A lively memoir out of the National Park Service

  • Cover of Take Down Flag & Feed Horses

 

For a variety of reasons, I have been reading about the National Park Service - reports, histories, and bilious (but also far-seeing) polemics like Alston Chase's Playing God in Yellowstone.

They're useful but tend to be lifeless. Now we have a restorative potion to go with the reports and histories: a book that breathes life into an agency almost buried under an avalanche of analysis.

Bill Everhart's sharply written memoir and account of Yellowstone National Park is titled Take Down Flag & Feed Horses. The book is an inside job - Everhart rose as far as assistant director - and he is loyal to the agency he retired from in 1977. But in this case, loyalty leads to honesty rather than to the circling of wagons. He thinks he can be of service by telling the truth and by doing it entertainingly, so that it will be read. And he thinks we can best understand the Park Service by understanding its people, even when they're at their most fallible. Here is Everhart's account of an old-time ranger explaining the Park Service to him, a tenderfoot historian fresh from the effete East:

"The organization, (the ranger) said, had a decided tilt to the West, where the great national parks were located. The little battlefields and birthplaces of the East were like poor relations, in the family but seldom discussed. "Can you imagine naturalists or historians trying to run a park like Yellowstone? ... That's why superintendents and regional directors come from the ranger ranks." It was done with cheerful good humor, what Westerners called "stuffin" the dudes," and I took no offense."

Everhart's career in the Park Service started at one of those "little battlefields' - Gettysburg - where he worked with an older historian who was "trimly built and orderly to a fault, even in conversation, every fact carefully arranged." Once Everhart asked this man a question while he was on a ladder. "He came down the ladder, laid the picture and hammer and nails on the relief map, thought for a bit, answered in the affirmative, and climbed back up the ladder with his paraphernalia." The man died of old age, still doing research on his "monumental history" of the Battle of Gettysburg.

"Fred took too many notes," commented a colleague.

That was a minor problem. A more serious situation arose in 1959, when Everhart followed the nation west, to St. Louis, to plan a museum to tell the story of the exploration and settling of the land beyond the Mississippi. The museum was to sit beneath and interpret the stainless steel "gateway" arch - some called it a giant wicket - designed by architect Eero Saarinen. Future Park Service director George Hartzog was in charge of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, and he wasn't happy with the kinds of museums the Park Service staff was producing. He asked Saarinen for help, and the famous architect recruited the equally famous designer, Charles Eames.

The Saarinen-Eames proposal went to director Connie Wirth, who, Everhart writes, "flatly rejected it. The Park Service already had the best exhibit designers in the country. His pronouncement may have marked the low point of my Park Service career."

It was a career that was to have many high points. In the 1950s, he had helped scout the East and Gulf coasts in search of national seashores. So it was already an expansionary time when Hartzog took over from Wirth as director in 1964, thanks to Secretary of Interior Stewart Udall's willingness to reach into lower ranks. Everhart writes: "There was ... a lot of throat-clearing among more senior Park Service officials who were positioned, as they thought, to be considered."

Udall had ruffled uniforms, but he had also set the stage for the glory years of the agency. Wallace Stegner wrote of those years in Washington, D.C.: "George Hartzog proved himself one of the toughest, savviest and most effective bureau chiefs who ever operated in that political alligator hole." His work among the alligators led to the creation of a record-setting 68 parks from 1964 to 1972.

Who knows where the agency would be today if Richard Nixon had not fired Hartzog because the director opened Bebe Rebozo's brother-in-law's boat dock at Florida's Biscayne National Park to the public? Nixon's act began the Park Service's political era. Stirring right-wing politicos into what was already a hardening bureaucracy did not make for a happy mix.

Everhart's anecdotal account of the Park Service from the 1950s through the 1970s is told in the introduction. The rest of the book describes his life in Yellowstone National Park during the summer of 1978, followed by an account of the Yellowstone fires of 1988. It's on-the-ground and filled with vivid characters, some larger than life and some much smaller. You get to see, for example, the arrogance that led the tough-guy rangers to champion snowmobiles at Yellowstone.

Everhart also describes how a few concessioners came to dominate the parks. The agency's first director, Steve Mather, forced out small operators until he had one large franchise holder supplying all services in a park.

"The Mather solution survives. A park concession is a monopoly controlled by the government, not unlike a public utility. The Park Service sets the rules and approves the rates, protecting the concessioner from competition while looking out for the public interest," Everhart says.

Then comes the kicker - the final sentence of the paragraph: "The arrangement sounds a lot better than it works."

Report writers and historians, both of whom have their place, would spend pages analyzing the concession system. Everhart does it in a paragraph, and uses the space saved to tell yet more stories.

Ed Marston is publisher of High Country News.