Excerpt from “State Parks and the Genius of Place”

Susan Flader

Today I believe that most people are interested in the park movement and in filling out the park systems and would argue that what is most important is that a park system be fully representative rather than only exceptional or unique places. But, having identified such places, we will take exceptional care to preserve and interpret them for the public. One of the great students of parks of the world, a man who was chairman of the National Advisory Board for U.S. National Parks and is a professor of environmental history at Yale University, Robert Wake, says that the way to get inside of a people, to understand what they take pride in, is to visit those places that they have protected.

What I would like to do today is to explain how I became involved in parks matters. It was quite accidental, I can assure you, and you’ll get a sense of how many of us get involved in various topics that we choose, not purely by rationally looking at something that needs to be understood by large numbers of people but often because of personal commitments that we have. Certainly my involvement with state parks in Missouri grew out of my environmental concerns.

I was connected with the National Audubon Society, on its board, and in that connection showed up at a meeting in Missouri that was chaired, I believe, by Ronald Klataske of Manhattan, Kansas, who was the regional vice-president of National Audubon. This was more than ten years ago we met to form a State Audubon Council for Missouri and although that was the purpose of the meeting the petition of the meeting was provided by a former student of mine who was at that time Director of State Parks. He made a pitch to this group of environmentalists to support his effort to get funding for the state parks by a transfer of funds from the Missouri Department of Conservation.

In Missouri we have two different state agencies that have natural resource functions: the Department of Conservation that has responsibility for fisheries, forestry and wildlife and a Department of Natural Resources that has responsibility for state parks and for the various water, soil, air quality, land reclamations and geological survey functions. And the Department of Natural Resources is traditionally strapped for funds, while the Conservation Department is plush because back in the 1970s they were successful in passing a constitutional amendment that provided for a one-eighth cent sales tax for the support of conservation functions in the state--that in addition to all of the hunting and fishing license sales and the transfers from the federal government. So they have a lot of money and are considered the richest conservation department in the nation.

The 1970s had been good years for parks. There was a lot of money available through the Land and Water Conservation Fund that was set up to promote outdoor recreation nationwide. And that money was quickly shut off when Ronald Reagan came into the White House. In addition to that it was a time of recession and there were lots of rescissions every year, so the funding for parks had been cut to about half, by 1982, what it had been as recently as 1979. And you could imagine the trauma in a system that is labor-dependent. Most of the costs operating the system are bound up in salaries and then all of a sudden you have to cut your budget in half--you’re really in trouble.

The Conservation Commission had voted to support legislation that would transfer the parks to the Conservation Department, which the Park Director was very much opposed to. He was trying to conquer that measure by a legislative effort to keep the parks where they were in the Department of Natural Resources and transfer the money from the Conservation Department to support the parks.

Well, as you can imagine, this was a source of great tension here in this meeting which included people who had great loyalties to conservation in general, the environment in general, and they were being pulled in two different ways on an environmental issue; they didn’t know what to think. I was sitting there in the middle of this and I didn’t know what to think. I thought of myself--I mean I teach environmental history and I teach Missouri history and I ought to be able to understand these issues and figure out what the path is and I was being pulled asunder.

I began to realize that one of my problems was that I had never thought about state parks before. I had never paid any attention to them. I knew about particular individual parks. I knew about Rock Ridge, south of Holland, where I often took friends who were visiting; I knew about Arrow Rock to the west which was the starting point of the Santa Fe Trail and a nice place to take historic preservation students on a field trip, but I had never thought about the park system as a whole and its needs. I had never particularly valued it, I didn’t understand it, I didn’t know what we had in the state of Missouri. So it was very difficult to think clearly about this issue.

Thankfully, we had an individual among those who were at the meeting, who was a retired executive vice president of the National Audubon Society. He stood up and said to the State Park Director, “John, we are not going to raise the Conservation Department sales tax.” He said, “I’m going to fight on this one and we’re going to win. But when the fight is over we’re all going to get together and we’re all going to help you to get money for the state parks. You deserve it, you’re doing a good job.” And that was the start.

A few months later a group of us got together to found an organization, The Missouri Parks Association, that would be a citizen organization dedicated to providing a focus, an environmental focus, for concerns of the state park system and for a variety of reasons I was, much against my will, to be the first president of it. And in that capacity I learned for the first time about the values at stake in state parks—I began to realize the resources that we had that I had never appreciated. That made me realize further that if I didn’t know about this system, if I wasn’t thinking about these parks and historic sites, I might add, because in Missouri the historic sites are legally state parks and they’re all part of a single system—if I didn’t know about this and focus on it, there must be a lot of other citizens in Missouri who didn’t really think in terms of the system as a whole and what its value was to the people of Missouri. Maybe an important function of this new organization--in addition to the political action that might put a solid base for funding under the system--could be education.

And it was in that spirit that we began to conceptualize a book that took much longer to produce than we ever imagined. It was supposed to come out in time to be a nice sales pitch for the sales tax but it actually came out about eight years later. The sales tax had been successful in refurbishing the parks and gave us something that was really wonderful that we could write about. So it’s a huge book, five pounds worth, called Exploring Missouri’s Legacy: State Parks and Historic Sights and it’s a labor of love of four people who were involved in writing the text. I guess in the end I ended up writing about half of it but everybody was very much involved. Dozens of people were involved in taking the photographs and literally hundreds of people were involved in reviewing the texts for the various parks and other aspects of the book plus those who helped to raise money and contribute money so that we could publish it at a price that Missourians would be able to afford when they went to the bookstore. Through the process of that book we had to conceptualize what this system was and what the values were that were at stake.

So what I would like to do today is to use the Missouri State Park system as a kind of a case study of state park systems. Since that time I’ve become, as a kind of a hobbyist, interested in parks throughout the country. I’ve always been interested in national parks and national historic sites and I’ve become much more cognizant that if we’re trying to represent the nation, and you know we really are a nation of states, then there’s a tremendous amount of diversity within our individual states as well as within the nation as a whole that the national parks can’t fully represent. It’s the state park systems, and even the local, the county and the municipal park systems, who usually think of themselves as trying to represent their region as opposed to simply trying to provide a place to swim or to play ball. It’s all of those systems that help to represent who we are, in terms of natural areas and history.

So what I wanted to do was to give you a case study of Missouri, which is in effect far away from where many of you live and at the doorstep of a few of you. But I don’t want you to think that you have to worry too much about the specifics of the places that I’m going to be showing you on the slides, but rather thinking about the applications of the kinds of issues that I am going to be talking about to whatever places are near and dear to you and your students—places that you can use to help your students to understand the landscapes that they and their ancestors have been shaped by. In studying state parks and using them for educational purposes we want to be alert to the long-term history of these sites and the processes of environmental change through time. And this includes the geological history as well as the human history from native Americans through various European settlements right up to the present. In these systems various units will represent the ecototal and cultural diversity of the state—in other words, the biological and physical diversity and the cultural diversity of the state. Different parts will represent different aspects but any one part will represent also a whole range of aspects because it is reflecting the various people who live in that area who are not all the same. These people who have lived in these places and who have cared enough to protect them also have cared because they value them in certain ways, but those values, the way that they perceive that place and the way that they value it changes over time. The reasons why people elected to preserve that place in the first place may be different from the reasons why people care about it enough to protect it in the present.

So you want to study the history of how a park came into being and how its values as perceived by people have changed over time and how the management of the park and the interpretation of it for the public have changed over time. And then you want to appreciate the role of that special place in the larger scheme of things. What does it represent in the history of the state or in the history of the nation— in the ecology of the state or the ecology of the nation? As a further level of interest you can consider what these changing attitudes toward this particular place--when they’re all put together into a concern for the system as a whole--how those attitudes toward the system as a whole have changed over time. So there are several different levels of insight that you can get from state parks.

One of the themes that I’ve been exploring most recently, and that I hope we can talk about, is the extent to which state parks and state park systems could be a vehicle for understanding the political culture of a state or a region. This might be an opportunity for us to enter into a discussion of comparative attitudes and comparative systems in the states that people in this room are familiar with. So, let me make just a few other comments here so that you get a sense of the movement of state parks, where they originated in America.

The park movement in general began with the great urban parks—Central Park in New York laid out by Frederick Law Olmstead, a great landscape architect, in the 1850s. Olmstead then went on to design great urban parks in other cities and he became very interested in land that was deeded to the state of California from the federal government in what is often considered the first state park in the nation— Yosemite—in 1864 during the Civil War. Yosemite ultimately, as you know, became a national park. But the national park concept came later in the sequence. There were a number of individual state parks that followed upon these great urban parks. I might add that among the great urban parks systems are those of St. Louis (including Forest Park in 1874) and Kansas City, which came along later in its concern for parks, but moved immediately to the forefront in the 1890s under the leadership of a very fine landscape architect named George Kepler who designed the park boulevard system in Kansas City and brought that city immediately to national attention. Most of the plains states, the prairie states, have more cities and I don’t know as much about the urban parks in those areas because the cities themselves were smaller but perhaps some of you can fill us in. There are some wonderful parks in the vicinity of Omaha, Nebraska, for example.

And I just don’t know enough about the local and municipal parks in those areas. But state parks began coming on in the 1880s and 1890s; New York’s Adirondacks Park, a huge area in upstate New York, Mackinoc Island in the state of Michigan, Itasca at the headwaters of the Mississippi River in Minnesota in 1891, Interstate Park on the St. Croix River between Wisconsin and Minnesota in 1900. Then a whole series of urban parks came along in the first decades of the twentieth century. The state park movement as a whole really became an organized movement after the establishment of the National Park Service in 1916.

Just as we had state parks before we had state park systems and a national state park movement, so we had national parks before we had the national system and a coordinated movement to protect national parks. The National Park System was established under the National Park Act of 1916, and five years later, partly with the encouragement of the Director of the National Park System, there was convened a National Association of State Parks that met for the first time here in the middle west in Des Moines, Iowa.

Iowa was already very interested in parks. The governor took leadership in the movement, and representatives of twenty-eight states were at that first meeting. At subsequent meetings every year more states were represented. So when you look at the dates when state park systems were established you’ll find that many of them are just before or just after 1921. And the dates of the earliest parks in the system would track with that--in some cases there’ll be a few parks that were earlier than that which existed independently of the system. But tremendous acquisitions and beginnings of coordinated systems got underway in the 1920s.

Oftentimes the 1920s are considered a kind of a dead period in conservation history-- people think nothing happened and it’s because they’re not looking at the right place. They’re not looking at what was happening in the states--and there was a lot going on in the states during that decade. So with that as a kind of background I am going to turn to the slides and give you an overview of the Missouri Park System and some of these themes that I’ve talked about, the various different ways of understanding the system and then we can use that as a jump-off point in talks about political culture of our other states. . (Professor Flader’s slide presentation followed.)

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