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Introduction: The Balance Between Preservation and Use

Crowd at Old Faithful Geyser, Yellowstone National Park, circa 1950s Add to Scrapbook

Crowd at Old Faithful Geyser, Yellowstone National Park, circa 1950s

Line of tourists waiting to use outhouse, Yosemite National Park, 1952 Add to Scrapbook

Line of tourists waiting to use outhouse, Yosemite National Park, 1952

Since its beginnings in the mid-19th century, the national park idea had embraced two equally important yet apparently contradictory goals: to preserve America's special places in their natural conditions forever; and to keep them open and accessible for the enjoyment of all Americans.

Early park leaders had glossed over any philosophical conflicts by arguing that the best way to protect the parks was to build public support for them by encouraging more visitors.

But with the end of World War II, an increasingly affluent and mobile nation would place increasing demands on the parks, severely testing the balancing act between preservation and use.

The very definition of what constituted a national park would be challenged and expanded. A new park would be created in the backyard of one of the nation's fastest-growing cities; while far to the north, in the nation's "last frontier," the park idea would be invigorated for a new generation.

A Strain on the System

Before the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 plunged the United States into World War II, half a million people a year had visited Yellowstone. But wartime gasoline rationing and railroad travel restrictions soon pushed the annual number of visitors down to 61,696.

In 1946, with the war finally over and restrictions lifted, attendance quadrupled from 189,000 to 807,000. Two years later, it would cross the one-million mark.

But the people who flocked to Yellowstone found that there weren't enough campgrounds or hotels to accommodate them, and other park facilities were in bad shape. By 1950, nearly 32 million Americans were heading for their national parks each year, and the entire park system was under strain. (See sidebar video.)

Protecting the Predator

Adolph Murie, 1925 Add to Scrapbook

Adolph Murie, 1925

Hunters in Jackson Hole, Grand Teton National Park Add to Scrapbook

Hunters in Jackson Hole, Grand Teton National Park

In the summer of 1922, a young college student from Moorhead, Minnesota named Adolph Murie arrived at Mount McKinley National Park in Alaska. He was one of only seven tourists who showed up that year, and he was there to help his older brother Olaus, a biologist, conduct a study of caribou migrations.

Inspired by his five weeks in Alaska, Murie pursued a doctoral degree in biology. George Melendez Wright recruited him for the Park Service's newly formed Wildlife Division.

By the 1940s, Murie had made a name for himself as a top-notch field biologist, but his views on the direction of park policies often put him in conflict with his superiors. At Olympic National Park, where wolves had been hunted to extinction years earlier, he called for their reintroduction. No one listened.

At Yellowstone, he spent two years studying the park's coyotes and then issued a report opposing the park policy of hunting the predators. Yellowstone's superintendent was so upset, he shelved the report and nearly got Murie fired.

Murie was dispatched to Mount McKinley in Alaska, where he embarked on the first in-depth study of wolves ever undertaken. Despite a Park Service policy against the extermination of any animal species, wolves had been systematically eliminated at many national parks. Alaska was virtually the only place left in the United States where wolves still existed, and many Alaskans felt the animals should be wiped out there, too.

Continued on page 2

A proud tourist points at her National Parks windshield stickers, 1922; David Brower in Glen Canyon, 1966; Dayton Duncan's son, Will, standing at edge of canyon. Bryce Canyon National Park, 1998

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For Educators

Check out the lesson plans and other materials for teachers and educators.

Bank of America Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr Fund Corporation for Public Broadcasting The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations Park Foundation

National Park Foundation The Peter Jay Sharp Foundation The Pew Charitable TrustsGM

THE NATIONAL PARKS: AMERICA'S BEST IDEA is a co-production of

Florentine Films and WETA

 

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