Overseeing the National Park Service Is No Picnic

In 1954, Conrad Wirth, the director of the National Park Service, was responsible for 24 million acres of properties and the myriad troubles that came with them. Today, NPS sites cover an area larger than New Mexico, and the problems keep coming.

Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming (Photo by Ralph H. Anderson, © 1954 SEPS)
Click here to view a gallery of national park photos from the archive.

Weekly Newsletter

The best of The Saturday Evening Post in your inbox!


In 1954, 3,600 employees administered and cared for the National Park Service’s 24 million acres of property for the benefit if their 46 million tourists. These were some pretty big numbers, and with those numbers came some pretty big headaches, from the difficulties of conservation and preservation efforts to the problem of poachers, smugglers, and vandals.

The person ultimately responsible for dealing with that sea of troubles, as well as for convincing Congress to find the budget for it, is the director of the NPS. It takes a special breed of person to step into such a multifarious role, for the director of the NPS is at once a conservationist, a proprietor, a historian, a businessperson, a custodian, and even the chief of a small force of traffic cops.

In 1954, that man was Conrad Wirth.

That year, Post writer Robert M. Yoder wrote the following profile of Director Wirth, “Twenty-four Million Acres of Trouble,” bringing to light the challenges he faced and the aplomb with which he juggled the many components of his position.

The troubles of the NPS have not waned in the past 60 years. If anything, they have grown as the park system itself has grown. Today, over 300 million guests visit the NPS’s more than 400 properties — so much more than just the 59 national parks — including battlefields, monuments and memorials, seashores, lakeshores, rivers, parkways, trails, and other historic sites. All told, today’s NPS bears responsibility for 84 million acres of land — an area larger than New Mexico — in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Northern Marianas Islands, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Washington, D.C.

The NPS’s duties at these sites are as varied as the properties themselves: 22,000 professionals and 221,000 volunteers protect wildlife, rescue hikers, maintain cabins, preserve historic buildings, manage traffic, prevent and repair vandalism, watch for forest fires, and so much more. Why? To protect the most beautiful parts of our country. To preserve our history and our legacy. To provide us all with access to hardy education and recreation. To ensure that future generations can learn and enjoy as we have.

And to make sure that the next time you visit an NPS site, it is a walk in the park.

Twenty-Four Million Acres of Trouble

By Robert M. Yoder

Originally published on July 3, 1954

Two men looking at plans in front of White House
Robert Redmond, head White House gardner in 1954, with NPS director Conrad Wirth (Photo by Fred Ross, © 1954 SEPS)

As Conrad L. Wirth hikes down a corridor of the Department of the Interior in Washington, or sits at lunch in the Cosmos Club, a passing friend sometimes sings out, “Hi-ya, Connie. How are things?” Wirth is manager of a 24,000,000-acre domain which can grow problems the way Indiana can grow corn, and there must be days when he is tempted to answer this question. Even a partial account could be a little striking.

“Why, about normal,” Wirth might say. “We’re having a little trouble with crocodiles, mountain climbers, wild burros, moonshiners, poachers and smugglers, of course. There’s some question what to do with maybe five or six thousand surplus elk, and it’s going to be a fight to preserve the land-loving goose. The high cost of caves is something of a headache, and I wish we could figure out how to keep the sea cows from hanging around the business district — that’s in Miami. There are seven kinds of beetles attacking seven kinds of timber, the prehistoric ruins need some work done, and we had a complaint from a man who says that in the forest primeval there is no place to plug in his electric razor. … How are things with you?”

A husky 200-pounder in his early 50s, Wirth looks well-built to withstand work and worry, and providence keeps him beautifully supplied with both. There are men who can go to the closet of a morning and select any of 100 suits, quiet, loud, blue, brown, gray, single-breasted or double, pinstripe, check, herringbone or plaid. Wirth has a collection of problems far more extensive, far more varied.

They are perquisites of his job, clearly one of the most remarkable in the world. Wirth is director of the National Park Service, boss of our 180 national parks, monuments, historic sites, and recreation areas.

This means administering $4,000,000,000 worth of the grandest and most peculiar real estate under our flag, including glaciers, volcanoes, geysers, deserts, giant sequoias 3,500 years old, great caves, and petrified forests. It is not true, as Jim Bridger reported, that there are petrified birds singing petrified songs, but the wildlife that Wirth is charged with preserving includes some minnows native, of all places, to the desert of Death Valley.

So a multitude of plain and exotic troubles is to be expected. This is a condition so natural, in fact, that without them, Wirth probably would suffer some form of the bends, like a diver brought up too suddenly from the deep. Trouble is the park director’s element, as water is the natural element of fish — he is running out of fish — or woods the natural element of skunks, which are driving picnickers away from tables and campers out of their tents.

Wirth’s paramount problem is money; he is in a financial hole of real grandeur. The parks are running down and getting harder use, by more millions, every year. “The people,” one park man says, “are wearing out the scenery.” To get what Wirth needs will require a small miracle of salesmanship; meanwhile, he needs money so badly that it is a wonder he didn’t accept the Crater Lake offer.

Crater Lake, in Oregon, is one of the great sights of the world. The lake is blue beyond description; and you look down on it from walls of rock falling 500 to 2,000 feet. One enterprising Westerner saw an opportunity here. Thousands come every year to stand on this rim, and the sight, the gentleman figured, must strike deep into the soul, arousing an impulse he planned to satisfy. “Here’s this beautiful lake, way down there,” he wrote. “You rent me a spot on the rim, and I’ll set up a concession where, for two bits or maybe 50 cents, people can drop rocks into it.”

There was another sound suggestion for making money, though it comes a little late. A farmer visited Yellowstone in time to see Old Faithful erupt, with that reliability which makes it one of the two or three most famous sights in the land.

“Ranger,” the farmer said, “you got something there. Why, people would come from all around, just to see that geyser, if you’d advertise it.”

Whatever your problem, Wirth’s got one to match. Does your dog nip the garbage man? Wirth’s got bears which nip tourists, sometimes bringing on lawsuits — one, which the government won, for $75,000. Got aphids on the roses? It will be consoling to consider Wirth’s pest problems: on a day no worse than usual they will include beetles, tent caterpillars, webworms, loopers, sawflies, and wood ticks. His oddest gardening worry is preserving a Hawaiian plant so excessively rare that there are only two known specimens. It’s an item called Hibiscadelphus giffardianus.

Does your house keep you poor? Wirth has this problem in a curious form. The real estate in his charge includes 62 sets of prehistoric ruins which must be kept in a kind of suspended ruination. That comes high: It costs $8000 a year to maintain the ruins in Mesa Verde, Colorado, and Wirth figures those at Chaco Canyon, in New Mexico, need $65,000 worth of work to put them back in their old, terrible shape.

Wirth can expect trouble from every quarter; even so, there are surprises. Along with being the boss of 3,600 employees, with whom he gets along splendidly, Wirth is the boss of 300 statues, mostly in battlefields. One of the statues has given him a good deal of trouble. Lightning knocked both arms and the head off a thirteen-foot figure of Liberty, atop an 87-foot shaft at Yorktown, where Cornwallis surrendered. A well-known sculptor is executing a new figure, on commission, but now refuses to put it on the shaft, which he contends is an eyesore.

And while name writers are a nuisance year in and out, it was a surprise when one of them chose Half Dome, in Yosemite. That great peak, looking like half a loaf of bread, presents a face of rock 2,000 feet high. High as it is, one visitor swung down on 20 feet of rope to paint his name. He chose too big a canvas; he ran out of paint after finishing only one initial.

If repining over human vandalism gets him nowhere, Wirth can worry about vandalism by buffalo. The Yellowstone buffaloes long have been a joy but a care. Once they dwindled to 23. A small breeding stock was put inside fences and treated royally. The buffalo ranch worked fine; the buffaloes multiplied until there were hundreds.

But they got as tame as cattle, and just about as exciting to see. With free hay in winter, and no worries, they lost vigor, spirit, and tourist appeal. The duty of the Park Service is to preserve wildlife in the wild state. So it was necessary to wean the buffaloes from the easy life and turn them wild again. That was accomplished. But the buffaloes have a keen eye for luxury. About 1,000 head of the Yellowstone buffaloes come into the Firehole River region to spend their winters in steam-heated comfort beside the hot springs and geysers. It’s a good move; here they can get at the dried grass without rooting in snow.

But 1,000 buffaloes produce serious wear and tear. They have chipped away rock formations which took centuries to build. So a deal will have to be made whereby, in return for free hay, they stay away from the hot springs. The Park Service never attacked a preservation problem with such unmitigated success as in the case of the buffaloes. Where once the lordly buffalo was vanishing, there now are buffaloes all over the joint.

Preserving wildlife is tricky business. “Remove one thing,” said a great naturalist, “and you find it is hitched to everything else in the universe.” If the park rangers thin out the coyotes to protect the deer, the deer get so numerous they eat themselves and others out of browse. Then they go to town, where that is possible, and ransack garbage cans. Once they have tasted garbage, raw forage isn’t good enough.

The park director’s problems always include two or three creatures on the very brink of going extinct. Right now, the crisis cases are the black-footed ferret, the crocodile, and the nene. Only about 60 of the ferrets have been sighted in the last seven years, and a third of those were dead. An investigation is under way to find out what the ferrets need and how they can be coaxed to continue.

The nene is a long-legged, brown-necked little Hawaiian goose which may very well be the rarest creature on earth. Also called the “land-loving goose,” the nene is a waterfowl, but miserably maladjusted. It is not well equipped for swimming, nor is it much at flying. Instead, the nene prefers to walk, which it does with high steps, possibly because it walks much of the time on the rough lava slopes of the great volcano, Mauna Loa.

The nene was common enough at the start of the century, but now it is thought there may be no more than 50 left. Wirth thinks foreign birds imported to Hawaii may have brought ailments with which the nene can’t cope. Its worst visible enemy is the domestic pig, gone wild and tough. The pigs destroy the nests and young or keep the nenes too nervous to nest. Wild goats, meanwhile, devour the nenes’ favorite berries. There is hope of saving the poor slighted birds by giving them all possible protection in Hawaii National Park, but it will be a near thing. Rangers hunt down the pigs and goats, but have to stop shooting during the nenes’ nesting season so as not to disturb whatever nenes are left.

The crocodile certainly isn’t helpless and it may be a little hard to muster up a tear over the fact that this monster is scarce, but such is Wirth’s duty, as a wildlife preserver. The American crocodile never has been plentiful, even if you regard a very few crocodiles as plenty. Only one small section suits this salt-water nightmare, a strip about 100 miles long on the southeastern coast of Florida. Crocodile numbers have dwindled because anyone sighting a crocodile is likely to shoot it for its valuable hide, worth $4.50 a foot, and other crocodiles come to grief in fishermen’s drag seines.

Though the ugly creatures are classed as vanishing, naturalists think the crocodile can be saved. That’s because the Everglades National Park takes in Florida Bay, a favorite crocodile haunt, and park rangers war constantly on crocodile poachers. Along with being a sanctuary for crocodiles, and perhaps the only place in the world which is under water half the time and subject to terrific grass fires the rest, the Everglades park is also a home for put-upon manatees, so Wirth is the manatee’s foster mother as well as the comforter of the crocodile. Manatees are the weird sea cows which sailors of old mistook for mermaids, partly because it is the manatees’ sociable habit to swim flipper-in-flipper, partly because the manatee may sometimes be seen kissing, and partly because the sailors had been at sea a long, lonely time.

Killing the young for their tender flesh, said to resemble veal, has helped bring the sea cows to the verge of extermination, but these big hulks, averaging perhaps 500 pounds, are also extremely sensitive to cold air. They are air breathers, surfacing to breathe through the nose, and it is thought the cold air of the sudden Florida cold snaps gets them in the lungs.

The Everglades park is the only adequate sanctuary. Park Service officials would like to carry out a restoration program, but nobody knows just what to offer; less is known about the manatee than about almost any other form of wildlife. Wirth may have to create a duplicate of downtown Miami. The manatee seem happiest in the Miami River, in the heart of the city. On chilly days, they can keep warm next to outlets of big-city wastewater.

Short in the nene, ferret, crocodile, and manatee departments, Wirth is woefully long on elk, having far more than the parks can pasture. Last winter, in four huge corral-like traps costing $10,000 each, Yellowstone rangers live-trapped 219. The elk lift got rid of 125. The elk lift consists of hauling the elk out of the park, into open hunting country, by truck. The rest were given to various parks for stocking purposes. Still others wandered out on their own. But there were still far too many elk, so aerial elk shooing was tried. A plane and a helicopter were able to chase several herds over park boundaries. All told, the winter’s efforts may have reduced the elk population by 1,000. Good? Yes, but only a starter. It still leaves a remarkable excess — about 4,600 elk too many.

Wirth’s collection of peculiar problems includes international smugglers, dealing, of all things, in a harmless form of wax. These are rifle-toting bands, bad all out of proportion to their contraband, and given to shooting. The wax is made by cooking the candelilla plant, and is used in shoe polish, floor wax, phonograph records, and medicine. The wax runners smuggle it in from Mexico via the Big Bend National Park, in Texas, defying Mexican law, which says all such wax must be marketed through the government.

But things never are so bad as they might be for Wirth. He has one stanch ally — the grand old law of compensation. The improbable happens, but the probable desists. The wild parks are full of danger — great glaciers, cliffs, geysers throwing fountains of scalding water, steam jetting from hillsides, lakes at altitudes where the strongest swimmers tire quickly. Thousands of the park visitors never before saw country wilder than a vacant lot. Yet the fatality rate is spectacularly low. Men, women, and children survive remarkable adventures, and Wirth hears tale after tale of valiant rescue.

  1. Burdette Yeoman and his wife were hiking in Yosemite. Yeoman leaned over a waterfall to get a drink. He slipped and was washed away. Terrified, his wife leaped in after him. Yeoman was carried a wild 100 feet, mostly down, falling, sliding, bounced against boulders. Then he scrambled ashore. But his wife was carried twice as far, into great rocks, over several cascades.

She ended in a pool, with severe injuries of head and body. A medical student gave first aid, a Boy Scout went for the rangers, a doctor drove two hours and then hiked seven miles to reach the injured woman. She was carried out by night on a stretcher — and recovered nicely. In March of 1954, 17-year-old Dolores Van Parys, of Seattle, slipped on snow in Mt. Rainier National Park and fell 175 feet to a mound of ice. But she struck a glancing blow, slid down the ice into a snowbank, and came through it alive.

Last summer, swinging down on a rope in descending Grand Teton, Norma Hart, of Lynn, Massachusetts, fell 35 feet when the rope gave. She landed in a sitting position. The terrible jolt broke her back in two places. She was at 12,000 feet. She had to be brought down in a basket stretcher, belayed down sheer cliffs, carried across hazardous slopes and snowfields. The rescue involved 27 park rescue experts, three volunteer climbers, and one professional guide. In a classic of skill and exertion they worked 24 hours, but they saved her.

Each year, recently, has brought mountain climbers in record numbers. Many get in trouble, but are rescued.

Excellent planning accounts in part for the fine safety record. Though Kilauea volcano in Hawaii had been quiet 18 years, they were ready when it erupted one midnight in 1952. In five months, 450,000 visitors flocked to look down on the great lake of fire. Nobody got hurt except a man who chose this opportunity to commit suicide. The final report said, “30,000 cars parked, one fender scratched.”

Every year children get lost in the great wild parks, but almost always the story has the same ending: the child is found intact and unalarmed, by adults worn to a frantic frazzle. Rangers found a lost boy in Yosemite, a rover so young he knew his first name, but not his last.

“We’ll identify him through the family car,” the rangers said craftily … “Jimmy, does your dad’s car have two doors on the side or one? What color is it? Do you know what kind?” Jimmy knew — a two-door blue sedan. “Now all we have to do,” said the rangers, “is to drive around the various campsites until we spot the right car.” Two fruitless hours later, they told Jimmy, “Now don’t get excited, but we can’t seem to find your dad’s car.”

Jimmy wasn’t excited, and he wasn’t surprised either. “Of course you can’t,” he said. “We came in Uncle Joe’s car.”

Wirth’s job makes him a big-time resort proprietor, the boss of 23 hotels and lodges, 4,086 cabins, 1,511 tents. Unfortunately, what that comes to is “not nearly enough.” He has 15,000 miles of roads to maintain, he has general supervision of 200 concessions doing $30,000,000 worth of business a year. Indirectly, this puts Wirth in a variety of business enterprises ranging from renting pack horses to running mineral baths. He is also the boss of 114 museums, the chief of a small force of traffic cops on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, and the custodian of 527 buildings of historical significance, most of which need something.

He is a man of consequence in 39 states and four possessions, and he is also chief yardbird for the White House. In a sense he is the President’s landlord, the White House being Reservation No. 1 in the capital’s park system, which is another of Wirth’s responsibilities. In a much clearer sense, he is the emergency gardener. When Queen Wilhelmina was about to visit Washington in 1952, Wirth had to raise 2,000 tulips at racing speed, so her majesty would see them blooming. He came through, and the tulips lasted long enough, but no longer; they had been forced far too fast.

No other government agency is in so many lines of business. “We don’t run any streetcars,” Wirth says cheerfully, meaning that the NPS does run everything else. In general, the customers are fairly well satisfied, though surveys produce criticism on unexpected points. Here is some of the adverse criticism: “Some of your deer have nasty dispositions.” … “Where did you hide the bears?” … “People ghastly compared to the scenery.” … “Get longer beds.” … “Have more snow.” … “How about installing bowling?” The complaint registered by two New Yorkers about Yosemite, surely one of the most beautiful spots on Earth, proves that Wirth can’t hope to please all of the people all of the time. “There’s no dancing tonight,” they said. “What are you supposed to do — look at the scenery?”

Wirth tackles his assorted duties with unfailing calm and a good deal of zest, though this isn’t the way he expected to spend his life. A landscape architect, he planned to devote himself to private practice, dealing in subdivisions and country clubs rather than geysers and battlefields. Parks were a little overly familiar: Wirth was born in one city park, raised in another, worked in parks every summer as a boy. That was enough for his older brother, Theodore Jr. He went to sea and became a rear admiral. Except for the admiral, however, it’s a park family. Conrad’s younger brother, Walter, is park superintendent at Salem, Oregon; Conrad’s older son, Ted, is in the NPS office in Omaha.

Wirth is the son of a highly successful park man, the late Theodore Wirth Sr. Theodore Wirth came here from Switzerland, after studying horticulture in France and England. For six years he was a gardener in Central Park, New York, and on private estates in Long Island, and then became park superintendent in Hartford, Connecticut. Conrad was born there, in the superintendent’s residence in Elizabeth Park.

When Conrad was nine, the family moved to Minneapolis, where his father developed a park system which won world-wide attention. A bold and imaginative builder, the elder Wirth also put forward an idea now generally accepted, but then brand-new. Parks, he held, are for recreation as well as beauty; this calls for tennis courts and baseball diamonds as well as rose gardens.

Conrad Wirth couldn’t have had a better teacher. But when he got out of Massachusetts University he went into private practice, first in San Francisco, then New Orleans. For four years he had nothing to do with parks. The Gulf country was booming, and Wirth and his partner, Harold Neale, worked on projects of considerable splendor. The biggest was the Pass Christian Island development, a 5,000-acre venture involving the creation of islands and canals and intended to rival Florida at its flossiest.

But the Florida boom collapsed, and all around the Gulf big plans went glimmering. Property was selling for ten cents on the dollar. Nobody needed landscape architects to plan multimillion-dollar dream cities. “I’d have been glad to plan a miniature golf course,” says Wirth.

Just when he needed it most, he was offered a post on the Planning Commission for Washington, D.C. There he got to know Park Service men, like their devotion to the parks, their unusual esprit de corps. When they had an opening in 1931, he took it gladly and was back in the family business, parks. His brother, the admiral, held out staunchly, but the land got him in the end. After World War II he was appointed superintendent of buildings and grounds at Annapolis, and later went into the real-estate business in California.

Wirth’s work for 20 years was long-range planning. Some of it is only now bearing fruit; one result is the new Cape Hatteras Seashore Recreational Area, a brand-new type of national playground. Nowhere in the system was there a great stretch of Atlantic seacoast still undeveloped. Wirth studied every mile of the coast and found nothing to compare with the picturesque islands making up North Carolina’s outer banks. To get what he wanted took 20 years, but in his work you have to have patience.

Adding to this park or that, Wirth handled massive land deals, in one case swapping 180,000 acres of grazing land for 10,000 acres of valuable timber owned by Montana, but inside Glacier National Park. He made himself an authority on “inholdings” and hopes before he retires to see many of these disappear. Inholdings are land privately owned, but inside the parks. Inside Mammoth Cave National Park, for instance, there are two privately owned caves. The Park Service hopes to buy them in time, but good caves run high these days; this pair will cost around $500,000. For a long time the government didn’t own the actual site where Cornwallis surrendered, in Yorktown battlefield, but Wirth bought that in 1948.

Wirth has had a hand in developing 561 city and state parks as well as the national ones. That came about in the days of the Depression, when, as Interior’s representative, he had charge of CCC camps which built or improved parks all over the land. He sighs, these shorthanded days, for the crew he had then — 95,000 young men, 17 to 23, who could do anything from stringing power lines to digging artificial lakes. For years to come, vacationists will have a better time because we had that siege of unemployment in the grim ’30s. Virginia had one state park in 1933, for example; by 1942 it had six, drawing just under 500,000 visitors a year. It is estimated that Wirth and his CCC boys put park work forward 50 years.

Wirth became director in December of 1951. He is one of the few top officials to survive the change of administration; Secretary of the Interior Douglas McKay decided that Wirth was uniquely qualified for a highly difficult job and ought not to be disturbed. “It is men like this,” says Secretary McKay, “that give to government service the prestige it deserves.” To repay his work and worry, he can reflect on solid accomplishments. The Cape Hatteras seashore — “the finest beach preservation in the world” — is his special pride. Land buying will be finished this summer. Both millionaires and bums contributed to this newest of the parks. The wealthy patrons were Paul Mellon and Mrs. Ailsa Mellon Bruce, children of the late Andrew; they put up $618,000. This is a form of philanthropy Wirth is cultivating hard. A special booklet, titled The Fifth Essence, is put before ladies and gentlemen of wealth, inviting contributions to the National Park Trust Fund. The frugal Wirth got a donation to publish this appeal, and the book carries no publication date, so it can’t get dated.

The down-and-outers who helped with Hatteras were on the Outer Banks in “transient camps” in the ’30s; some had been bonus marchers in 1932. The sea was making inroads, and the campers tied down the shifting dunes with brush fences and tough grass. One of the campers came back to show his wife where he had worked as a jobless and penniless youth, and what the pleasant consequences have been. The ex-bum couldn’t tarry. A big wheel now, he was on his way to Florida for a winter vacation, driving his expensive new car.

This year also should see the creation of Cumberland Gap National Monument, a 21,000-acre park in Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky, and Harpers Ferry National Monument, in West Virginia and Maryland. Another major project is under way at Independence Hall, which will stand in a setting of dignity and charm at the end of a three-block mall. And the Statue of Liberty, a shabby disgrace five years ago, has been refurbished.

There is also a new deal for concession operators, expected to produce better service for tourists. The parks now take a percentage of the gross instead of the net, and Wirth tries to extract a promise of bigger and better facilities in return. Major improvement is under way in Grand Teton, including a whole new tourist village; it is the first large-scale development in any national park in 30 years.

But these are bright spots in a dark picture. Every year brings more visitors, coming earlier, staying later. This is precisely what the parks are for, and should be a sight to gladden the eye — the free citizens of America, taking their ease in great pleasuring grounds where the wilderness is preserved for posterity. The trouble is, the parks are in no shape to accommodate so much business.

“Some of the camping grounds are so crowded,” Wirth says, “that they amount to outdoor slums. Before the war, the biggest attendance was 21 million. Last year it hit 46 million. In 1941 we had $84,000,000 to run the park system; last year we had $34,000,000. What we’re trying to do just can’t be done; it’s like trying to put two gallons of water into a one-gallon bucket.”

Badly as he needs money for development, he needs maintenance money worse. Little could be done during the war. Budgets since then have been too small to allow any catching up. The backlog of needed work — roads, buildings, additional campsites — is now a towering $600,000,000. Wirth says he could usefully and sensibly spend $60,000,000 a year for the next ten years, and that this might save the parks. “Save,” he insists, is not too strong.

“Take Yellowstone,” he says. “Yellowstone will be destroyed if things keep on as they’re going; literally destroyed. Crowds are walking all over the formations, vandalism is more and more prevalent. We ought at least to keep what we’ve got, and we’re not doing it. All we can do is put patch on patch, and that’s bad business, whether it’s a national park or a private home.”

Cabins are a major dilemma. The parks need them, and concession operators would build them — but not until there are suitable sites. That means light, sewer, and water systems. Wirth hasn’t got the money. His chances of getting as much money as he needs don’t seem bright, but Wirth tackles the job cheerfully. His best bet, he sees clearly, is to persuade Congress and the nation that it would be money well and profitably spent.

“Twenty-three states,” he says, “say travel is one of their three biggest industries. The business can’t be measured accurately, but it’s estimated to run somewhere between 12 and 30 billion a year. It is believed the parks generate more than two billion dollars of this. If so, they are responsible for 580 million which gets back to the states and the federal government in taxes. It works out to 150 million in local taxes and 430 million in federal.

“As I say, this travel business is a by-product, not our principal purpose — which is to help people enjoy and understand the God-given wonders of our country. But it’s a by-product too valuable to lose. Some say we can’t afford to put the parks in shape and keep them that way. I say we can’t afford not to. They’re making the federal government 430 million a year in taxes, and the government is spending only 33 million on them. It’s bad business to let a plant be destroyed when it produces that kind of a return.”

Half the time in Washington, half in the field, Wirth commonly works seven days a week, and seven nights. It’s a job which would give many a man ulcers in three months, and often seems thankless. There are doubtless days when Wirth feels like the Indian who was flown to Yellowstone last summer to fight a forest fire. That’s hot work, and after several days of it, he paused, leaned on his shovel and shook his head. “ Gentlemen,” he said to his Indian companions, “let’s give this country back to the white man.”

But Wirth is lively and resilient, and there is much about the job he likes a great deal. It is work with big consequences; a lot rides on Wirth’s judgment. He likes the fact that it’s “not just for today.” Americans will enjoy that new seashore at Hatteras, for instance, for hundreds of years.

Moreover he knows the Park Service has many well-wishers. In Glacier, a cigar-smoking taxpayer took Wirth aside for a pep talk. “Don’t let people run cattle in the parks,” he said. “Don’t let anybody cut those trees. The parks are for the wildlife and the people. Anything I can do, let me know.” This red-hot conservationist was Groucho Marx.

Click images below to enlarge:


Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *