Thursday, August 25, 2016

Our National Parks at 100 - It Didn't Have to Be

One hundred years ago today, President Woodrow Wilson signed the bill which created the National Park Service (NPS).

Stephen Mather (1867-1930) was named the NPS's first director.  A millionaire and marketing genius behind the "20 Mule Team Borax" brand, Mather was also a ferocious conservationist who worked tirelessly to protect the nation's wilderness areas and make them accessible to all Americans.

Mather's equally talented lieutenant, Horace Albright (1890-1987), took on all the nitty-gritty projects the "big picture" Mather disliked, including shepherding the National Park Service bill through Congress in 1916.  Albright would become the superintendent of Yellowstone (the first national park), and the second director of the National Park Service upon Mather's retirement.

The story of the birth of the National Park Service is told by Albright (from his book Creating the National Park Service: The Missing Years [1999]) and is a reminder that one of America's crown jewels didn't necessarily have to be.  That's still true today; our national parks are under threat from climate change, pollution, encroachment of mining/oil and gas, traffic, invasive species, and under-funding.  (The sum: 84 million acres, 59 national parks, 353 national monuments, battlefields [including my favorite] and historic sites, $12 billion in deferred maintenance, and an NPS budget that's grown 1.7% annually from 2005 to 2015 while the federal budget grew 39%.)

Albright's tale, then, is one of tenacity, vigilance, success--and warning:

The summer of 1916 was one of the hottest on record in Washington.  It seemed to drag on endlessly . . . .Getting the national park bill through Congress was a thankless job, for 1916 was an election year.  More importantly, it was a presidential election year.  To the incumbents, getting reelected was the only thing that counted, so they were frequently back home campaigning . . . .

Before and during the hearings and on into summer, the friends and adherents of Stephen Mather and national parks let loose a torrent of publicity for the parks and for the bill.  George Horace Lorimer and his Saturday Evening Post . . . kept up a running commentary.  Railroads issued their summer timetables and brochures filled with national park propaganda.  Automobile and highway associations, chambers of commerce, and newspapers kept up the good word . . . Probably the single most important publication to influence the members of Congress was the April 1916 issue of National Geographic.  Gilbert "Tenderfoot" Grosvenor had come through for Stephen Mather . . . .  The issue of the magazine was titled "The Land of the Best--A Tribute to the Scenic Grandeur and Unsurpassed Natural Resources of Our Own Country."  There were even some pages in full color and a foldout panorama of the General Sherman Tree at Sequoia . . . . Grosvenor left nothing to chance.  In case some dull-witted congressman failed to see the magazine, he had a copy delivered by messenger to each one of them . . . .

Meanwhile, our park bill awaited a House-Senate conference to agree on the final version.  On the face of it, that sounds simple.  However, President Wilson's popularity had dropped severely by 1916.  Democrats were frightened not only of losing the White House, but, worse, of losing their own congressional seats.  Republicans thought they smelled victory and eagerly looked forward to Charles Evans Hughes as president and to a powerful Republican Congress . . . .

I was getting more and more worried . . . What if the administration changed from Democratic to Republican?  What about a new batch of congressmen, a new president, a new secretary of the interior?  All would have to be courted and placated.  It was too gruesome to dwell on.  A decision for action had to be made now.

From the "Saturday Evening Post", January 1, 1916
At this point, Albright managed to buttonhole the chief House and Senate conferees, one in Washington's Union Station just about to leave for New York.  All three knew it would be impossible to get the entire committee together, but they agreed to hammer out an agreement that could be presented individually to each committee member.  It was a daunting process for Albright, and D.C. was uncooperative.  Even with four electric fans blowing on us, it was like a Turkish bath, he wrote.  The most difficult issues were what to do about grazing rights--there were private herds on public lands all over the West--and money to fund a Washington office within the Interior Department.

With a compromise in hand, Albright went to work over the next several weeks.  Up and down to Capitol Hill on the streetcar, find a representative in his home, find a senator at his club.  If any one of them wanted to change even a word, I had to go back to all the rest for approval.  I never knew I could be so persuasive, pragmatic, and controlled in temper.  

It was quite a performance for a twenty-six-year old, but ultimately successful.

On August 15 the Senate accepted the compromise bill and passed it with flying colors.  A few day later it came before the House of Representatives, and trouble loomed . . . Our old enemy William Henry Stafford [of Wisconsin] was still there with all his hatred of any new bureaucracy and would fight us.  Albright conspired with a friendly Representative to take Stafford--a golf nut--out onto the course during the vote.  In the end, however, Albright found the votes he needed and the bill passed the House on August 22.

All that was needed now was to get he bill engrossed, printed, and signed by President Wilson . . .I went up to the Capitol.  Here I found the enrolling clerk and inquired when the bill would be sent to the president for his signature.  He didn't know.  Just then the telephone on his desk rang.  I didn't mean to eavesdrop, but my antenna must have been up because I heard him repeat: "Yes sir.  The president wants the army appropriation bill right away for his signature.  I'll get it ready and send it down immediately."

I pounced . . . Quickly I asked if he clerk would please put the national park bill in the same envelope, so Wilson would sign it too.  He shrugged his shoulders, found our bill, inserted it with the army bill, and gave it to the clerk to take to the White House.

At 9 p.m. on August 26, 1916, Albright got a call from President Wilson's secretary saying the bill had been signed.  The secretary would be sure and keep the pen for Stephen Mather. 

Albright still had to approach Congress and beg for money to actually fund the the Washington office that had just been created.  The Senate was polite and supportive, but the head of the House appropriation committee, John J. Fitzgerald of New York, was like facing a firing squad.  He asked more impossible questions and probed into more matters than his committee was supposed to cover . . . I left town the next day without knowing what this fearful ogre would do and, frankly, not caring except to wish him a quick and horrible death.

The more things change, eh?

We know, of course, that Wilson beat Hughes by small margins in a handful of swing states, making his re-election as president the first by a Democratic party candidate since Andrew Jackson in 1832.  What might have happened had he lost?  What might have happened had a congressman caught his train for New York at Union Station?  What might have happened had a twenty-six-year old been less tenacious, or simply less lucky?

It didn't have to be the way it turned out.  Some of our most precious gifts are granted us by luck and hang by a single thread.  That should make us appreciate the national parks all the more, and be ready to support and fund them for future generations.  They are, as Ken Burns says, America's best idea.  Happy 100th!  (For more, see here and here.)