National Forests vs. National Parks, 1959-1960

More than four decades after the Forest Service and National Park Service first began to bid for the management of America’s scenic recreation lands, tensions over pulling lands from one agency’s jurisdiction to the other flared again.

A November 1959 letter from Secretary of the Interior Fred Seaton to National Park Service Director Conrad Wirth provided a key spark. In his proposed directions for an improved national park system, Secretary Seaton included, “Strive for the establishment of new national parks, monuments, recreation areas, and historic sites necessary to round out and complete the System and to meet the growing need for such areas at the national level.”

Two months later, Director Wirth fueled Forest Service officials’ anxiety when he asked in a strident 1960 editorial, “Are people to be like ants spending their existence in structures of brick and concrete, steel and glass, and rushing back and forth in a maze of city streets or along the super highways, continually seeking something but not knowing what? [A]ll of us want something much better than that for our children and ourselves.” One of the ways Wirth recommended to avoid such a future was through an expanded National Park system in the U.S.

The talk of new Park Service acquisitions drew multiple responses from the U.S. Forest Service. Forest managers at the local level lashed out against perceived criticism of their work and the threat of land management transfers. High level officials responded in more measured tones, taking care to highlight the benefits of the Forest Service’s multiple use management programs without issuing a direct attack on a sibling federal agency.

A February 12, 1960 memo from Forest Service chief Richard McArdle to all Forest Service officers included several pages of attachments, including Secretary Seaton’s recommendations, and encouraged Forest Service employees to tone down their rhetoric. “…[L]et me say that I regret this situation has arisen. The Forest Service seeks no quarrel with the National Park Service and has only the highest regard for that agency and its competent personnel as a sister agency in conservation. From time to time, as is to be expected, differences in policy viewpoints arise where the two agencies have mutual interests. But these differences are generally resolved in a judicious and dispassionate manner without name-calling.

How did this present situation arise? Basically, it is a question of competition for land in the face of rapidly rising populations, increasing leisure time, improved accessibility, and a great upsurge in the demand for outdoor recreation.”

In other words, the very same issues that had created friction between the two agencies in the 1920s had returned in earnest.

National Forests vs. National Parks, 1914-1925


Office Memorandum, U.S. Government, Forest Service, from chief Richard E. McArdle to All Forest Service Officers, February 12, 1960 (photocopy).

U.S. Department of the Interior Information Service, December 3, 1959, press release (photocopy) with attached copy of Secretary Seaton’s November 21, 1959, letter to National Park Service Director Conrad L. Wirth.

Wirth, Conrad L. “The Crisis in Open Land,” Guest Editorial, Sierra Club Bulletin, p. 2, January 1960.