The portrait of the National Park Service that Richard West Sellars paints in his new book is not especially flattering: Entrusted by Americans to preserve natural wonders, the agency instead prefers to develop recreation and promote tourism.
Such criticism is nothing new - writer
Edward Abbey loved to rail against "industrial tourism" and the
"National Parking Service."
What makes Sellars'
new book, Preserving Nature in the National Parks, unusual is that
he was told and paid to write an unflinching analysis of the
National Park Service by his employer - the National Park Service.
A park historian based in Santa Fe, N.M., Sellars works for the
agency he takes to task for focusing too much on recreation while
"neglecting to push science to the forefront and make it a
non-negotiable element of park management."
as surprising, even to Sellars, is the reception the book has
received from top-level National Park Service officials. Recently,
NPS Director Robert Stanton told the National Leadership Council -
a cabinet of top Park Service executives - that Sellars' book is
"The new director and the Park
Service directorate in general has been responding positively to
this book," Sellars says, adding quizzically: "I can't tell you why
The project had been fraught with
agency politics, internal second-guessing and numerous delays. NPS
officials had wanted their own detailed history of natural-resource
management in the wake of maverick scientist Alston Chase's 1986
tome, Playing God in Yellowstone: The Destruction of America's
First National Park, a caustic view of federal land-management
practices in and around Yellowstone.
looked upon this book as a rebuttal to Chase, but there was nothing
else on the shelf that was unchallengeable in its accuracy and
outright truth," says NPS Intermountain Area Director John Cook in
Denver, who shielded Sellars' book project from periodic internal
torpedoes. "My role was to ensure we got a totally professional,
defensible document that was not bombarded by revisionist history -
at which I can be pretty good myself.
some egos got bruised by this book, but our employees have been
telling us for years to take a more scientific approach to our
management techniques," says Cook.
government employee, Sellars does not receive royalties from the
book; they go to the nonprofit Albright-Wirth Employee Development
Fund to advance the professional skills of NPS
On its surface, Preserving Nature in
the National Parks is an extensively detailed history of the Park
Service, reflecting Sellars' unprecedented access to agency
That access lets him document the
development of the agency's entrenched philosophy of scenery or
"facade" management to tourists. His examples range from predator
control to fire management, from bark beetles to grizzly bears. His
conclusion: Nature historically has lost out to recreation, even
though that goes against the agency's congressional mandate to
protect natural wonders "unimpaired for future generations."
For instance, he notes how the Park Service
leadership fought the Wilderness Act of 1964 - an act that would
seem to be in harmony with the agency's mission. And, Sellars
marvels how the Park Service came to manage "national recreation
areas' like Glen Canyon and Lake Mead.
an agency that likes to see itself as primarily a preservation
agency, yet here they are getting in bed with the Bureau of
Reclamation and the Corps of Engineers, the dam builders of the
West," Sellars says. "They leave these areas so totally impaired
from their natural condition, that philosophically the Service just
Like the agency's dual mission of
protecting natural resources while making them accessible to the
public, Sellars notes there's an "uneasy relationship" between
recreation development and natural
A deeper message in Sellars'
380-page text is the emergence of the Park Service's "leadership
culture," the agency's tendency to make engineers, architects and
construction specialists managers rather than employees with
professional backgrounds in natural science. Sellars blames this
bias for the emphasis on recreation.
acknowledges personal frustration as an environmental historian
with a Ph.D. going up against the Park Service's culture during
more than two decades as an agency employee.
came into the Service as a historian in the early "70s thinking the
agency manages dozens of historical sites, so historians must have
very influential positions in the Park Service," he says. "Wrong."
But Sellars also notes that the agency gave the
public what it apparently wanted.
Since the dawn
of the national park system with the creation of Yellowstone and
Yosemite, the emphasis from Congress was to make the parks public
pleasure grounds. Profit, not altruism, drove the creation of the
first national parks.
Sellars' book recounts how
Northern Pacific Railroad baron Jay Cooke lobbied Congress to
create Yellowstone National Park so it wouldn't fall into private
hands and limit his ability to monopolize tourist traffic into the
"With tourism and the economics of
tourism being fundamental to the parks' very existence, the
utilitarian, businesslike proclivities of park management thrived
as the system grew," Sellars writes. "Striving for ever more parks
and better accommodations, the Service measured its success by
indicators such as annual visitor counts; the increasing scope of
its programs and size of the park system; and the number of new
campgrounds, visitor centers and related developments."
Yet changes are on the wind. Sellars' sometimes
scathing account of park managers ignoring or defying sound,
scientific advice from biologists and naturalists has coincided
with a shift in the agency's leadership culture toward
"We've come to
understand the mandate to "leave unimpaired" in a modern way, that
instead of preserving the scenic facade of nature, there's a
concern for the ecology that all this scenery is tied into," says
it's a turning point," says Jere Krakow, superintendent of the NPS
Long Distance Trails Office in Salt Lake City and a 30-year
acquaintance of Sellars. "Dick's now in the catbird seat as a
historian who has an influence in management decisions."
The book also has energized the NPS to seek more
scientific data before making management
"We have not done a good job of
getting good, quantitative information on the resources of parks,"
says John Jarvis, superintendent of Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias
National Park and Preserve, the largest park in the NPS system - at
13.2 million acres, bigger than
"That's the charge we have now, to
embrace the scientific collection of information available when we
make management decisions."
Part of the shift
toward environmental protection is a result of the agency's success
in attracting visitors. Today, many national parks are crammed with
people, cars, campers, hotels and other amenities, and now a
vanguard of managers is pushing programs to reduce crowding,
eliminate vehicles, silence aircraft noise and preserve natural
"What goes around comes around,"
says Sellars, who now is at work on another Park Service history,
this one about how well the agency has protected cultural resources
like ancient Indian dwellings and old buildings. "To prepare for
the future, it's important first to analyze the past with as much
clarity and impartiality as can be mustered. We're doing better."
reports for the Salt Lake