National park system

What in the world was Jim Hansen thinking back in the 1990s when, as a U.S. representative from Utah and chair of the House Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Lands, he said Great Basin National Park should be removed from the National Park System?

"If you've been there once," he once said, "you don't need to go again."

Perhaps the former congressman didn't spend enough time at Great Basin to truly appreciate this gem that climbs high above the surrounding desertlands.

It does take some exploring to fully appreciate this national park and all it offers. Indeed, it started out 87 years ago today simply as Lehman Caves National Monument, an honor stemming from an intriguing cave system discovered late in the 19th Century.

That title vanished in 1986 when Great Basin "National Park" was formally created by an act of Congress, a move that took note not only of the cave system but also the surrounding glaciers, ancient Bristlecone pines, and massive Wheeler Peak to form what is still one of America's lesser-known crown jewels.

Let's take a closer look at this transformation from monument to national park. Back in the late-1800s, eastern Nevada was a harsh place. The flat, dusty Snake Valley, with its low-laying sage and arid nature, stood in stark contrast to the rumples and tall crinkles of the mountains that towered on either side of it. Into this landscape strode one Absalom Lehman, who started a ranch in the lowlands near Weaver Creek.

Mr. Lehman was no stranger to adventure, having moved from his native Ohio to California, left for Australia, married an Englishwoman, and run a gold mine before returning stateside. While there are more than 40 stories of the discovery of the caves near his ranch, the first recorded media attention paid to the discovery was an article the White Pine Reflex ran on April 15, 1885.

"Ab Lehman, of Snake Valley, reports that he and others have struck a cave of wondrous beauty on his ranch near Jeff Davis Peak. Stalactites of extraordinary size hang from its roof and stalagmites equally large rear their heads from the floor..."

Over the years, Lehman Caves -- which actually is a single cave, not a series of caves -- gradually grew in notoriety. The cave played host to visitors who took part in guided tours, as well as more hardy explorers. Local people are even said to have taken some of the cave's formations as far away as the Reno state fair. Lehman the man, however died in 1891, before he saw his cave gain the national spotlight.

Congress first added the area to the Humboldt Forest Reserve (now Humboldt National Forest) in 1912. World War I came and went, and United States Highway 50, thought be some to be the loneliest road in America, came into the area. Soon, the Nevada congressional delegation began to look into the creation of a national monument for the cave.

President Warren G. Harding used his Antiquities Act authority to create Lehman Caves National Monument on January 25, 1922. In August of that same year, a large festival was held welcoming the new park. State and local governments took action as well, to the point that the land was protected at nearly every level of government in some fashion.

When President Roosevelt transferred the management of national monuments to the National Park Service, Lehman Caves changed rapidly. New Deal programs, along with the new management, Mission 66, and Hollywood brought newfound prosperity and protection to the monument.

But Lehman Caves was not to last as a national monument. Its fate had been sealed millennia ago, when Wheeler Peak, rising 13,065 feet, was formed, and when the seeds of Bristlecone pine trees first germinated atop the mountain.

As word spread of Wheeler Peak's glaciers and trees, the public began to push for the creation of a national park at Lehman Caves. Surely, park advocates argued, organisms as old as Western Civilization itself deserved protection.

The park movement particularly gained steam after researchers cut down Prometheus, a Bristlecone pine estimated to be at least 5,000 years old. In the 1980s, then-Representative Harry Reid introduced legislation to create the park. While the bill went through several iterations, President Reagan finally signed it on October 27, 1986.

Lehman Caves National Monument was no more. It had been swept away and replaced by Great Basin National Park, a land that today is known for its pristine air quality, high-country hiking and camping, incredibly dark skies, cave tours, and as one of the emptiest parks in America in one of the emptiest places in America.

Great Basin National Park has the cleanest air of any park in the Continental United States, and for that alone, it - along with its forefather, Lehman Caves National Monument - deserves our attention on the 87th anniversary of its founding.

While the park, thankfully, no longer is a target of decommissioning, it isn't free of threats or controversy. A proposed coal plant in the park's neighborhood is threatening to harm the park's world-class air quality, for which it is so prized.

The mayor of Ely, Nevada (the closest major town) published an open letter to Nevada mayors concerning coal-fired power plants and the Government Accountability Office's study of air quality at Great Basin National Park.

Mayor Hickman believes that making Great Basin a Class I Air Quality Zone under the Clean Air Act would lead to a 'domino' effect in the Nevada economy. According to his letter in the Ely Times, the new Class I designation (the highest level of protection), would destroy local jobs by impeding mining and farming activities. Mission 66, the program that rehabilitated and restored national parks in time for the National Park Service's 50th Anniversary back in 1966, often is cited today as an inspiration for the Centennial Challenge, but it is a program that sometimes is shrouded in mystery.

Its planning and design were conducted in near secrecy by then-NPS Director Conrad Wirth and his top advisors. Now, though, you can get a better understanding and appreciation for what some believe to be one of the government's most significant infrastructure endeavors of the 20th Century courtesy of Ethan Carr's latest book, Mission 66: Modernism and the National Park Service.

Weighing in at a whopping four pounds and spanning 400 pages, Mission 66 is not a book for the faint of heart nor those easily distracted. Mr. Carr launches his narrative of the program not in 1955, when the program began, but rather two decades earlier during the Civilian Conservation Corps era and lays the foundation for Mission 66 before describing in great detail the people involved and the politics of the parks that led to the creation of Mission 66.

What is interesting about the opening chapters of the book is that many of the reasons given for Mission 66 sound only all too familiar to close followers of the National Park Service. Budgets for the parks had been cut to bare bones during World War II. Visitors encountered crumbling roads, small and often inadequate facilities, and rampantly understaffed visitor contact stations. Employee housing was outdated and in shambles, and morale in the Park Service stood a historic low.

In 1954 and 1955, other articles appeared in national magazines with titles such as 'National Parks: Tomorrow's Slums?,' 'The Shocking Truth about Our National Parks,' and 'Twenty-four Million Acres of Trouble.' The tone of and content of such criticism suggested that the Park Service had not met its obligation to the public, and even to its employees, to provide basic services and facilities. The agency seemed unable to regain its position as the country's chief 'recreational planning' and landscape preservation organization. There was no way to compensate for the loss of emergency spending programs, especially the CCC and PWA [Public Works Administration]...

Director Wirth cited these criticisms as a reason to reshape the national parks for their 50th birthday. But, as Mr. Carr points out, a lack of funding was not the only challenge facing Wirth when he became director after Newton Drury.

The vastly increased use of the park system, for example, and the reduced influence and function of the Park Service within the federal bureaucracy both continued to challenge Drury's successors. Negotiations to renew concessioner contracts and secure new private investment for concession improvements became ever more difficult. Wilderness advocates and early environmentalists, while supportive of the general goals of the Park Service, often differed on key assumptions about the purposes of preservation, and therefore on specific policies for managing parks. The postwar social and demographic trends that precipitated moany of these issues - such as population growth, automobile ownership, and low-density urbanization - only intensified in the 1950s...This was the backdrop against which Conrad Wirth would organize and conduct Mission 66.

The author goes on to describe the fast-paced development and design of Mission 66. Mr. Carr lays out how Director Wirth managed to centralize control over the program while involving everyone from himself down to the Park Service's field staff. The director announced the program to his closest advisors by telling them that, "business as usual would end immediately in the Washington office." The Mission 66 program, conceived and planned largely in the span of only a few months, took shape and Director Wirth brought his agency into the limelight with the ten-year push to restore the parks.

Mission 66 also examines the controversies of Director Wirth's tenure. Environmentalists and congressmen bristled at the lack of input they had into Mission 66. Preservationists bemoaned the 'over-development' of the parks. Business interests wanted more development and harshly criticized the Park Service for bowing to the environmental movement.

Nearly everyone expressed distaste of the new modernist architecture that Mission 66 showcased. The Park Service came under fire from nearly all sides, perhaps showing just how tremendous a compromise and how middle-of-the-road Mission 66 was.

Mission 66: Modernism and the National Parks Dilemma helps readers understand the profound impact that Mission 66 had on America. Our concept of a visitor center, for example, comes from Mission 66. Mr. Carr covers the architecture, landscaping, building, interpretation, and concessions of Mission 66 in three parts, "Planning, Design, and Construction."

This is a book that is sweeping in its contents, but articulate enough for anyone to understand.

As interesting and engaging as Ethan Carr's descriptions of the reaction to Mission 66 is, his copious illustrations and photographs add to the richness of his writing. He shows readers the Mission 66 planners in action, helping one to visualize what it was like to chart the course of America's parks.

Mission 66: Modernism and the National Parks Dilemma is a text that belongs on the shelf of every National Park Service scholar. It is a book that is an invaluable reference and a welcome addition to the world's libraries.

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