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Preserving the Living PastJohn C. Merriam's Legacy in the State and National Parks
By Steve Mark
The University of California PressCopyright © 2004 Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.
IntroductionBeyond Scenic Voyeurism
People have sought meaning in nature for centuries, yet only in the twentieth century did contact with wild settings become both institutionalized and readily available to ever increasing numbers of visitors. John C. Merriam (1869-1945) wanted the national and state parks in the western United States to be more than mere recreational outlets for visitors from an expanding leisure class. These travelers have been described by others more recently as "scenic voyeurs," content with observing sensational landscapes and often validating their journeys through souvenirs and photographs. Merriam associated himself with a movement to save the last coast redwoods in northern California, but he also redefined how other parks centered on remnants of the geological past were perceived. Because he insisted that intellectual curiosity and an individual's search for meaning be the focus behind the public park as an institution, Merriam occupies a unique place in the pantheon of defenders of parks and other wild places.
Although strong willed and highly competitive, Merriam often recalled his boyhood, spent in a small Iowa town,in tones that echo the English romantic poet William Wordsworth's verse about the child being the father of the man. Merriam likened the experiences of his early years to the "natural piety" that Wordsworth so often celebrated, yet they also pushed him toward a career in science. From Iowa he went to the University of California, Berkeley, and eventually to Washington, D.C., first as a professor of paleontology and then as president of a foundation devoted to scientific research. His personality could best be described as austere yet articulate, his climb to national prominence helped less by his scientific credentials than by his capabilities as a man who knew how to seize an opportunity. He frequently turned to nature for reflection and inspiration, such that he could be both loner and leader. Merriam's protégés and associates in the preservation movement frequently wrote about the power of Merriam's ideas and his commitment to bringing about parks managed primarily for the education and inspiration of visitors.
Merriam's efforts on behalf of several national and state parks were part of a desire to continue the teaching he had pursued for twenty-six years as a professor at Berkeley, but in a setting other than a university. Parks made better venues than a lecture hall, Merriam believed, for allowing people to see how nature reflected a divine hand, yet had also evolved from a dimly perceived past. As the most active among three cofounders of a conservation group called the Save-the-Redwoods League, Merriam embraced what he saw as an opportunity to help visitors appreciate how a redwood grove represents continuity between life on earth now and how it was millions of years ago. Even if some ancient plant and animal species had given way to those presently occupying the forest, he said, ancient redwood trees could render the geological time scale comprehensible to visitors who contemplated the past according to a human time scale. This rationale translated into action as the league's program to buy redwoods from private owners (usually lumber companies) became a conduit for establishing a string of state parks in northern California during the 1920s and 1930s. The league's acquisitions gained so much momentum that Merriam, along with league officials based in California, spurred passage of a state bond measure in 1928 by which the state provided money to match private donations to purchase stands of ancient redwoods. This measure laid the foundation for a state park system to grow and eventually rival what entire nations have accomplished in preserving their heritage.
With that bond measure in place, Merriam helped to secure Point Lobos, a site four miles south of Carmel, for California's state park system. This site contained another living remnant of distant geological time, the Monterey cypress, which struggled for survival along a spectacular stretch of coastline. When trampling and disease threatened to damage the small cypress grove at Point Lobos, Merriam secured Carnegie grants to orchestrate the scientific studies needed for more effective management of the new park. The studies represented both a precedent and template for future efforts to preserve particularly sensitive places, and they expanded the scope of planning efforts into new and scientifically grounded dimensions. Instead of merely directing where facilities and other developments might be built, the master plan for Point Lobos, with science as its basis, set a laudable precedent for other parks to follow.
Merriam's paleontological discoveries in the John Day Basin of arid eastern Oregon made him an advocate for the establishment of two state parks there as well. A proposed park in the basin's Painted Hills held fossilized redwoods that made something of a tie to the league's work to save modern redwoods in California. An even greater showpiece of life from the Tertiary period (sixty-five million years ago to two million years ago), Picture Gorge, lay thirty miles east of the Painted Hills. In wanting to underscore the relevance of cooperative research that he and others had undertaken in the basin, Merriam conceived the idea for an oblong park extending from the John Day River all the way to the rimrock that delineated this portion of the valley. Merriam hoped a state park centered on features such as Picture Gorge, Sheep Rock, and the Blue Basin might allow visitors to meet scientists who were working at various fossil localities to reveal the geological past and its meaning. Much of this preservation effort took place after he retired, and it remained unfinished when he died, but Merriam set a precedent for linking Oregon's state parks with its university system: he fostered the creation of an officially sanctioned committee, composed largely of university researchers, that sought to guide land acquisition and educational outreach in the parks by publishing a book that "interpreted" nature in the basin, a guide akin to the one Wordsworth wrote in his effort to preserve his beloved English Lake District.
Merriam's enduring relevance is tied to his contention that merely setting aside an area as a park and prohibiting certain uses within its boundaries-mining, hunting, logging, real estate development-does not make for adequate stewardship in the long run. The "highest values" expressed by each place should be studied, he wrote, so that their contribution toward educating and inspiring visitors could have a lasting impact and would not be obscured by commercial services. Merriam made use of his toehold in the National Park Service to study the educational possibilities in three national parks: the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Crater Lake. Each of these parks hosted an experiment to find out how to most effectively reach visitors with what the parks represented as windows on the forces shaping life on earth. Merriam thought that people might truly support the parks if the Park Service could reach them through educational opportunities found nowhere else. By giving preservation this more exact meaning, Merriam also wanted to protect the characteristics that made national parks worth establishing in the first place. He pointed out that allowing commercial development to accommodate more and more people in the parks could lead to distortions in management priorities and ultimately the loss of the primary values that were meant to be preserved.
Paleontologists are not generally known for their work as citizen activists, but this "blueprint" for preservation became Merriam's major focal point, particularly after his research career had reached its zenith, in 1915. He made a name for himself at the University of California, Berkeley, in the field of vertebrate paleontology, largely in fulfillment of a childhood ambition to be both a naturalist and a scientist whose work added to a general understanding of how life on earth had developed. When he moved into preservation work-and especially once he assumed the presidency of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, a privately endowed foundation supporting scientific research-he brought the lessons learned in his field of study with him. Paleontology is heavily interdisciplinary, and Merriam employed a team approach in his efforts on behalf of state and national parks. He appointed committee members to tackle the various facets of preservation that interested him, especially where scientific studies were needed. Because these committees, composed of technical experts, were external to the agencies that managed the state and national parks, they could function like independent advisory boards whose findings could be implemented by the operational branches of state and national park organizations.
Merriam's insistence on basing his work for the parks on larger meanings assigned to nature reflected not only his academic orientation, but also a personality that valued order. In making intellectual curiosity his foremost aim in the parks, he swam against the current of promotional activity at a time when state and national parks were becoming focal points for mass recreation. This conflict between Merriam's preservationist blueprint and the promotion of natural areas as tourist attractions arose with the increasing mobility of American society during the early years of the twentieth century. Merriam knew that the ability to get around with relative ease on the country's expanded road and rail network allowed more people to enjoy recreational opportunities, but it also made the importance of managing for the higher uses of the parks more acute. He often used the word primitive in reference to parks, a term whose meaning was akin to what we call wilderness today. It also suggested a ready link to a past that preceded the appearance of humans. The education and inspiration of visitors to the parks thus assumed an even greater importance, since this emphasis could lead to greater numbers of people seeing the primitive and its protection as valuable to understanding, or at least appreciating, the distant past.
Along with words like pristine and restoration, the term preservation is deceptively concrete. Although completely halting biological change is neither possible nor desirable, preservation involves a conscious decision not to extract commodities from a piece of land, much less convert it to agricultural or industrial use. Use may be largely recreational when land is set aside as public property, but there is also tension between the natural values supposedly preserved and the cumulative impacts associated with providing visitor access. How to resolve that inherent conflict deeply concerned him.
Merriam was in the best position to apply his blueprint for preservation while he served as president of the Save-the-Redwoods League, from 1921 to 1944. The organization raised millions of dollars, often in combination with matching funds supplied by state bonds, and formulated plans for four projects-the parks that later became known as the Humboldt Redwoods, Prairie Creek, Del Norte Coast, and Jedediah Smith state parks-as well as a parkway called the Avenue of the Giants. Although he was in Washington, D.C., much of the time, Merriam, as founder and head of the league, directed its course with help from officers such as the secretary, Newton B. Drury. The two men usually corresponded about league projects and other business several times a week, with the diplomatic and affable Drury acting as a sort of foil for the gruff and often uncompromising Merriam. Drury used his experience in the league to good effect, later becoming director of the National Park Service (1940-1951) and chief of the Division of State Parks and Beaches in California (1951-1959).
As league president, Merriam liked the role of philosopher best. He transmitted messages to the league to articulate the highest meanings of the redwoods as a preface to the group's annual meetings. The most famous of these essays initially bore the title "Forest Windows," but with some revisions became "A Living Link in History." The essay stayed in print for more than a half century, becoming part of the league's effort to make the small amount of literature on the reasons for preserving ancient redwoods more readily available to park visitors.
By having a hand in establishing the redwood parks, Merriam used his influence to help shape development and use of the fledgling California State Park System. He helped set the tone for a "rational" system of parks, with each individual site to emerge from a survey of the state conducted by the renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., during 1927 and 1928. After the state acquired each site, Merriam wanted the master plan for each park to be guided by the necessary studies and statements about what constituted their "highest uses," which would guarantee adequate protection. Nevertheless, subsequent administration of the parks has required something of a balancing act by managers, especially in parks where preexisting patterns of use resist the most well conceived changes envisioned in planning documents.
Resistance to Merriam's stance on the preeminence of education and his insistence on not compromising the primitive qualities of the parks' main features was greatest in the national parks. This is perhaps understandable, given how the early national parks, and the National Park Service itself, came into being. As a federal agency created by Congress in 1916 in response to the growing economic importance of recreational tourism, the Park Service, as well as its supporters, cast the national parks as public resorts. To garner and then keep enough political support for annual appropriations to the agency, the Park Service needed to project the idea that tourism in the parks possessed greater net value, even in the short term, than alternative uses such as mining, grazing, and logging. The Park Service had to promote the parks as worthy destinations for tourists, and provide ready access to them, since more visitors meant an increased number of constituents whose support could be demonstrated to Congress.
Still, appropriations for the national parks were lean, which made for a thin field staff with a generalist orientation. Specialists in forestry, landscape architecture, and engineering remained comparatively few and tended to work from central Park Service offices in San Francisco or Washington, D.C. Beginning in the 1920s, Merriam championed the addition of academically trained staff assigned to education and research in the parks. One of his aims was to redirect the main thrust of park operations away from law enforcement, facility maintenance, and regulation of privately run concessions such as hotels and restaurants.
Excerpted from Preserving the Living Past by Steve Mark Copyright © 2004 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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