Readings: Wilderness in National Parks

Joshua Tree National Park

In his engrossing Wilderness in National Parks: Playground or Preserve, John C. Miles, professor of environmental studies at Western Washington University, traces the history of wilderness protection in the parks from their earliest days to the book’s present, 2008.

The history of the National Parks and other protected lands in the United States is the story of continually evolving ideas about how and why natural and historical areas should be protected for the common good. At its noblest, it is an acknowledgement that the people, collectively, own and administer the wildest, most beautiful and most historically important areas in the nation. The hows and whys of acquiring and administering these places is intrinsically tied to the concept of land held for the common good.

Almost 150 years ago, on June 30, 1864, Abraham Lincoln signed a bill granting scenic Yosemite Valley to the state of California to be held in the public interest as a park (eventually the valley would return to federal control as part of Yosemite National Park). Eight years later, when Congress moved to protect the geothermal features around the headwaters of the Yellowstone River in a region that lay in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho territories, there was no state to give the park to, so by default it became a national park. The concept of the national park was born out of necessity.

Between 1872, when Yellowstone National Park was established, and 1916, when the National Park Service was formed, more parks were created, but little to no money was appropriated for their administration or protection. The U.S. Cavalry, in fact, protected some of the parks for decades. Private hoteliers, often connected to the transcontinental railways, operated tours and lodgings within the parks. But by and large, it was a free-for-all. Uncertainty about the nature of the parks culminated in 1913 with approval to build a dam to flood Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite to create a water reservoir for San Francisco.

The Organic Act of 1916 created the National Park Service to administer the growing number of parks, monuments, and reserves. At its heart, it stated:

The service thus established shall promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks, monuments, and reservations hereinafter specified by such means and measures as conform to the fundamental purpose of the said parks, monuments, and reservations, which purpose 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.

Thus did the Organic Act create a dual mandate for the Park Service. The Service was both to conserve unimpaired the parks entrusted to its care and also to provide for public enjoyment of the parks.

In the early decades of the Park Service, Stephen Mather, the wealthy public relations man whose advocacy led to the creation of the Park Service, and who would become its first director, and his second-in-command Horace Albright, took the “provide for the enjoyment” half of the mandate to heart. Mather and Albright embarked on an ambitious campaign to create access to and facilities in the National Parks. Mather argued, correctly, that the more people who visited the parks, the more public support the parks and the Park Service would have.

Miles traces the early history of the Park Service against its cousin agency, the Forest Service, a division of the Department of Agriculture. The Forest Service had been formally created a decade earlier in 1905. Gifford Pinchot, its first director, believed that public lands should be used for the greatest good of the greatest number. Therefore, tree-cutting for lumber as well as hunting, mining and other forms of resource use and acquisition were allowed in the National Forests. These activities, with some exceptions, are prohibited in the National Parks. In addition to the the philosophical differences in the attitude toward natural resources between the two agencies, there were many turf wars, both politically between resources, clout and access provided to the two agencies, and also literally wars over turf, as the Park Service argued for the expansion of park lands and new parks created out of lands administered by the Forest Service, notably the expansion of Mount Olympus National Monument in Washington State into Olympic National Park by the acquisition of thousands of acres of National Forest.

From its very beginning, the Park Service had to balance the tension between the two seemingly opposing mandates laid out in the Organic Act. How much improvement was too much? Mather, Albright and subsequent directors maintained for decades that the vast majority of parklands were wilderness areas. Anything that wasn’t developed as roads, campgrounds, visitor centers or other facilities was, by default, wilderness.

By the early 1930s, there were park units being created that were explicitly wilderness parks. Notable among these was Isle Royale, which Miles returns to again and again throughout the book. Isle Royale was unique because the absence of automobiles and easy means of development made it, from the beginning, a wilderness park. Its wilderness character is written into the act that established it. Other parks, such as Sequoia, were managed as wilderness by long-serving superintendents who chose to develop the parks’ backcountry as little as possible. When Kings Canyon joined the system in 1940 as Sequoia’s sister park, the decades-long management of Sequoia as a largely “primitive” park influenced discussions about how much, or actually how little, to develop Kings Canyon.

Isle Royale National Park

In addition to the Forest Service and the Park Service, a third major voice in the defining of wilderness and wilderness management in the middle decades of the twentieth century was a consortium of conservation organizations. These organizations pushed both the Park Service and the Forest Service to define what wilderness was and set parameters for its use. The Park Service didn’t like criticism of its management of backcountry wilderness in part because it defined itself against the permissiveness of the Forest Service. The Forest Service expanded recreational opportunities within its holdings as a means of forestalling more National Forests becoming National Parks. Conservation groups, and some members of Congress, criticized both agencies for their attitude toward wilderness.

Meanwhile, large expanses of natural areas and wilderness outside the jurisdiction of either service were rapidly disappearing. The immense wilderness still present when Yellowstone was founded had vanished across much of the nation.

Miles, writing from a twenty-first century perspective wherein wilderness designation is a matter of law and wilderness best-use practices are a matter of course, clearly identifies with the early wilderness advocates. The frustration of Miles with the attitudes toward wilderness held by the Park Service in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, mirrors the frustration of the Sierra Club, the National Parks Association and others during the time. Miles perhaps doesn’t give enough credit to the Park Service. In relating the service’s ambivalence toward the concept of federal wilderness designation, he shades the motivations of Park Service administrators a touch too negatively. Often in narrating the actions of various figures, he dismisses other extenuating circumstances or reasons for a particular decision as being outside the parameters of the book. While ignoring some elements of the history of the Park Service in order to keep the book from becoming too unwieldy is fair, I don’t know how well the book would read for someone without a reasonable working knowledge of the overall history of the National Parks.

Since 1964, “wilderness” has been a federal designation. The Wilderness Act passed that year provided for the creation of wilderness areas within the National Parks and National Forests, as well as the designation as such in various federally-held lands. Miles is careful to discuss the slipperiness of the definition of wilderness before it was codified in law, and it is this growing understanding of what wilderness is and why and how it needs to be protected that is the heart of the book. The Wilderness Act defines wilderness as follows:

A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.

Although at various points as the Wilderness Act worked its way through Congress, the Park Service was concerned that its definition of wilderness was too weak (in order to satisfy the Forest Service’s criticisms), ultimately the Park Service argued that the Wilderness Act was too restrictive. Park Service leaders were afraid that the federal designation of wilderness within the parks would prevent necessary expansion of visitor facilities as the annual number of park visitors continued to grow exponentially.

After the act passed and was signed into law, the Park Service was tasked with reviewing which of its lands were eligible for wilderness designation. After each internal assessment, there would be a period of public comment, then final recommendations would be sent by the Park Service to the Secretary of the Interior, who would review them and send them on to the president. The president, after reviewing the recommendations, would send them to Congress to be ratified into law.

The first review was for Great Smoky Mountains, and it was a disaster. The Park Service recommended 247,000 acres of the 512,700-acre park be designated wilderness. The citizen proposal at the public hearings was 350,000 acres. The difference was largely caused by the Park Service’s desire to leave open the possibility of building an additional road through the park in the future. Various factions in and out of the park took sides. Local communities liked the idea of the road. Others wanted as much protection as possible. It ended in a stalemate. In 2012, Great Smoky Mountains National Park still has no designated wilderness.

As dramatic as that sounds, there are complex reasons for the failure of some parks to have wilderness designation that go far beyond the actions of the Park Service. Nor did anyone at the time realize that coming political changes would mean that this was the one opportunity Great Smoky Mountains would have for wilderness designation for at least two generations.

The process did, however, work successfully in many areas, so much so that the Wilderness Act now protects 43,124,484 acres of National Park land.

The review and approval process ground on into the 1970s. In 1970, over 50,000 acres of Petrified Forest National Park were designated wilderness, the first successful designation. Before the decade was over, a cumulative total of 2,977,615 acres would be designated wilderness, including over 1.2 million acres at Everglades National Park. Twenty-five parks and monuments would receive wilderness area designations during this period, including Isle Royale, Joshua Tree, Badlands, Shenandoah and Theodore Roosevelt.

Possibly the most compelling chapters of Miles’ history are those concerning Alaska and the creation of its parks (save for Denali, which has been established in 1917) and wilderness areas. Throughout the 1970s, bills worked their way through Congress, often fought by long-serving Alaska senator Ted Stevens, to designate large swaths of land in Alaska as parks or wilderness or both. The Senate finally approved a bill for Alaska parks and wilderness in August 1980. The House was not able to act before that year’s presidential election. Miles:

Ronald Reagan won the White House and Republicans gained control of the Senate. The House then approved the Senate bill as the best possible under the circumstances, and on December 1, 1980, President Carter signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 (ANILCA).

The law added 32,979,370 acres of federally-designated wilderness to lands administered by the Park Service.

Only seven more parks would receive wilderness designations during the 1980s, among them Rocky Mountain, Yosemite, Sequoia-Kings Canyon and the three Washington parks, Mount Rainier, North Cascades and Olympic.

Yosemite Valley in 1993. The valley is not designated wilderness.

The final wilderness designations within the National Parks to date were in October 1994 with the California Desert Protection Act. The law upgraded Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Monuments to National Parks and expanded their wilderness areas. It also created Mohave National Preserve. Then, in November 1994 the “Gingrich Revolution” swept the Democrats out of control of Congress stalling wilderness designations for almost two decades.

Of the parks with no wilderness designation, Grand Canyon is perhaps the most frustrating. As the Park Service completed its wilderness reviews for Grand Canyon in the 1970s, it agreed with a broad coalition of wilderness supporters that a wilderness designation for the park needed to include the Colorado River, otherwise it would be two vast protected wilderness areas bisected by the river. There was also broad agreement that the Colorado could not be included while motorized boats were allowed on the river. In 1980, the Park Service management plan for Grand Canyon called for motorized rafts to be phased out of the Colorado within five years. Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, whose cousin Bus Hatch operated a motorized raft service on the Colorado River, intervened and attached an amendment to the Interior Department’s appropriations bill in 1981 that forbade funds to be used to prevent motorized boats on the Colorado River. The effort to phase out motorized rafts stalled, and Grand Canyon still contains no designated wilderness.

Grand Canyon National Park in 1992

Few, if anyone, in the Park Service in the 1960s and 1970s could have predicted the sharp  turn to the right national politics would take starting with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. The opportunity to designate wilderness then, lost to such things as disagreements about the number of acres to be protected at a park like Great Smoky Mountains, meant that some designations would languish for at least another thirty years.

Although the Park Service operates under guidelines that areas of potential wilderness are to be treated as wilderness, Miles doesn’t detail how this has worked in the intervening decades. The wilderness nature of huge areas of such marquee parks as Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Great Smoky Mountains, is often unquestioned by the public even without federal designation. It’s a shame that Miles neglects this part of the story, particularly since it is the reality we must live with.

And so what does all this have to do with experience of the parks? It is a particular ethos. Congress has said that we are going to protect the wilderness nature of these places. Ironically, many of the most famous sights and features, those areas that get the heaviest use, Yosemite Valley for instance, are not wilderness areas because of the needs of visitors. The Park Service continually resolves the dual mandate of the Organic Act, which the Wilderness Act did not negate.

Wilderness designation also affects the experience of visiting some of the parks, although I did not really understand what designated wilderness within the National Parks meant until reading Miles’ book. While we were at Isle Royale, for instance, we knew that we were in wilderness and that it meant that there were certain restrictions on both what visitors and rangers could do in the backcountry. But I did not realize it was a federal designation apart from parameters established by the Park Service.

Wilderness designation varies so much from park to park that even the maps treat it on a case by case basis. Isle Royale is 92% federally designated wilderness, so much so that only the areas that aren’t designated as such are indicated as such on maps, as opposed to Joshua Tree, where the wilderness areas are specifically denoted. At Isle Royale, only Mott Island (where park administration is located), the areas around the two main visitor centers (Rock Harbor and Windigo), and the major campsites (such as Daisy Farm and McCargoe Cove) are not wilderness. Everything else is. At Joshua Tree, most areas beyond a varying distance from the roads are designated wilderness. The only time we were in wilderness at Joshua Tree was when we were hiking to Forty-nine Palms Oasis. At Olympic, most of the vast, roadless interior of the park, which we did not visit, is wilderness. But even at Olympic, just the fact of that looming expanse of mountains with no roads crossing them leant everything in the park an extra sense of wildness. Which is, in both a real and an emotional way, the point.

2 thoughts on “Readings: Wilderness in National Parks

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