The later history of the National Parks System has had its tempestuous period. With conservation as a museum system rapidly becoming a popular ideal, large organized business interests in the west sought to secure control of its waters before it should be too late. There followed, from 1920 to 1925, a momentous struggle in Congress.
It has been seen that, during the system’s half century of making, scenic magnificence had been the sole conscious motive. Prevision and planning had had no part in its museum perfection. Previous to 1917, the very remarkable range of its geologic and biologic examples had been fortuitously accomplished. So also had come about the confining of inclusions to areas of primitive vegetation only, the search for scenery of grandeur, combined with Congressional determination to confine national parks to lands already in government possession, having led naturally to the higher altitudes of the nation-owned western mountains where these conditions still prevailed.
Nevertheless, those who gathered around Stephen T. Mather in 1915 to study and develop the national parks discovered that, together, they constituted a very remarkable national educative institution. As a system, these parks were disclosed as nothing less than our national gallery of scenic masterpieces and our national museum of the original American wilderness.
Perception was by no means, however, confined to this one group. For years the growing importance of reservations of primitive conditions to conservation, to popular education, to scientific observation, and to the public appreciation of beauty had been cherished by men and women of vision in various parts of the country, especially in Massachusetts, New York, and California. These gathered quickly around the new movement, forming a small but determined nucleus for the nation-wide alliance which later on fought to a finish repeated vigorous assaults upon national parks conservation.
It was to the people of the country, through their own organizations of many kinds, that the newly organized National Parks Association appealed, when,in 1920, two attempts to dam Yellowstone Park waters disclosed behind them a powerful combination of commercial interests for the invasion of all the parks in which water power was later discovered to be the principal influence. The appeal was not in vain. Within a surprisingly short period, organizations covering the country, with fighting groups in many States and a gross membership of several millions, were loosely but most effectively allied.
The fight was long, determined, and at times bitter and personal on the part of the interests. During its early stages, the writer was frequently attacked by name in the far western press, and, in its final stages, before Congress. The defense of conservation was conducted without recriminations or personalities. We were defending righteousness. It was the alliance that won. To the devotion of public-spirited clubs and associations throughout the country, from ocean to ocean, belongs the credit of preserving in its purity our national outdoor museum system. Upon their power, in alliance, and upon the healthy conservation sentiment which this war of defense educated throughout the west, will depend its future safety and sound development.
With Hubert Work’s succession to the secretary-ship of the Interior, the national government arrayed itself emphatically on the side of national parks conservation, and, in the autumn of 1925, formally advanced education to first importance in the administration of the system.
The distinction between the national forests and the national parks is essential to understanding. The national forests constitute an enormous domain administered for the economic commercialization of the nation’s wealth of lumber. Its forests are handled scientifically with the object of securing the largest annual lumber output consistent with the proper conservation of the future. Its spirit is commercial. The spirit of national park conservation is exactly opposite. It seeks no great territoryonly those few spots which are supreme. It aims to preserve nature’s handiwork exactly as nature made it.
In recent years, national forests have become important recreational regions. More than twelve million people camped in them in 1925.
Another distinction which should be clarified is that between national parks and national monuments. National parks are areas of considerable size created by Congress to conserve notable examples of typical land forms combined with primitive plant and animal conditions. National monuments are created by presidential executive order to preserve areas or objects which are historically, ethnologically, or scientifically important. They are confined by law “to the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the object to be protected.”