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Public Use of the
National Park System





Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

current topic Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10



Public Use of the National Park System (1872-2000)
Chapter 6
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Functions of the National Park System and Public Use

a. Before 1916.

b. The 1916 Act.

c. Public Use of Historical Areas.

d. Public Use and Recreation.

e. Public Use and Wilderness.

f. National Heritage, the Unifying Theme.


This section reviews the evolution of concepts about public use of the National Park System from the Yellowstone Act of 1872 through the Wilderness Act of 1964. Public use is interpreted here to mean the actual physical activities of visitors in units of the System. Public use concepts embodied in legislation embrace a cumulative succession from "resort and recreation," through "park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people," through "enjoyment in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired," through the "inspiration and benefit" provided by historical areas, through various forms of public outdoor recreation in recreational areas, and concludes with "outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation" in wilderness areas. The unifying theme in this progress is that the natural, historical and recreational areas of the National Park System combine to present a superb expression of our national heritage. Public use of the System is an important unifying force for the people of the United States.

This section will review the development of concepts about public use of the National Park System by which we mean the actual physical activities of visitors in units of the System. It will not attempt to review other important public functions of the System; for example, "the preservation in their natural condition of remnants of the fast disappearing primeval beauty of the continent;" or the use of the national parks for scientific research; or the educational or other values of the System to nonvisitors; or the contribution of the System to the national economy. Important as these and other functions are, they lie beyond the limited scope of the present study.

a. Before 1916--"Public Parks or Pleasuring Grounds." We begin with Frederick Law Olmsted and Yosemite at the time it was made a state park in 1864. After viewing the valley repeatedly in 1863 and 1864, Olmsted concluded Yosemite was "far the noblest park or pleasure ground in the world." Here he saw the "union of the deepest sublimity with the deepest beauty of nature:" which made Yosemite "the greatest glory of nature." In his perceptive book, Nature and the American, Dr. Hans Huth writes: "Having arrived at this conviction Olmsted started the movement to protect the unique valley of Yosemite and the country surrounding it. But this . . . was not the only purpose of his drive . . . These new public grounds, he felt, should be opened for'the use of the body of the people' and for their 'free enjoyment;' he considered it the duty of the managers of Yosemite to make the park serve the people in their 'pursuit of happiness' . . . He was the first to conceive the idea that 'great public parks' must be managed 'for the benefit and the free use of the people,' which has become a fundamental policy of the National Park Service." [23] The 1864 act granting Yosemite Valley to California stated it was to be held for "public use, resort, and recreation, inalienable for all time."

Eight years after Yosemite Valley was made a California state park, legislation was passed to establish Yellowstone as the first national park. No attempt will be made here to review the history of that legislation. The key point is that Yellowstone was "dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people." This concept of public use was then adopted by Congress in legislation establishing other national parks. In 1890 Sequoia was set aside as a "public park, or pleasure ground, for the benefit and enjoyment of the people." Laws for Mount Rainier in 1899 and Crater Lake in 1902 contained similar phraseology, which thus became the general principle guiding public use of the national parks until 1916.

b. The 1916 Act. We now come to the famous public use concept developed in part from these earlier laws and expressed in the enabling act as follows: "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife 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." The principal author of this language was Frederick Law Olmsted, the son of the Olmsted who helped open Yosemite Valley for "free enjoyment" of the people. [24]

Without lengthy discussion, let us review a few connotations of this language sometimes overlooked. What is to be conserved? The first and key word is scenery, followed by natural and historic objects and wildlife.

The idea of "scenery" was well developed in the United States during the 18th and 19th centuries, Many American people knew the natural beauty of the Hudson Valley and the grandeur of Niagara Falls from first-hand observation. They were well prepared to hear of the "incomparable valley" of Yosemite, and the "wonders" and beauty of Yellowstone. Drawings, photographs and descriptions of the primeval beauty of the western mountains, canyons and lakes met a ready audience who foresaw the day when they could perhaps travel west and see these natural beauties and wonders for themselves. The whole idea was to save these places from commercial exploitation, and set them aside for public use as parks for every citizen. When President Taft sent his special message to Congress in 1912 recommending a Bureau of National Parks, he used the language of natural beauty. He said such a bureau was essential "to the proper management of those wonderful manifestations of nature, so startling and so beautiful that everyone recognizes the obligations of the Government to preserve them for the edification and recreation of the people . . . Every consideration of patriotism and the love of nature and of beauty and of art requires us . . . to bring all these natural wonders within easy reach of our people."

Although in some embryonic and general sense the idea of wilderness may also have been present in the minds of early national park supporters, generally speaking, "wilderness" was long thought of as somewhat different from natural beauty or scenery. Wilderness has usually had an awesome and forbidding quality not ordinarily associated with natural beauty. According to Michael McCloskey in his excellent article, "The Wilderness Act of 1964: Its Background and Meaning," in the June 1966 issue of the Oregon Law Review, 18th century philosophers drew a distinction between the sublime and the beautiful in analyzing the subject matter of landscape painting. "Philosophers like Edmund Burke," he says, "described sublime scenes as those having characteristics such as vastness, massiveness, apparent disorder, profuse detail, roughness, immense energy, isolation, irregularity and obscurity--characteristics which are today associated with wilderness." [25] A somewhat parallel distinction between wilderness and natural beauty or scenery persists to this day, and affects ideas of public use.

The consequence of the idea of "scenery" in the enabling act is the idea that the public "enjoyment" which is to be provided will be, in a substantial degree, scenic enjoyment. This means access to the main points of interest and ample opportunities for "sightseeing." This, in fact, is what the new National Park Service immediately set about providing in 1917. During the next 12 years, as is pointed out elsewhere in this report, Steve Mather and Horace Albright energetically promoted travel to the national parks, and built roads and concessions so sightseers could enjoy the scenery. These were the years of the "See America First" movement and the "better roads" campaign.

Now let us turn to the word "unimpaired." What does the enabling act say shall be conserved unimpaired? The words are "the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein." "Scenery" even combined with "natural objects and wildlife," is not quite the same as, "wilderness." It is possible to build properly located roads and properly designed and located lodges, cabins, and campgrounds to provide national park access and public use, without impairing the scenery, the natural objects or the wildlife in any serious way. This is evidently what the founders had in mind.

The 1916 Act itself authorizes several measures which were not considered impairments to scenery, natural or historic objects or wildlife. For example, the act authorizes the Secretary of the Interior to sell or dispose of timber to control the attacks of insects or diseases or "otherwise conserve" the scenery or the natural or historic objects in any park. He may also destroy such animals and plant life as may be "detrimental" to park use. He may also grant privileges, leases and permits for the use of park land for the accommodation of visitors. He may also grant the privilege to graze livestock when such use is not "detrimental" to the primary purpose of the park. Secretary Lane's famous memorandum to Mather in 1918 discussed several measures that were not considered impairments of the national parks, including leasing lands for the operation of hotels and camps, construction of roads and trails, the admission of automobiles, and outdoor sports consistent with law.

An enlarged road program was specifically authorized by the Act of April 9, 1924, which provides that the Secretary may "construct, reconstruct, and improve roads and trails, inclusive of necessary bridges" in the national parks and monuments. Evidently, Congress did not consider this legislation in conflict with the "unimpaired" provision of the enabling act. Furthermore, during these years from 1917-1929, some of the best known scenic roads in the United States were surveyed, approved and built in the western national parks, including the Going-to-the-Sun Highway in Glacier, the Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain and the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway originating in Zion National Park. [26]

While actively sponsoring these projects to facilitate public use of the System, Director Mather and his associates, as well as public supporters of the national parks generally, also considered that large sections of each park should be kept in a wilderness state. This viewpoint developed over the years and received its fullest expression in the Service's 1957 publication, prepared by Howard Stagner, entitled The National Park Wilderness. [27]

c. Public Use of Historical Areas. Many of the individual park laws for historical areas have provisions defining public use a little differently than the natural areas. It is common in historical area legislation to use the phrase "a public park for the benefit and enjoyment of the people." This language was used, for example, in enabling legislation for Morristown National Historical Park in 1933. Fairly often, however, an alternate phrase is used: "for the benefit and inspiration of the people." This language was used, for example, in legislation for Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.

The most important public use statement for the historical areas of the National Park System is contained in the Congressional declaration in the Historic Sites Act of 1935: "that it is hereby declared that it is a national policy to preserve for public use historic sites, buildings and objects of national significance for the inspiration and benefit of the people of the United States."

The important point is that the word "inspiration" is now added to the word "enjoyment" which appears in the 1916 Act, and "benefit" from other legislation as an objective of public use, applicable especially to the historical segment of the System.

d. Public Use and Recreation.

(1) In the national parks. In the early days, recreation, used in a very general sense, was considered a proper function of a national park, but by the 1920's an adverse reaction set in which has continued to the present day. Yosemite Valley was ceded as a state park in 1864 for "resort and recreation." Yellowstone was thought of as "a great breathing place for the national lungs." Congressman Taylor, in 1915, described Rocky Mountain as "a public recreation ground out of doors," which would prove "a Godsend to the public's health and shattered nerves." Theodore Roosevelt, in 1918, said Acadia would "give a healthy playground to multitudes of hardworking men and women . . ." [28] In his annual report for 1920, Steve Mather spoke of the national parks as "the great recreational grounds of the American people." [29]

It has not been possible in preparing this report to trace the development in the 1920's and later of the adverse reaction to the concept of recreation in the national parks. Suffice it now to quote the distinguished Committee on Study of Educational Problems in National Parks, appointed by Secretary Wilbur in 1928, and headed by Dr. John C. Merriam, then President of the Carnegie Institution. In their published report of 1929, this Committee developed the basic principles that underlie the interpretive program of the National Park Service. Their second principle read: "The distinctive or essential characters of National Parks lie in the inspirational influence and educational value of the exceptional natural features which constitute the reason for the existence of these parks. Outdoor recreation is recognized as an important factor in National Park administration but it is not the primary purpose, and can also be enjoyed through abundant opportunities furnished elsewhere . . . " [30] In the 1960's, with the benefit of ORRRC's report, we now realize that the term has specific analyzable content which can and should be applied to the study of all public use activities in the National Park System.

(2) In the recreational areas of the System. Outdoor recreation as a clearly recognized function of particular areas of the System, comes into view with the authorization of (a) national seashores and lakeshores; (b) national recreation areas (reservoirs); (c) national parkways; and (d) national riverways. Each type needs at least brief comment.

National Seashores and Lakeshores.

Cape Hatteras was the first national seashore authorized (1937) and the legislation specifically mentions recreation. After stating that the area is established "for the benefit and enjoyment of the people," it goes on to add some curious and interesting language. The act says that "except for certain portions of the area, deemed to be especially adaptable for recreational uses, particularly swimming, boating, sailing, fishing and other recreational activities of similar nature, which shall be developed as needed," the area shall be reserved as a "primitive wilderness." Here we have recreation and wilderness side by side.

Twenty-four years later, somewhat similar concepts reappear in the Cape Cod National Seashore law. After stating that no development for the convenience of visitors shall be undertaken "which would be incompatible" with preservation of the unique flora and fauna, physiographic conditions and historic sites and structures, the law goes on to provide for "public enjoyment and understanding" and "for camping, swimming, boating, sailing, hunting, fishing," and "the appreciation of historic sites and structures and natural features." This act influenced several other seashore and lakeshore acts, passed between 1962 and 1966.

The Point Reyes and Padre Island (1962) laws set forth their public use functions as "public recreation, benefit, and inspiration." The Fire Island Act (1964), on the other hand, turns out to be very strict, stating that the area is established "for the purpose of conserving and preserving for the use of future generations," the natural resources situated there. The Assateague legislation (1965) speaks of "public outdoor recreation use and enjoyment," and that for Cape Lookout (1966) says the area shall be administered "for the general purposes of public outdoor recreation." Pictured Rocks (1966) is established "for the benefit, inspiration, education, recreational use and enjoyment of the public"--a very broad coverage of public uses. The Indiana Dunes legislation calls "for the educational, inspirational and recreational use of the public." One may conclude that the public use functions of national seashores and lakeshores vary from area to area and that, as a category, these areas are still evolving.

National Recreation Areas (Reservoirs).

After many years of management by inter-bureau agreement, the first reservoir to be made a national recreation area by act of Congress was Lake Mead (1964) to be administered "for general purposes of public recreation, benefit and use." The second was the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area (1965), established "for public outdoor recreation, use and enjoyment." This law, however, contained an unusual feature calling for a land and water use management plan, "which shall include specific provision for, in order of priority--(1) public outdoor recreation benefits; (2) preservation of scenic, scientific, and historic features contributing to public enjoyment; (3) such utilization of natural resources as . . . does not significantly impair . . ." the first two values, Here, for the first time in the 93-year-old history of National Park System legislation, public use is given clear legislative priority over preservation as the function of a particular area. The legislative pattern was generally followed, but omitting the clear expression of priorities in the laws for the Whiskeytown-Shasta-Trinity and the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Areas in 1965 and 1966.

National Parkways.

It is an odd fact that legislation for the Blue Ridge Parkway (1936) and the Natchez Trace Parkway (1938) does not describe their public use functions. However, it is well known that these two parkways served, with others, as the prototypes for the Proposed Program for Scenic Roads and Parkways prepared for the President's Council on Recreation and Natural Beauty in 1966. [31] The Council had recognized the recreational value of parkways in a 1964 policy statement, which pointed out that driving for pleasure is one of America's most popular outdoor recreation pursuits and that tourism and sightseeing are made possible by attractive roads and parkways, which provide access to a wealth of scenic and natural beauty. We may take these statements as a fair evaluation of the public use functions of national parkways.

National Riverways.

A new type of national recreation area is in the making--the national riverway. In 1964 Congress authorized the first reservation of this kind, the Ozark National Scenic Riverways in Missouri. The legislation provided for the preservation of portions of the Current River and the Jacks Fork River as free-flowing streams, preservation of springs and caves, management of wildlife and provision for the "use and enjoyment of the outdoor recreation resources thereof by the people of the United States," Other wild rivers and free-flowing streams have been and are being studied, and Congress has under consideration further legislation in this significant field.

e. Public Use and Wilderness. The Wilderness Act of 1964 introduces the concept of a National Wilderness Preservation System into the legislative fabric which governs management of the National Park System, as well as many other Federal lands. It is, therefore, desirable to attempt a brief account of the origin and nature of this legislation.

The concept of wilderness has a long history, which is perhaps most effectively summarized by Michael McCloskey in the valuable article cited above. [32] After reviewing early and contemporary valuations of the wilderness, he points out that probably the first governmental efforts to protect wilderness are to be found in the origins of the National Park System. At this point, departing for a moment from McCloskey's guidance, we note that while the wilderness idea may well have been present in embryonic form in the minds of early advocates of national parks, when the Service was established in 1916, principal emphasis was on the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein, and in making them accessible for public enjoyment. Steve Mather spoke early of a good sensible road system for each park so that visitors would have a good chance to enjoy them. At the same time, he expected that large sections of each park would be kept in a natural wilderness state. In his day, however, no foreseeable growth in public use appeared likely to make this achievement difficult.

"Institutional wilderness" began in 1924, according to McCloskey, with designation of the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico, set aside by the Forest Service as a result of the work of Aldo Leopold. The first use of the term "wilderness" in legislation involving the National Park System appears in 1934 in the enabling act for Everglades National Park. Between 1931 and 1939, the Forest Service designated 73 different primitive areas throughout the west embracing about 13 million acres. World War II intervened to slow down this process; but after the war, interest revived and in 1951 Howard Zahniser, drawing on a report by C. Frank Keyser of the Library of Congress, publicly advocated statutory status of the Forest Service's administrative system of wilderness. In due course, the subject came before Congress and during a period of nine years, from 1956 through 1964, some 65 bills were introduced, 18 different hearings held, and eventually, after much deliberation, the Wilderness Act of 1964 became law.

For the purposes of our consideration of public use of the National Park System, we note certain features of this law. It establishes a National Wilderness Preservation System to be composed of federally owned areas designated by Congress as "wilderness areas." These are to be administered "for the use and enjoyment of the American people in such manner as will leave them unimpaired for future use and enjoyment as wilderness." Wilderness is defined as an area "where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." Among further points of definition, wilderness areas are required to have "outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation." The legislation prohibits certain uses within wilderness areas, subject to existing rights, including commercial enterprises and permanent roads, and also states that, except for purposes of administration there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation. Among other provisions, the legislation establishes a procedure for the Secretary of the Interior to review within ten years every roadless area of five thousand contiguous acres or more in the National Park System and recommend to the President its suitability or nonsuitability as wilderness.

It is evident that this legislation defines a public use function within designated wilderness areas of the National Park System which is far more specific than the 1916 Act. The earlier legislation provided that the public shall enjoy the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife in the national parks only by such means as leave them unimpaired. Many uses, including permanent roads and accommodations, are permitted under the provisions of the 1916 Act that are prohibited in wilderness areas to be established under the 1964 law.

Wilderness area designations provide an important means for aiding management and further insuring meaningful wilderness preservation in the National Park System. Wilderness areas, by definition, provide a specialized opportunity for solitude and primitive recreation that can only be successfully pursued in designated areas by a limited number of people at one time. Wilderness area designations reaffirm that wilderness has a definite, resolute and permanent home in the National Park System. That home should be generous and rooted in ecological concepts, but it cannot be so large that it tends to deprive important numbers of traveling American families of the opportunity to identify themselves at firsthand, by a personal visit, even by automobile, with the great examples of their own national heritage preserved for them in their National Park System. The Wilderness Act adds to the original and evolving functions of the National Park System but does not nullify or supersede what has gone before. This is made clear in Section 4(a), which states that "nothing in this Act shall modify the statutory authority under which units of the national park system are created." The public use provisions of the Wilderness Act do not take the place of those in the 1916 Act or the individual park acts, but rather supplement them in regard to those areas within each park designated by Congress as wilderness.

f. National Heritage the Unifying Theme. One concept, above all others, provides the unifying theme for the evolving functions of the National Park System. As one traces the growth of the System from "parks and pleasuring grounds," through the conservation of "scenery and natural and historic objects and wildlife therein," through historic sites, buildings and objects that provide "benefit and inspiration," through the national parkways, the reservoirs and the national seashores and lakeshores with "recreational" connotations, and through the "wilderness area" designations most recently added, the idea steadily grows that the natural, historical and recreational areas of the National Park System combine to present a superb expression of our national heritage. This heritage is to be used by the public for enjoyment, benefit and inspiration, with opportunities for solitude.

While, as far as this study is aware, the words "national heritage" do not appear in legislation, they are frequently used to characterize the System, and this has been true for at least half a century. Quite early, it was recognized that the National Park System has a favorable influence upon national citizenship by encouraging travel between different parts of the country and widening and deepening knowledge of the United States. Steve Mather wrote in his annual report for 1921 that visitors to the national parks "are impressed with the fact that there is no essential difference between the man from California and the man from Maine, the man from Florida and the man from Montana; that they are all Americans, each doing his share in the upbuilding of the Nation ..." [33]

Dr. Paul S. Buck, professor of history at Harvard University, as a young graduate student wrote his master's thesis in 1921 on The Evolution of the National Park System of the United States. It is an excellent history of the period from 1872 to 1921. Dr. Buck concluded his volume with the following interesting paragraph:

"The influence of the national park in stimulating an intersectional travel that tends to broaden the point of view of the American people and to upbuild a national unity is possibly the greatest contribution made by the National Park System in the life of the nation. There is an attraction in thinking of the United States Government reserving and making accessible for its citizens the choicest places of beauty and grandeur in the country, of encouraging its people to visit them, and then in turn being strengthened by the better and broader spirit of Americanism which such a system engenders ..." [34]

There seems little need to alter or add to those words today.


Last Modified: Thurs, Mar 14 2002 7:08 am PDT