By Jeff Pfeiffer
In last night’s fifth episode of The National Parks: America’s Best Idea on PBS, “Great Nature (1933-1945),” we see how the national parks are affected — and how they have an effect — as America enters the Great Depression and World War II.
Under the guidance of a new president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the parks thrive. Like his cousin Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin has a love for the outdoors. With Stephen Mather gone, his assistant Horace Albright is now director of the National Park Service. Albright has a unique goal: to transfer national military parks, battlefields and monuments into the national park system. Albright convinces Roosevelt this should be done, and FDR signs orders giving the agency responsibility over military parks, historic battlefields and monuments. Now part of the National Park system are places like the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, the Lincoln Memorial and the National Mall. It’s a dramatic shift in the idea of the National Park Service, to not only protect America’s areas of natural beauty and wildlife, but also to preserve and remember the places that honor the very idea of the country itself.
As the Depression hits hard, Roosevelt implements his New Deal. Among the many programs involved in this is the Civilian Conservation Corps, which proves to be a boon to millions of young men who are out of work — and to the national parks. The CCC puts men to work in national forests and parks, as well as in state parks. They clear brush and replant forests, build visitor shelters and improve campsites and trails. Even today in many parks you can still see the results of their work. This episode features several interesting stories from men who recall their days in the CCC. They all remember it fondly and positively, for they not only contributed to enhancing great parts of America, but many also were away from home for the first time and were encountering nature for the first time, and learned much to take back with them. Classes were offered to help prepare them for jobs once they left the Corps. All told, the CCC build 97,000 miles of national forest roads and plant 3 billion trees.
In the episode, we see how national park attendance continues to rise, despite the hard times. Perhaps people needed an escape from the rough reality of their lives, and a getaway into nature was just what was ordered. Thanks to FDR, people soon have several other options of places to go, as he sets aside more national parks and monuments. Some of the areas he set aside during his stint in office are Joshua Tree, Dry Tortugas, Capitol Reef, and the Channel Islands.
As the concept of what entails a national park is being rethought, with the addition of battlefields, monuments and the like, so is the concept of what a national park’s purpose should be, particularly as it relates to wildlife. This train of thought gets started with George Melendez Wright, whom we meet in this episode. Wright is an assistant park naturalist in Yosemite when he comes to believe that the park managers are overlooking a responsibility that he calls “the very heart of the national park system.” And that is preserving wildlife in its natural state. Up to this point, animals are viewed as part of the entertainment in the parks, almost as if they are in a zoo. Bears, for example, are allowed access to the dump at set times so people can watch them feed. And inconvenient animals, such as the much-maligned predator animals, are often simply shot.
Wright convinces his superiors to allow him — at his own expense — to conduct a wildlife survey of the western parks. It takes four years, but he comes back with astounding evidence that the parks are not serving the animals as they should be. Wright proposes something radical — unless threatened with extinction within a park, each native species should be left to “carry on its struggle for existence unaided.” He also calls for the end of winter feeding, and the closing of the garbage dumps that attracted bears. Horace Albright is intrigued by Wright’s findings, and appoints the 29-year-old as chief of the newly created wildlife division of the National Park Service.
The passionate Wright gets involved in calling for the Everglades to be made a national park, warning that wildlife there would soon become extinct if action was not taken. Along with others, Wright helps the Everglades become the first national park created solely for the preservation of animals and plants, and their unique environment. Sadly, Wright’s story comes to a tragic end when he is killed in a car accident. And without him, National Park interest in wildlife again begins to wane.
Another very notable figure discussed in this episode is photographer Ansel Adams. Amazed by the parks ever since his trip to Yosemite as a child, and after hiking trips in the Kings Canyon country of California, Adams becomes convinced that the scenic canyon needed government protection. In 1938, Adams’ book of photos from the region reaches the desk of Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, and then FDR himself. They are both amazed by the beauty of Kings Canyon. Ickes sees a chance to make a more wild type of park here, without the hotels and other potential distractions found elsewhere. In 1940, Roosevelt signs the law creating Kings Canyon National Park. Ironically, FDR himself would never be able to visit the lovely park in person — it was made a roadless park, and he was unable to walk without assistance. He instead continues to enjoy the beauty through the photos of Ansel Adams, who is put on the government payroll and embarks on an eight-year foray to take pictures of all the parks.
With America’s entry into World War II in 1941, attendance to the parks begins to drop, and cutbacks are made. The CCC camps are closed down; the men are needed to fight the war. As during World War I, pressure from certain interests mounts to close the parks to visitors and open them to logging and mining for the war effort. Ickes argues that in such a time of national stress the people needed the escape the parks could offer.
And they do offer escape. Not only for civilians, but also for war-weary soldiers who need R&R. Rest camps for G.I.s are set up in various parks, and in 1943 soldiers alone make up one-quarter of the total visitors to national parks. Some parks even serve as training grounds. Desert training for soldiers is held in Joshua Tree, while at Mount Rainier, units are taught how to survive high altitudes and cold weather.
Mount Rainier also figures in an emotional segment about how Japanese civilians in America are interned in camps during the war. There is the story of Iwao and Hanaye Matsushita, who live in Seattle. They fall in love with Rainier, which reminds them of Mount Fuji in their homeland. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, however, Iwao is arrested and taken from his wife to a camp in Montana. The letters they write to each other are touching, and Hanaye tires to keep Iwao’s spirits up by talking of Mount Rainier, and how one day they will again see their “holy mountain” together.
Other mountains figure in the continuing saga of how the government tries to expand Grand Teton National Park to include its surrounding area, not just the mountains. The state of Wyoming is up in arms after Roosevelt establishes Jackson Hole National Monument (one journalist compares the setting aside of this land on the eastern border of Grand Teton — bought and donated by John D. Rockefeller Jr. — to Hitler’s seizure of Austria, showing that such hyperbole is not unique to our own era). The bitter fight continues well after FDR’s death in 1945, and into the ’50s, when a compromise if finally reached. As one of the products of this compromise, Wyoming remains the only state in which a president cannot use executive action to establish national monuments.
The battle over Grand Teton demonstrates the conflict between local, state and federal jurisdiction that has always seemed to be with our country. But if this series has so far shown anything, it’s also that sometimes, in the right hands, some federal ideas work, and do have the interest of the people in mind, as history bears out. The national parks system, in a way, could be labeled by some as “socialist” — sharing these lands with everyone when they could very well remain only in the hands of those who can afford it. But in the end, these places have proven their worth to us. Are there many who would complain about having places like the Grand Tetons or Mount Rainier to inspire them, as they did the many people we’ve met in this series? Experiencing the battles within and without government that often took place in the setting aside of these parks is reminiscent of battles taking place today, and which always have taken place in our nation. It is reassuring during our current time to be reminded, via the specific stories of the parks, that historically, we the people, and our government, have generally made the right choices to get us through such times of contention, even amidst a sea of conflicting interests, and often very loud arguments from all directions.
The episode closes on a hopeful and patriotic note with the story of Marian Anderson. In 1939, the famed contralto is denied the chance to perform in Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution, because she is black. Eleanor Roosevelt urges Harold Ickes to let Anderson perform elsewhere, and the singer eventually performs before 75,000 at the Lincoln Memorial, recently added to the national park system. It’s an appropriate backdrop, and the Memorial has continued to serve as a background for important events in the decades since. Anderson’s powerful rendition of “America” still has the ability to captivate and remind us of our freedom, and some subtly changed words also hint at the freedom that would still need to be fought for in the coming years — with some of the battlegrounds on which these fights will take place themselves becoming part of the national parks story.
FDR: National Archives and Records Administration
Wright: Harpers Ferry Center, Historic Photo Collection
Mount Rainier: Craig Mellish