlarged by a dam for irrigation - was included in the proposed expansion. Again NPA could not accept inclusion of a reservoir in the National Park System. The association clashed sharply with National Park Service Director Arno Cammerer and former director Albright over this issue. In opposing the Grand Teton expansion, NPA found itself with strange bedfellows - ranchers, irrigationists, and developers. Ultimately, however, convinced by the eloquence of NPA trustee Olaus Murie, the association revised its position to support the expansion, and it was achieved in 1950.

NPA was criticized as too "purist" in its defense of standards. While sometimes NPA's approach might alienate friends and allies, the association believed it had to be uncompromising. Fuming over NPA opposition to the Grand Teton expansion, Albright said: "It is a pity that conservation is always being thwarted by its friends." Robert Sterling Yard set the association on this path and sharply felt the criticism he received. In 1931 he wrote in defense of his approach: "Our method of conflict is unwaveringly impersonal. We fight for a principle, never against a foe."

The fight is ongoing. In 1988 the association contributed extensively to the debate with its National Park System Plan. In this document, the association emphasized new goals and challenges for the National Park System, including what role national parks must play in environmental protection. Restricting activities on land surrounding park units, politically sensitive issue, has become essential and raised new questions about the nature and purpose of national parks.

The association also still finds itself battling "park pork," because creating national parks continues to be perceived as an easy way to boost the economics of a region. In fact, economics was the key reason for creating Steamtown National Historic Site in Scranton, Pennsylvania, a project NPCA vigorously opposed. Steamtown was established to interpret the story of early 20th century railroading, but the historic integrity of this expensive park is doubtful. Several historians described Steamtown in The New York Times as a "second-rate collection of trains on a third-rate site." Even so, the proposal was approved.

As use of the system grows and threats to parks multiply, the challenge to maintain the system's integrity intensifies. NPCA no longer demands strict adherence to its original goal and standards. Instead, the association embraces an expanded mission, which extends to the cultural as well as natural heritage of the United States. NPCA's standard requires new units to be nationally significant and representative of important components of American history. The association continues to examine what should be included in the National Park System and how sites should be managed for the highest values and most lasting protection.

NPCA remains vigilant, acting as a watchdog for the park system, serving to remind the National Park Service of its mission to conserve and "leave [the parks] unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."

John Miles teaches environmental studies at Western Washington University and is writing a book about NPCA. This is the second of four articles examining NPCA's history in honor of its 75th year.
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Title Annotation:75th anniversary of National Parks and Conservation Association
Author:Miles, John
Publication:National Parks
Date:Jan 1, 1994
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