National Forests vs. National Parks, 1914-1925

Six years after Henry Ford introduced the Model T and began literally to mobilize the nation, University of Nebraska professor W.J. Morrill penned a 1914 article for American Forestry magazine titled, “National Forests as Recreation Grounds.”

An early tribute to the beauty and recreational offerings of the nation’s forests, Morrill’s article came loaded with praise for the forest system and its rangers. Read with the benefit of hindsight, however, Morrill’s article also included several points that would emerge as management challenges for the young agency. Recreational use of the national forests was already exceeding 500,000 annual visitors by 1914, and national forest lands such as the Grand Canyon (a National Monument managed by the Forest Service at the time) were among the most popular destinations. Morrill expressed a good deal of faith in the “strong protective arm of the Government…thrown quietly and unobtrusively” over the lands, but also noted that “scenery is a resource, and often one that can be marred” if treated unwisely.

Not long after Morrill’s article, in 1916 Congress created the National Park Service. With a mandate to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects” and provide opportunities for the “enjoyment of future generations,” the national parks soon became a favored alternative to the national forests for recreational boosters in the United States. The emergence of the new agency soon led the Forest Service to face questions about how it managed lands under its care, whether it was appropriate to take land from the national forest system in order to create new parks, and how to avoid bitter fights between sibling federal agencies.

The Forest Service expressed concern about having its lands redesignated and transferred to the care of the National Park Service. Official Park Service policy encouraged a cooperative approach to such moves, but Forest Service officials could scarcely avoid the sense that their lands were being appropriated by a younger, upstart agency.

The following passages from agency documents illustrate officials’ efforts to maintain cordial relations, but also demonstrate some of the recreational needs and agency positions at the time.

An influential May 1918 policy directive from Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane to National Park Service Director Stephen Mather concludes, “In considering projects involving the establishment of new national parks or the extension of existing park areas by delimination [sic] of national forests, you should observe what effect such delimination would have on the administration of adjacent forest lands, and wherever practicable, you should engage in an investigation of such park projects jointly with officers of the Forest Service, in order that questions of national park and national forest policy as they affect the lands involved may be thoroughly understood.”

A March 11, 1925, Forest Service memo written by Assistant Forester L.F. Kneipp on behalf of chief William B. Greeley showed the view from the other side: “When the proposal to create a series of National Parks in the Southern Appalachian region first developed we took the position, to which we have since adhered, that such a system of National Parks was unnecessary, since the widely distributed system of eastern National Forests was in itself adequate to furnish the people of the United States with all of the outdoor recreational facilities which would be required on lands under control of the Federal Government…”

Later, in the same memo, Kneipp contended that in places recreation should rate comparably with and even transcend all other uses on the national forests — including timber production and streamflow protection. This view would not gain wide credence for many decades, but seemed to come as a strong defensive effort to preclude the transfer of national forest lands in the southeastern U.S. to the National Park Service.

Kneipp wrote, “…with the increasing population and its increasing leisure time there is a rapidly growing need for public provision or adequate opportunity for outdoor recreation… [T]he National Forests [should] perform their part in meeting this need as fully as is compatible with other purposes for which they have been or will hereafter be created. [Greeley] believes…that it would be poor public policy for the Federal Government to meet this need by setting up an independent system of specialized Federal land holdings dedicated exclusively to recreation when it is wholly feasible to equally well serve public requirements by a National Forest system in which other important public needs can also be supplied.”

National Forests vs. National Parks, 1959-1960


Memo from Assistant Forester L.F. Kneipp to Major Kelley, dated March 11, 1925.

Morrill, W. J. “National Forests as Recreation Grounds,”American Forestry, pp. 641-645, February 1914.

National Park Service website