The parks seemed like a passing phase of the past until the Census of 1890 reported that there was no longer a distinguishable frontier line in the United States, and settlement spread from coast to coast. This pronouncement impacted Americans profoundly. After more than 250 years of an ever-present wilderness which existed beyond a settled point of civilization and more recently, an increasingly romanticized notion of a western frontier encouraged by adventurous dime novels and the smash-hit spectacle of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, Americans faced at last the realization of their manifest destiny. Coupled with the rise of the urban East and the manufactured detritus of industrialization which polluted the cityscapes and encroached upon the surrounding countrysides, it seemed as though the announcement of the Census confirmed the complete loss of a significant portion of America's cultural identity. The same Census report also indicated a depleting amount of timber and arable lands in the public domain, adding the insult of declining material resources to the injury of a vanishing cultural resource. The thought that the American wilderness--and the American identity by implication--were in jeopardy spurred a cultural revolution of sorts which embraced the preservation of nature in order to protect American history--and prosperity.
Government acted swiftly to protect remaining land, and all of it in the West. In 1891, President Benjamin Harrison signed the Forest Reserve Act, which granted the President sole authority to claim land for government management for long-term productivity under "multiple-use conservation principles," indicating that utilitarianism was still the modus operandi in the business of natural preservation (USDI 1991: 12). By 1893, President Harrison designated 13 million acres, followed by Grover Cleveland and William McKinley, who increased government possession to 46 million acres by 1901. Renewed interest in National Parks brought public lands policy back into the spotlight at Yosemite in 1890, where protected acreage was increased to include the current Sierra redwood and Sequoia groves which now surround the Yosemite Valley. President Harrison granted National Park status to Yosemite, repeating the same terms of Yellowstone's protection: "for the benefit and enjoyment of the people," with the same attached caveat that if Yosemite could be developed, the act would be repealed.
The proposed park expansion at Yosemite included 1500 acres, an amount of land which should have invited opposition, but beacuse of the Forest Reserve Act, the land could be classified as reserves and not a National Park. Reserves, as the act described them, were protected with utilitarian purposes in mind. Entering forest land into the public domain did not mean that it was inaccessible or "inalienable for all time"; rather, it was merely managed by the federal government and exploited gradually instead of all at once. In this way, government could preserve the illusion of virgin land for decades, resting comfortably on the belief that, contrary to Frederick Turner, the frontier had not closed and resources at the turn of the Twentieth Century would be as plentiful as they had been at the turn of the Nineteenth Century. Legislation which argued for preservation was most effective if it emphasized the reserve in preserve.
Because there was no central managment in place, parks and preserves alike could be managed by any agency deemed appropriate. Yellowstone had been transferred from the Secretary of the Interior to the Department of War because it was too difficult to manage from Washington and required military troops to enforce regulations and poaching restrictions. Yosemite, on the other hand, was managed by civilian superintendents and rangers who answered more to local interests and demands than to any federal orders from the Capitol. As more parks were established in the late 1890's and early 1900's, such as Mount Rainier in Washington, Crater Lake in Oregon, and Sully's Hill in North Dakota, each was assigned to a different authority for management, and most suffered ecologically for lack of effective management. The governing standard for parks even after the renewed interest in wilderness preservation was economics, not ecology.
When Theodore Roosevelt succeeded McKinley after the latter's assassination in 1901, the forest reserves stood at 46 million acres and five National Parks had been established, three of them in the Yosemite Valley. By the time he left office, the forest reserves totalled 150 million acres and the number of nationally protected sites stood at sixteen. Roosevelt is often championed as an early environmental activist and named as the initiator of an official National Park system, but in reality, he was neither. The forest reserves still provided vast holdings for future timber harvests, and Roosevelt took the action he did to arrest what he believed to be rampant squandering of natural resources. His active preservation was done to protect the economy of the West more than the environment, even though he was an avid outdoorsman.
Roosevelt and his chief assistant, Gifford Pinchot, confirmed the practice of utilitarian conservation by enrolling the many immense parcels of forest into the reserves. Alfred Runte notes that both men encouraged methods of utilitarian conservation which remain to this day, including land reclamation and leasing of public lands to private interests. Preservationists supported their utilitarian view, believing that the heavy-handed governmental management of the forests was preferable to entrusting responsible harvesting methods to private enterprise, but they did object to the utilitarian viewpoint that refused to acknowledge any value in scenic preservation. Pinchot himself denied the validity in scenic protection, stating that "the first duty of the human race is to control the earth it lives upon" (Runte 70). For Roosevelt, Pinchot, and the utilitarians, the failure to use available resources was as wasteful as exploiting them without regard for future availability. In 1905, Congress approved the establishment of a U.S. Forest Service and appointed Pinchot chief forester. Interestingly enough, the Forest Service was not managed by the Department of the Interior, but fell under the jurisdiction of the Department of Agriculture, confirming the utilitarian perspective on the crop value of our forests (Runte 70).
Roosevelt set precedents for the National Park Service, but he was not involved in its establishment. His contribution to cultural preservation was The Antiquities Act of 1906, "a bill to preserve all objects of historic or cultural interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States" (Runte 71). As with the natural parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone, the governing prerequisite behind the preservation of what this bill called "national monuments" was that the land in question offered no economic value beyond that of scenic interest. Like the Forest Reserve Act, the Antiquities Act granted exclusive decision-making power to the President, and it was through this piece of legislation that Roosevelt earned the lasting admiration of the preservationists.
These sites were not National Parks and were not conditionally preserved with future decimation in mind, like the forests or, in the case of significant economic potential, the existing National Parks. These "antiques" were protected from destruction, but the act called for two criteria which Roosevelt interpreted loosely in his decisions: first, that each monument be a man-made wonder or scientific curiosity; and second, that each monument must be "confined to the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected" (Runte 73). Roosevelt initially adhered to these guidelines, preserving Devil's Tower, a spire of volcanic basalt in Wyoming, along with the Petrified Forest in Arizona as scientific curiosities. Inscription Rock, a centuries-old tribal carving rock, and Montezuma Castle, a five-story cliff dwelling in Arizona, qualified for protection as man-made monuments to American cultural history. Roosevelt tested the boundaries of his authority, however, when he declared more than 800,000 acres of the Grand Canyon and over 600,000 acres of the Olympic Mountains in Washington as National Monuments. These were not as easily defended, but Roosevelt insisted that the Grand Canyon was clearly a scientific wonder because of its unusual geology, and the rain forest around Mt. Olympus constituted a scientific curiosity.
Roosevelt's finest contribution to preservation was his frequent use of the Antiquities act, and he set precedents for preservation which were repeated by later presidents. The Department of the Interior indicates that between 1906 and 1978, twelve presidents invoked the Antiquities Act to declare 99 National Monuments, 38 historic and prehistoric, and 61 mostly natural. By 1990, 52 of them remained monuments; 28 had become absorbed by or redesignated to National Parks; four became national historic parks; one a historic battlefield; one a national historic site; two a national parkway; and eleven were abolished. USDI reports that "nearly a quarter of the units of today's National Park System thus sprang in whole or in part from the Antiquities Act"(USDI 1991: 14). Despite Roosevelt's best efforts to protect the sites he designated, future presidents scrutinized their economic potential, keeping alive the utilitarian perspective on national parks. Roosevelt may have felt that the Olympic Moutains deserved protection, but Woodrow Wilson disagreed with him and reduced the protected acreage by half, opening the dense stands of timber to the logging interests in the Northwest. The Grand Canyon remained whole, however, and was increased in 1919 to include national forest holdings in the area, but only after it was confirmed that no valuable minerals could be extracted from the canyon. The Grand Canyon absorbed marginally valuable forest reserves to become a massive but economically worthless shrine to the American wilderness, but the Olympics lost their highly valuable foothill forests and were left with the minimum of land necessary to suggest a monument to America--rugged and majestic terrain, but impossible to develop. In both cases, these parks exhibit that utilitarianism still reigned over scenic preservation despite the changes in federal land managment and in American perceptions of the wilderness. In the turbulent years to come, Congress would capitalize on the utilitarian rights written into the park bill, scenic preservation at last inspired a corps of activists and defenders who forged the National Park Service as we know it today.