When the National Park Service was created in 1916 to manage the increasing acres of federal park land under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior, it was tasked with the mission “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historical objects and the wildlife therein and to 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.” The mandate was not just clumsily worded; it required mutually exclusive priorities. To conserve land is to manage its resources for human use. The use in the case of the National Parks and National Monuments, according to the Park Service’s congressional directive, was enjoyment of the natural and historical elements. Even the most careful and respectful visitors will affect the land they are enjoying, however, so it is virtually impossible to “provide for the enjoyment” of today’s tourists while simultaneously keeping the resources “unimpaired for…future generations.” The second part of the edict more closely resembles the concept of preservation and with it the implication that human encroachment should be prevented. As Secretary of the Interior Franklin Lane reiterated in a letter to Mather, “Every activity of the Service is subordinate to the duties imposed upon it to faithfully preserve the parks for posterity in essentially their natural state.” Somehow the NPS had to make the parks available for recreational enrichment while preventing visitors and NPS employees from altering the landscape in any way.
To add to the conundrum, the NPS was born in the midst of opposition to its existence from the National Forest Service as well as stingy budget appropriators. In order to convince the detractors, the first Park Service leaders, Stephen Mather and Horace Albright “blurred the distinction between utilitarian conservation and preservation by emphasizing the economic potential of parks as tourist meccas.” Mather employed a publicist and solicited money from railroads to lobby Congress for the creation of the NPS, forever wedding its mission to the idea that parks are valuable not just for their natural and historic significance, but also for their potential to attract visitors and generate revenue. From its inception, the National Park Service under Mather’s direction was involved in selling itself to the American citizenry as a beneficial service through slogans and slickly produced publicity material.
The promise of tourist attention and the money it infuses into local economies has motivated many communities to seek out national park status for their landmarks. Such was the case of Scotts Bluff, located on the northern panhandle of Nebraska. Although the residents of the nearby towns of Scottsbluff and Gering certainly felt a connection to the “buff-colored layers of rock…topped by Rocky Mountain juniper and ponderosa pine” that featured so prominently in the landscape of the North Platte River Valley, its national significance is somewhat murky. It is hard to argue that the Bluff is an example of “scenery of supreme and distinctive quality or some natural feature so extraordinary or unique as to be of national interest and importance,” as Lane had defined the guiding principle of park recognition in his letter to Mather. It is not the highest point in Nebraska and has nothing distinctive about its character or appearance to recommend it for national preservation. The local boosters who campaigned for creation of the National Monument at the site promoted its value as a symbolic representation of westward expansion. The amorphous purpose of the Scotts Bluff National Monument and its status as a somewhat ignored minor national site led to conflicts between local and federal officials regarding land use. The people who lived around the monument saw it as a “scenic resort,” in the words of a local newspaper editor, which with “proper development and advertising” would surely attract more tourists. The Park Service had a different set of priorities. Although increased visitor usage is a goal at all NPS sites, it must be paired with a concept of national importance. In the case of Scotts Bluff, that meant both landscape preservation and the loose connection to patriotic ideals of pioneer fortitude. Although Alicia Barber sees in the Scotts Bluff story the creation of “a lasting identity” for the Nebraska residents surrounding the National Monument, the trajectory of its creation and development also reveal the internal conflicts inherent in the National Park Service’s confusing identity and purpose.
The development of Shenandoah National Park further exposes the strange machinations that operate below the surface of National Park Service land management. Shenandoah is purely a human invention, from the decision to seek out an East Coast equivalent to the large western natural preservation parks to the forced eviction of people living on the land now designated as a wilderness. As Justin Reich demonstrates, “The NPS and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) created a landscape never before seen on the Blue Ridge, through fire suppression, road construction, wildlife protection, human removal, landscaping, and engineering.” As beautiful as the land now appears, it is not natural in the sense of being untouched by human interference. Shenandoah National Park is a sculpted landscape designed to look beautiful to the visitors in cars traversing Skyline Drive. It was born out of a time when the renovation of the landscape and of the bodies of the citizenry was connected to a political ideal of spiritual transformation through labor and interaction with nature.
How does this convoluted and sometimes opaque history of the National Park Service relate to our mission as public historians? In addition to the parks developed primarily for the preservation of natural landscapes, the NPS is the custodian of a vast array of sites curated primarily for the connection to national history. In what ways might the legacy of the Park Service’s creation and political situation affect the interpretation of the story of the United States at its battlefields, historic houses, and memorials? As we explored in our discussion of the Henry Ford Museum, at what point must the problematic chronicle of the site’s origin and evolution become part of that interpretation? How must all public history endeavors balance the sometimes conflicting goals of honest, nuanced presentation of scholarship with the need to increase visitation? And finally, how do we view our roles as public historians in the interpretation of environmental concerns and natural landscapes?
How can the mission of public historians complement the intentions and purposes of the National Park Service while still holding it (and ourselves) to the calling of serving the public good?
 Quoted in Barry Macintosh, The National Parks: Shaping the System (Washington, D.C.: US Department of the Interior, 1991), 21. http://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/shaping/index.htm.
 Franklin Lane to Stephen Mather, May 13, 1916, quoted in Macintosh, 22.
 Macintosh, 21.
 Alicia Barber, “Local Places, National Spaces: Public Memory, Community Identity, and Landscape at Scotts Bluff National Monument,” American Studies 45, no. 2 (Summer 2004), 40.
 Barber, 35, 37.
 Quoted in Macintosh, 22.
 Barber, 35.
 Barber, 60.
 Justin Reich, “Re-Creating the Wilderness: Shaping Narratives and Landscapes in Shenandoah National Park,” Environmental History 6, no. 1 (January 2001), 95.
 Neil M. Maher, “A New Deal Body Politic: Landscape, Labor, and the Civilian Conservation Corp,” Environmental History 7, No. 3 (July 2002), 436-437.
Source: The Landscape of the National Parks by Susan Philpott