Balancing Act

A lift behind the scenes helped bring the National Park Service into being.

By Jennifer Reut 

In February 1916, the American Society of Landscape Architects met in Boston for its annual meeting. Among the reports entered into the proceedings was one of the Committee on National Parks. The committee was made up of Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., Harris Reynolds, Stephen Child, Percival Gallagher, and Warren H. Manning, and it had been formed on the recommendation of ASLA President James Sturgis Pray in 1915, part of a groundswell of unease that had been brewing for several years over the fractured administration of the national parks.

The passage of the National Park Service Organic Act on August 25, 1916, established the park service and its mission, and though it has been amended many times, and threatened many more times than that, it remains, 100 years hence, our primary apparatus for preserving and interpreting the national parks. Ethan Carr, FASLA, the landscape historian and author of Wilderness by Design: Landscape Architecture & the National Park Service, writes that the act itself was drafted in a series of meetings that included Olmsted, Representative William Kent of California, Robert Sterling Yard, J. Horace McFarland, Robert B. Marshall, and Horace M. Albright, but it is to Olmsted that the well-known wording in the act’s opening section is attributed.

“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.”

At the time of the act’s passage, there were roughly 14 national parks and 28 national monuments. Supervision was spread between the Departments of Interior, War, and Agriculture, and seemed to be governed by an “every park manager for himself” ethos—through no real fault of their own. Nonetheless, the situation had become increasingly worrisome as the park system continued to expand and commercial incursions continued to be proposed, in a pell-mell fashion, from many quarters. Reviewing the reports provided by the individual parks in January 1916, ASLA’s national parks committee stated that it found that in “only two reports can one gain a very definite idea of the attitude of the superintendent toward landscape.” The rest was a hodgepodge of road building construction minutiae, fire clearance, bizarre expenditures (including 25 cents for crayons at Yosemite), and a somewhat alarming account of slope clearing at Hot Springs to make way for beds of flowering plants and shrubs and an ornamental fountain for the entrance.

The Organic Act established the park service, a department within the Department of Interior, to manage the parks, but it avoided the many pressing questions swirling about that the park service would have to take on if it were to manage the parks in a comprehensive way. In Wilderness, Carr observes that the fundamental landscape ideals of the national parks had been inherited from Frederick Law Olmsted Sr.’s 1865 report on Yosemite. Forged during the Civil War, the report described parks as a collective unifying inheritance of the American people. Olmsted also emphasized the idea that landscape preservation could be achieved by landscape development. In other words, by developing the parks along sound landscape design principles, and making them accessible to people, they would be protected from more invasive and destructive activities and have the best chance of surviving for future generations. This legacy is evident in the Organic Act, which specifically identifies preservation as the mission of the park service.

The work of ASLA’s national parks committee to draft and help pass the Organic Act did not settle worries about the lack of coherent management of parks. From the beginning, the national parks were shaped by a number of sometimes contradictory influences, including tourism, railroad concerns, conservation, resource development and mining, recreation, forestry, and agricultural interests. Although sometimes seen as modern threats to the national parks, tourism and concessionaires—the commercial infrastructure of tourism—were accepted as necessary adjuncts to the park system from its inception.

The national parks were not pristine landscapes awaiting congressional anointment. They were places where people lived, worked, hunted, worshipped, ran businesses, and made pilgrimage. Few people wanted to stop these activities just because the sites became national parks. As industrialization increased, so did pressure on the park lands. If anything, the protections under the national park rubric increased their allure to tourists. Many of the parks were already embroiled in these questions, but without any central form of administration to provide guidance for decision making.

There was also the matter of new parks and monuments. What would the criteria be for inclusion, and how would they be adjudicated? How would tourism, seen by many landscape architects as the least intrusive source of revenue for the parks, be accommodated? Though these decisions were not in the new park service’s mandate, issues of landscape character and development might nonetheless color management practices and approaches. All of these issues were among those of keen interest to landscape architects and to ASLA. Although the why of the national parks may have been settled by Olmsted in the late 19th century, the where, the how, and the what had not.

In April 1916, five months before Congress would pass the Organic Act, Landscape Architecture, then a quarterly, published “Our National Parks: A Conference.” It was composed of proceedings from the February meeting in Boston, and reading it today gives some insight into how ASLA thought it might best position itself to advise on these questions in relation to the new park service.

The text of the Organic Act was included in these proceedings, along with several related articles, including one by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. titled “The Distinction Between National Parks and National Forests,” then an important issue that needed clarifying, and an extraordinary map of the then-extant national parks, forests, and monuments, drawn by Manning. In the final essay, “The American Society of Landscape Architects and our National Parks,” Pray, then president of the society, laid out the four principles that he felt required the advice of the landscape architecture profession if the parks were to be preserved and thrive: determining the boundaries of national parks, “not arbitrary, as those at present, but in consonance with the topography and with landscape unity”; the drawing of comprehensive plans for each park; the approval of designs for buildings so that they might appropriately occupy the landscape; and the adoption of a system of maintenance. Although the society had no formal relationship with the park service—a provision for an advisory board had been removed in early drafts of the Organic Act—the resolution adopted in support of the park service suggested that they had good reason to believe that their counsel would continue to be sought:

“That the American Society of Landscape Architects pledges itself, and invites its individual members, to cooperate in any way possible, and consistent with the recognized ethics of the profession, with the present provisional National Park Service and with the National Park Service sought to be established under the aforesaid Bill.”

3 thoughts on “Balancing Act”

Leave a Reply