Protecting Human Stories in Natural Environments


When the National Park Service was created in 1916, Congress intended that it would, "…conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and 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."  Nearly all 391 national parks contain historic and cultural objects, sites, buildings, structures, and districts including almost 27,000 historic buildings and structures that are deemed eligible for listing on the on the National Register of Historic Places.

Two thirds of our national parks were established principally in recognition of their history and culture and include places well known to most Americans -- Gettysburg, Independence Hall, and Little Big Horn Battlefield.  National parks in the West are probably best known to Americans for their sweeping natural landscapes, towering mountains and deep canyons like Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon.  Yet these parks also have a range of historic and cultural sites many of which are designated national historic landmarks like Robert Reamers' Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone, Gilbert Stanley Underwood's famed Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite and Mary Colter's Indian Watchtower overlooking the Grand Canyon.  According to the 1916 act, these places must be protected and left "unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."  And for the most part, they are. 

However, as national parks in the West were both created and expanded over the years, they often encompassed historic buildings and sites that were not developed for park operations and visitors but were there before the Park such as homestead cabins, cattle ranches, dude ranches or other private tourist facilities. Many of these sites had stories of their own to tell and while many might not qualify for national landmark designation, they would meet the criteria for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places for state or local significance.  These places, too, should be managed and left "unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."  For many historic properties this has not been the case.  

Former National Park Director Fran Mainella once said, "There are no natural parks, just national parks with natural and cultural resources."  Yet for decades, Park Superintendents of large western parks like Glacier, Rocky Mountain National Park and Grand Teton and their staffs believed they were managing natural parks and routinely removed or failed to maintain (benign neglect) historic cabins, homesteads, ranch buildings and tourist facilities in an effort to restore wilderness values to the park.  Historic buildings were considered a prohibitively costly maintenance problem and preserving them conflicted with the true mission of the parks which was to protect the natural environment. 

Some have suggested that the priority given to natural resource protection over cultural resource protection dates to the passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964 or was a direct response to Mission 66, a massive rebuilding program planned in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the NPS Organic Act, which placed visitor enjoyment and services above resource protection.  Many park managers bristled as these facilities were located dangerously close to the resources the parks were meant to protect.   

The perceived conflict between natural and cultural resource protection is not just a problem in western parks.  In a 2003 article published in Orion Magazine, historian and environmentalist William Cronon asked  "how do you manage a wilderness full of human stories?"  His article focused on the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Lake Superior, established in 1970.  According to Cronon, the 1970 act determined the "Lakeshore was dedicated to the protection of scenic, scientific, historic, geological and archaeological features contributing to public education, inspiration and enjoyment."

In 2003, the National Park Service proposed that the area be designated for wilderness.  According to the Wilderness Act, to be eligible designation, an area must be a place "where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain."

Cronon, who regularly writes about the history of human interactions with the natural world, noted that the Apostle Islands had a "deep human history" that included Native American settlement, fishing, logging, farming, and tourism leaving behind roads, farmed fields, lighthouses, docks, cottages, and lodges.  Cronon believed the physical presence of human activity that remained on the islands questioned the idea of "untouched by man."  

Cronon argued the Apostle Islands are a superb example of a wilderness in which natural and human histories are intimately intermingled and should be managed as historical wilderness where we commit ourselves not to erasing human marks on the land but rather to interpreting them so that visitors can experience and understand that wilderness is filled equally with human and natural histories. 

Like Cronon, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has experienced tension within the National Park Service over the protection of natural and cultural resources specifically in Rocky Mountain, Grand Teton and the Great Smoky Mountains National Parks.    

Located in Rocky Mountain National Park, McGraw Ranch was originally homesteaded in the 1880s as a working cattle ranch.  In the 1930s, the McGraws switched to dude ranching and constructed several guest cabins.  The Park Service began acquiring land from the McGraws in the 1960s.  In 1985, the land that remained, including 16 historic buildings was sold to the Park Service.  Roughly 10 years later, the Park Service announced plans to demolish the buildings on the ranch and restore its natural setting for elk habitat.  The National Trust led a campaign to oppose this idea suggesting the preservation of the human history in the Estes Valley was as important to the mission of the park as the preservation of its natural history. 

After several years of wrangling first with one superintendent that was later replaced by another, and after committing to raise private money for the project, McGraw Ranch was rehabilitated and today provides lodging, work, and meeting space for researchers who are helping Rocky address its science needs. 

It was our hope that the preservation and adaptive use of McGraw Ranch would convince park managers that natural and cultural resources in the parks can co-exist and be mutually beneficial. We hoped that the era of "sophie's choice" when one resource had to be sacrificed to save another, was over.  It was not.   

When we embarked on our advocacy campaign to save McGraw Ranch, we were unleashing pent up frustration over the years of disagreement we were having with Park managers in Grand Teton National Park who were systematically destroying historic buildings by fire, demolition and neglect.  Finally in 2001 a new Superintendent arrived in the Park who for the first time embraced the park's history and set a course towards ensuring its preservation.

For the past forty years or so, the prevailing operational model in the Park Service has been to protect resources through the acquisition of private land called "in holdings" both inside and adjacent to park boundaries.  The preferred practice was to purchase the land outright, such as what occurred at McGraw Ranch.  If the owner was unwilling to sell outright, the Park Service would attempt to negotiate a life estate where property was acquired and the owner given the right to use it rent free until their death.   

When Grand Teton National Park was established by an Act of Congress in 1950 with 32,117 acres donated by John D. Rockefeller, Jr, the newly enlarged park contained historic structures associated with homesteading, dude ranching, and tourist facilities.  Dude ranching was a common practice in the Jackson Valley throughout the 20th century.  The first dude ranch in the valley was the JY Ranch, established by Louis Joy and Struthers Burt in 1906.   In 1914, Harold Hammond and George Tucker Bispham homesteaded White Grass and by the summer of 1919 welcomed their first dudes to the ranch.  White Grass operated from 1919 to 1985 making it the longest operating dude ranch in the Valley.   Frank Galey, Harold Hammond's stepson, took over ranch management in 1939.

Frank Galey sold White Grass to the Park Service in 1957 retaining life estate.  Frank died in 1984 and in 1985, control of the property transferred to the National Park Service.  White Grass cabins received little to no maintenance from the Park Service after the transfer.

As early as 1987, individuals who had been associated with White Grass as former dudes or employees began to voice their concerns about the fate of the ranch to the Wyoming SHPO and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Proposals to the Park Service by the SHPO to prepare plans and set priorities for preserving historic structures in the Park including White Grass were dismissed based on the Park's belief that protecting these places "contradicts the values which Congress sought to preserve in the park."  The Wyoming SHPO pointed out, that while the 1976 Master Plan for the Park refers to Grand Teton as a "natural area"; neither the 1929 act establishing the park nor the 1950 law expanding its boundaries confirms this intent.

The SHPO further cited correspondence from Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall in 1964 that recognized each park had "natural, cultural and recreational values that required a separate set of management principles coordinated to form one organic management plan for the entire system."   The SHPO also cited a memo written by the Director of the National Park Service in 1945 to Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes which said, "One of the purposes of the Jackson Hole Plan since the beginning has been the perpetuation of those aspects of the region that represent the Old West.  Administration and interpretation of the Jackson Hole Monument will take this into account."

By the mid 1990s, the Park's stance towards historic preservation began to soften with an effort to restore historic buildings along Mormon Row.  Inspired by a  new staff historical  architect and with the support of a new Superintendent, the Mormon Row project utilized volunteer labor and materials purchased with fee demo money to reroof and restore Mormon Row beginning with the often photographed T.A. Moulton Barn.  The National Trust recognized the volunteer group called the "Michigan Volunteers" with an honor award in 2003.

However, positive preservation efforts on Mormon Row were diminished by reports that tar paper had been torn off roofs on cabins at White Grass and the Bar BC Dude Ranches exposing them to further deterioration and that a bridge that provided access to the historic Lucas /Fabian Homestead had been removed without consultation with the SHPO. 

A true turn of events at Grand Teton occurred in August 2002 after a visit to the Park by National Trust President Richard Moe and Karen Wade, Director of the Intermountain Region of the National Park Service.  Accompanying Moe and Wade were Steve Martin, the new Superintendent of Grand Teton, and Barb Pahl, Director of the Mountains/Plains Office.  The group visited many of the Park's historic buildings including Mormon Row, the Lucas/Fabian Homestead, the Murie Ranch, the Bar BC and White Grass. 

Karen Wade and Steve Martin, who was the new Park Superintendent, were alarmed by the condition of the park's historic resources.  To address what she rightfully saw as a chronic problem of neglect and lack of maintenance, Wade suggested that White Grass be rehabilitated for a preservation training center as a way to attract resources to address the park's other preservation needs. 

The environmental community in Jackson did not react positively to the news that the Park Service planned to save and use White Grass.  Numerous articles and opinion pieces in the local paper suggested the proposal was "not in harmony with the park's irreplaceable wildlife and natural resources." The Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance criticized White Grass and other proposals from the new Superintendent to save and adapt historic buildings in the park stating that in their view, "the purpose of historic preservation is to preserve history for interpretation not to create new, incompatible uses such as employee housing at McCollister, an artist commune at Lucas/Fabian or a training center at White Grass."  Unsurprisingly, former dudes and wranglers from White Grass "saw the proposal as a great way to recount ranching history in the park." 

The change in direction that was begun by Superintendent Steve Martin has been continued by current Superintendent Mary Gibson Scott.  Plans have been developed and work is underway to rehabilitate the 13 remaining historic cabins at White Grass for the Western Center for Historic Preservation.  The Center's primary purpose is to preserve the rustic park architecture through the work on the deferred maintenance backlog of historic structures in Grand Teton and other national parks in the Intermountain Region. The National Trust for Historic Preservation is conducting a fund raising campaign to provide $950,000 in private donations to match funding provided by the National Park Service.  As of this writing, the Trust has raised half of this amount.

Although a preservation beachhead of sorts has been established at Grand Teton, we know we are only one new superintendent away from resuming the battle over the priority to preserve historic structures in areas that many revere primarily for their wilderness values.  Meanwhile, historic buildings continued to be threatened in other national parks. 

In the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, architecturally distinctive and historically important cabins in Elkmont are being demolished because of perceived conflicts between natural and cultural resource protection.  The higher value being claimed for this area by park managers and environmental groups is the restoration of wilderness. 

The houses being demolished at Elkmont in Great Smoky Mountains National Park were built by wealthy Knoxvillians who spent their summers in the cool mountains to escape the heat and humidity of Knoxville. These were modest homes that were not changed much or added onto by subsequent generations who inherited them and continued to enjoy them every summer. They remained a living example of people living light on the land. 

Additionally, maintenance remained the responsibility of each family.  Acquisition of these in holdings shifted the maintenance responsibility to the National Park Service.  The burden of additional maintenance costs, combined with a greater priority placed on restoration of wilderness supported the decision to remove most of the historic houses from Elkmont.

After our experience with McGraw Ranch in Rocky Mountain National Park, Randy Jones, who was then Superintendent, said he thought it was time for the Park Service to rethink the paradigm of acquiring in holdings for the purpose of tearing down existing buildings to restore the natural environment.  In light of McGraw Ranch, that demonstrated that historic buildings could be rehabilitated and used in harmony with the natural environment, perhaps it would be better to leave historic buildings in the hands of the private individuals who had the resources to maintain and preserve them. 

As Cronon posits in his article, the desire to protect nature through Wilderness Designation should not mean the loss of historic and cultural sites and the erasure of human stories.  And in fact, it doesn't.  The law doesn't require that a building or structure be removed; but it does say you can't use a motorized vehicle to get to the cabin if it needs repair or you can't use power tools on site, put up an interpretative sign and you certainly can't use it.    

The environmental community in Jackson that opposed our plan to save White Grass weren't advocating for the removal of the cabins.  They liked sitting on the porch of the Main Cabin to listen to the elk bugle.  What they opposed was putting people back into buildings in wilderness environments.    

On December 8, 2004, President Bush approved legislation designating 80% of the Apostle Islands as wilderness.  This was considered to be a compromise; the historic lighthouses and other existing developed areas on the islands were not included in the new wilderness area.

We have to give up this idea that people and nature can't co-exist.  In fact, they have co-existed for centuries.  It is only our more recent and somewhat naïve notion of wilderness that forces man out of the picture. 

There are important human stories to tell in "natural" areas.  These stories are best conveyed at the place where these people lived.   Not in a book and or museum exhibit hall someplace else.  It is time for the National Park Service to recognize and embrace the basic premise of the organic act to leave natural and historic resources therein unimpaired for future generations.  Natural resources and cultural resources are inextricably linked.  They always have been.