Solving the “Recreation Problem”: The Development of the National Recreation Area

This presentation is part of A Century of Design in the Parks: Preserving the Built Environment in National and State Parks, June 21-23, 2016, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Abstract and Presenter’s Bio

Heidi Hohman, Iowa State University

Heidi Hohmann: Okay. I’m talking about .. National Recreation Areas today. NRA, which I’m going to say like a zillion times, does not stand for National Rifle Association, okay? Just keep that in mind. Okay… National Recreation Areas. Kind of a crappy Google Earth map, but it’s been a long week. Here they all are, ok. My analysis of the National Recreation Areas are they are a mixed bag. You’ve got mountains. You’ve got rivers. You’ve got reservoirs. You’ve got urban areas. How do you pull all these together? There are 41 of them. They range from 1,500 acres, Boston Harbor Islands, to a million acres, White Rocks up in Alaska. They are not all NPS properties, surprise. Half are managed by the US Forest Service, and that big one is managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Strikes fear in our hearts.

On the one hand, the diversity of these properties reflects the diversity of the recreational activities we as Americans enjoy: fishing, hunting, hiking, paddling, running around urban areas. On the other hand, the disparities reflect the long and convoluted history of NPS recreational planning that lasted well into the 1970s. I’m going to cover 1920 to 1970, because we’ve got to start in the ’20s, when NPS began to seriously consider the issue of recreation. Although we conflate the two, parks and recreation go together like macaroni and cheese, it’s perhaps worth remembering that the Organic Act did not contain the word “recreation” in it. Recreation only slowly became more acknowledged as a separate issue through a series of national conferences and research, which began to look at it separately.

In the 1928 survey, Recreational Resources in Federal Lands, they described the field of outdoor recreation as a, “Vast, practically new field of exploration partly or wholly unknown even to its governmental guardians.” In part, this may have been due to the fact that recreation was previously designed as part of the playground movement. Adult recreation, it seems, was something of a revelation at that moment. In 1934, Conrad Wirth’s Branch of Lands, we talked a lot about good old Connie here, I’m going to try to not downplay him, but not give you a lot of background on him, took this description one step further.

NPS-produced graphic promoting recreation in the 1930s (from National Park Service, Recreational Use of Land in the United States: Part XI of the Report on Land Planning.

In a review of national recreation resources for the National Planning Resources Board, sometimes known as the 1930 National Plan, this report defined recreation as a problem, the result of a modernizing society with increased leisure time due to mechanization, and, we might add retrospectively, Depression-era unemployment. Supported with pages of statistics that look like this, creepy graphics that look like this, and slogans usually reserved for military recruiting, now you know why I mentioned the NRA thing, the report cast recreation as a kind of federal health campaign. While today, we don’t think of recreation as a problem, I think this definition in its somewhat lurid depiction implied a need and urgency, that I think they were trying to put park planning on the map, on an equal footing with other social, and uh, social concerns.

If recreation were the problem, then Conrad Wirth had the solution, did he not? Because, in fact, they were already providing solutions to this problem that they were outlining simultaneously. These include state parks. I don’t need to talk about that anymore. They included national seashores. I’m not going to talk about that. I’m leaving that one to Ethan. It included recreation demonstration areas, which I’m going to talk about briefly. It also included the Park, Parkway, and Recreation Study Act. These solutions began to quite literally demonstrate how the NPS and maybe some other agencies with their support could provide recreation in new ways.

Recreation demonstration areas were in particularly important here. They were reclaiming sub-marginal lands, moving parks away from scenic protection towards construction and reconstruction and more construction of active recreation facilities. However, contrary to expectations that I naively had when I started this context project, RDAs did not turn into recreation areas by the 1940s. Most were reabsorbed into state park systems. More significant was the, for the development of NRAs, in the ’30s was the Park, Parkway, and Recreation Study Act. This act advanced additional recreation research with the states. What’s particularly significant for here, I’m flying low, for the development of the NRA, is that it not only allowed the NPS to collaborate with the states, but it also authorized the NPS to collaborate with other federal agencies. There’s the rub, because there’s the money, and there’s the recreation.

Their main collaborators that were going to happen in the ’30s and ’40s were going to be the US Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers. Reclamation had started thinking about its projects as recreational as early as 1918, when they proposed the Teddy Roosevelt Dam and its lake in Arizona as a national park, which was defeated. Probably, that was probably a good thing. They soon decided recreation was not really in their wheelhouse – surprise -and in 1928, approached the NPS about designing recreation facilities behind Boulder, soon-to-be Hoover Dam. With the Hetchy Hetchy controversy not such a distant memory, the NPS demurred for the next eight years, despite a fair amount of pressure from Interior and Congress.

The Park, Parkway, and Recreation Study Act however provided the administrative structure and USBR’s funding for the project, and so, in 1936, an MOU was assigned, creating Lake Mead as the first National Recreation Area. The NPS, and again, Wirth’s Branch of Lands, did the design, and eventually would administer the facilities, the NPS did, while Reclamation retained the property. This project was followed shortly thereafter by another MOU for recreational facilities at Grand Coulee Dam in Washington, which is confusing, because it becomes Lake Roosevelt. It becomes a National Recreation Area in 1941, and NPS administration begins in 1946.

The Park Service was now working on multiple recreation fronts beyond national parks: state parks, RDAs, seashores, and now, reservoirs. Mission expansion may have seemed excessive, but not to Conrad Wirth. Having assessed a national problem, it was logical to establish the NPS as the federal agency with major jurisdiction over registration. Expansion also made sense within the existing NPS mission, as we’ve talked about earlier. If you’ve got all these other recreation areas, you can take the pressure off the crown jewel. So I think there’s some strategy going on there. Working with Reclamation also made sense because lakes were increasingly beginning to be seen as the central activity in any recreation facility. In 1941, his, the branch’s 1941 National Recreation Plan, which is a wonderful document, pretty interesting, I’m not going to cover that either today, produced this image for an ideal park with the lake as a central feature.

In the NPS’s plan for a reservoir at the Army Corps’ Denison Dam in Texas and Oklahoma, today’s Lake Texoma, completed in 1946, we see that lake ideal embodied right here. We see hotels, cabins, campings, marinas, and golf courses all located around a very, very, very big lake. During World War II, planning and construction work on state and national parks dropped off, but Bureau of Reclamation and Army Corps of Reservoir projects continued to be planned throughout the war. They were fueled by flood control and irrigation project bills that Congress passed in anticipation of post-war development. We can sort of see another cash cow. We take emergency conservation work and we replace some funding here that’s been lost to the war with Reclamation funding.

Image of idealized state park with lake for recreation at the center (from National Park Service, Study of the Park and Recreation Problem of the United States.








Plan for facilities around the Denison Dam Recreation Area (from National Park Service, Recreational Resources of the Denison Dam and Reservoir Project, Texas and Oklahoma



Over the course of the 1940s, as Reclamation and the Army Corps surveyed 19 river basins across the country, regional NPS staff trailed behind assessing the proposed reservoir recreation features. Their reports first assessed impacts on scenic, cultural, natural resources, assessed day, weekend, and vacation use opportunities, and assessed the reservoirs’ state, local, and national significance. So this is a plan for a sub-basin of the Platte River, which is a sub-basin of another river, I think the Missouri, yes, the Missouri. These are really interesting reports. There’s a whole slew of them. I’ve only looked at, like, three. There’s a lot. They’ve got this plan. Then they have a series of these associated with them, which are imaged of where the basin’s going to be, where the draw down lines are going to be. It’s a pretty interesting design process here as well.

Example of river basins and sub basins reviewed by the NPS for the Platte River in Nebraska. From Guy Edwards, “Reconnaissance Report on Recreational Potentialities, Lower Platt Sub-Basin, Nebraska,”

If there was concern within the NPS about working so closely with man-made landscapes and the agencies that created them, often to the detriment of the natural landscapes that these reservoirs were going to go into, it appears that these fears were at least partially and initially allayed by the fact that the projects were located in sparsely-populated, parched areas underserved by the NPS that had a paucity of recreational opportunities. Development on this slide wouldn’t matter and might actually enhance the area, all right? This is making sense. If reservoir was increasingly becoming code for recreation area within the National Park Service, the agency felt it could select which reservoirs would gain national recreation status.

These concerns, however, could not be put off forever. We’ve got a little bit of font problem there. Sorry about that. The issue came to a head during the late 1940s and 1950s over the plans for the Upper Colorado River Storage Project. How many people here are familiar with Echo Park Dam? Oh, dammit, I’m going to have to explain it briefly. Don’t worry. I thought I was going to. This… oh this is ugly, and I’m going really low and there’s lots of books on this, and they’re all really painful to read. Okay. In 1941, the Park Service entered into an MOU with Reclamation for a survey of the recreation potentials of the Upper Colorado. Okay. The Hoover Dam is down there at the bottom, and we’re going to be looking up at the top.

Then director, Newton Drury, enlisted Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., yes, that guy, to head this survey, which covered a vast area of unique geologic features. Sorry, I didn’t put a slide of them in here. Completed in 1946, the survey did not initially raise flags about the impact of the dam on these wonderful natural and scenic resources. However, as plans proceeded, the first dam in the project, which is Echo Park, the northernmost dot there, was located within Dinosaur National Monument. As this proceeded, conservationists increasingly realized the harrowing consequences – understatement – the dam would have on this national park. Thus ensued the well-known Echo Park controversy, which led to Drury’s reserve…resignation in 1951, his reservation too, and a decade-or-longer battle between wilderness conservations…wilderness conservationists and reclamation over the dam’s construction.

Although the dam was eventually and ultimately in 18… defeated in 1956, the resulting compromise led to the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam downstream. And David Brower felt really bad about that one, realizing that probably an even more significant landscape was engulfed. The battles over the two dams led to the…led to one of the things that we talked about some of them yesterday … led to the birth of the environmental movement, and the passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act, and greatly damaged NPS credibility with the conservation community, because hi, they were in bed with Reclamation building this thing in the first place, right? Because there’s a whole bunch of correspondence about the great visitor center that’s going to be over the… near the reservoir, and I’ve got to stop now.

Okay. Back to National Recreation Areas. The Glen Canyon Dam and its National Recreation Area brought the official number of National Recreation Areas up to three: Lake Mead, Lake Roosevelt, and Glen Canyon. And the NPS, despite this horrible event, continued with many other reservoir recreation areas. There was a lot of momentum going here. These included Lake Meredith in Texas, Shadow Mountain in Colorado, and Arbuckle in Oklahoma, all candidates for National Recreation Area status.

These projects considered alongside NPS disavowals of Echo Park demonstrated certain agency ambivalence shall we say toward reservoir recreation areas. They also highlight the fact that there was at this point no official definition of a National Recreation Area other than it had to be of national significance, and who knew what that meant? The increasingly suspect nature of National Recreation Areas was also shown when, in 1953, a Congressional act described them as miscellaneous areas rather than as parts, and thereby excluded them from the system, at least in name. This had some impacts on Lake Roosevelt later on. Oops. Shouldn’t have done that yet. Okay.

Though a definition would be forthcoming, it would be greatly influenced by forces from outside the agency. In 1958, as the Echo Park and Glen Canyon Dam controversies drew to a close, Congress created the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission, tasked with defining the nation’s recreation needs to the end of the century, like 2000, like 16 years. The NPS was excluded from the process, which was open to a much wider field of experts who produced a 27-volume set of research topics…research books on the topic. They are really, really interesting, if you’re into recreation.

Within the summary report, the term “national park” was almost nowhere to be found. Rather, the report took a broad look at recreation areas, providing a classification not of use and type but of more general character based on proximity to population. I love this graphic here, because the dam is in the middle and there’s no, there’s, no sort of, notification that that’s what in … That it’s a reservoir, and there’s all these other numbers, which correlate with the classes, which range from high density recreation area … They’re obsessed with carrying capacity for the next 20 years. Class, natural environments, unique natural environments, et cetera, et cetera. I’m not going to go into too much detail on this. What I do want to say is the classification created a continuum of recreation areas without regard to jurisdiction.

Chart showing re-organization of the Department of the Interior following creation of the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation (from Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission, Outdoor Recreation for America, 10)

The ORRRC, as I mentally call it, because the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Committee is just a mouthful, had a number of findings and recommendations which are listed here. Within all of these, two are most important in terms of the National Recreation Area. First, it highlighted the need for recreation areas near metropolitan areas. I’m going to come back to that in a minute. Second, it recommended the creation of a Bureau of Outdoor Recreation. And Congress did this with incredible alacrity given what it takes them to do things today, in 1963, like three months after the report.

These actions replaced, negated the Park, Parkway, and Recreation Area Study Act, putting the Bureau of Recreation in charge of coordinating federal recreation. The years of NPS supremacy in recreational planning were over. It placed them on a similar footing with other federal agencies regarding recreational responsibilities. This is a diagram, and you’ll see Bureau of Outdoor Recreation there in black, and everybody else who does recreation in yellow there. Practically, this meant engaging the US Forest Service, which in 1957 had begun expanding their own interest in recreation through Operation Outdoors, a little sexier than Operation 20 10 70, that somebody mentioned, for Texas State Parks earlier. This was a parallel to Mission 66, yes.

The appointment of Lawrence Stevens, former Associate Director of the Forest Service, as the director of the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation was likely meant to ensure a more balanced power between the NPS and the Forest Service. This multiple use act is the product of Operation Outdoors, and it kind of ensures that Recreation Areas are going to have that genetic piece of the Forest Service in them. One of the first activities of the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation was to actually define the NRA within this broadened realm of federal recreation. In early 1963, the Recreation Advisory Council of the bureau produced the policy for the selection, establishment, and administration of National Recreation Areas as a federal class of lands outside the sole purview of the NPS.

NRAs were to be established by an Act of Congress in a limited number of areas where recreation demand was not met through other programs. They also needed to have natural endowments well above the ordinary, less than the unique elements of the National Park system, but affording an experience greater than that of the states. The key primary criteria within here were that they needed to be at least 20,000 acres in size, they needed to reach regional audiences, and they needed to be located within 250 miles of major urban population centers. From a secondary standpoint, they focused on carrying capacity of the proposed NRA, ensuring a high benefit of recreation cost per cost of development. And they also needed to support recreation on adjacent private lands.

Notably, a clause highlighted the use of federal impoundments as NRAs, but only if the recreational development would be in some way beyond normal. The policy also did not indicate which federal agency should manage which NRA, and funding sources were also not indicated for NRAs, right? And everything focuses on funding, right? The guidelines were interesting in these criteria, that, in contrast to the bold pronouncements of the commission’s report, the guidelines are actually quite general and encompassing rather than being specific and visionary. In part, this is likely due to a recognition that future recreation areas would need to accommodate not only unmet but also unknown recreation needs in the future. Such flexibility also allowed both the Forest Service and the Park Service to define their own individual guidelines unique to their departmental cultures within the broader framework of the policy.

For the NPS, development of these internal guidelines began in 1964 with Secretary Udall’s letter on park management. This is later inculcated in the 1968 handbook that Hugh was talking about, where you’ve got natural, historic, and recreational. We talk about the nature/culture divide. Hey, 1968, they had the nature, culture, and recreation divide. Yay. And one of the reasons for this was it was necessary in light of the Leopold Report and the Wilderness Act, which had created another new non-denominational, if you will, federal lands designation, the Wilderness Area. So there’s a correlation between the Wilderness Area and the Recreation Area here in that they’re non-denominational. They can be housed in either agency. There is also a groundswell to manage Wilderness Areas and other park landscapes on a more scientific and ecological basis.

For recreation resources, the policy stated that “recreation shall be recognized as the dominant or primary resource objective,” and although management must provide for conservation of natural or historic features, they needed to protect the recreational opportunities of the area. This is interesting as we get into National Register eligibility in my opinion. A master plan for each recreation area was also required to spell out the details of management for public use and enjoyment. I like that little swing back to the past there, Organic Act raising its head. Details of this included management of fish and wildlife, agriculture uses, forest management, grazing, timber harvesting, and mineral exploration, none of which are normally allowed in national parks. That multiple use idea from the Forest Service is coming into the recreation area.

Throughout the ’60s, management of existing NRAs focused on meeting these guidelines. This meant recasting existing reservoir recreations as NRAs, something of a hit-or-miss process. Lake Mead, its large size and fame made it a shoe-in for the first real National Recreation Area with the ’64 Congressional Act. Lake Sanford in Texas, Ross Lake, Lake Chelan, Washington, also established in the late ’60s. Some were not. Grand Coulee never has one. It has no legislation, which is interesting. Neither does Curecanti. They’re the only two units that don’t have legislation.

Elsewhere, communities and planners struggle to conform to the new standards. Oops. At the Arbuckle Recreation Area in Oklahoma, for example, a series of proposals sought to enlarge the area around the existing reservoir in the middle with additional units of geological significance in attempt to meet the requirements of going beyond normal and to reach 20,000 acres. The property came up short until 1976, when it was combined with Platt National Park, which elevated its significance. Though at 10,000 acres, it never … it’s still technically too small. Shadow Mountain Reservoir, Colorado, built in 1952, shared a similar fate, languishing for years as an NPS-managed recreation area until it was finally incorporated into the much larger USF-managed Arapahoe NRA.

New ones were also established in the 1960s, including Spruce Knob. This was the first in the Forest Service. Others were reservoirs that had been planned beforehand. I’m skimming now because I’m running out of time. Other ones like Tocks Island was going to be a reservoir dam but public protest prevented the dam, and it just went directly into becoming an NRA, and became Delaware Water Gap in 1965. In contrast, public protest slowed down and downsized NRAs in the Forest Service. This is Mount Rogers, designated in 1966, not actually finalized until ’78 due to significant public opposition over land condemnation process. By the time it was authorized, it lost its ski area, reservoir, scenic highway that was originally envisioned as part of it. And in the ’70s, the, sort of, downsizing was pretty common. This is Platt-Arbuckle’s proposed marina, and that’s what we ended up with: A giant, concrete parking ramp. Okay.

In the 1970s though, public participation began to fuel the next stage of NRA development, which is the urban NRAs. The other major finding of the ORRRC report was the idea that recreations needed to occur in metropolitan areas. The NPS was expanding greatly at this time, 60 units were added between ’64 and ’72. Hartzog, during his last years as tenure, “actively promoted the NPS as an agency in search of an urban mission.” And combined with a new Nixon administration, the environmental movement, the outfall from urban renewal led to Gateway and Golden Gate National Recreation Areas in San Francisco and New York and New Jersey. These were supported by local, grassroots organizations. Both met the NRA’s size standards: Golden Gate at 80,000 acres and Gateway at 27,000.

Both were authorized in 1972, and brought the NPS into the realm of urban parks management with problems such as mass transit, sewage effluent on beaches, diverse resources, you had cultural and natural, estuaries and military… historic military features, and, you know, funding, funding, funding, funding. When I worked in the North Atlantic region in the 1990s, we called Gateway “the money pit”, very fondly. We called it that very fondly. Despite these challenges, other urban NRAs soon followed: Cuyahoga National Recreation Area, Santa Monica, and Boston Harbor Islands. Okay. One minute to round things up here.

They are a mixed bag. I hope I’ve proven that. There are a few more oddballs that I haven’t discussed: Whiskey–Shasta–Trinity, which is managed by both agencies. Ooh, that sounds like fun. Two joint river National Recreation Areas as well, which brings us back to this slide, and there they all are. So I began this research as contextual research for Chickasaw National Recreation Area, which becomes eligible for the National Register, depending on how you look at it, either it already did, or it will in 1968. The park and region wanted to understand it within its NRA context, which they thought was Mission 66. Mission 66 pretty much had nothing to do with the reservoirs other than Echo Park Dam, so far as I can tell, and I’m still in the middle of this research.

In terms of context, I’m not sure that National Recreation Area is a context as I’ve presented it here today, so just ignore everything I’ve said. I think the contextual group, there might be two or three, and I think the reservoir recreation areas, 11 of the 19 NPS ones are reservoir-based, those might be a context area, and I think the urban ones might a context area, or we might bring the seashores into this, and they might be the transition between the two. No. He’s shaking his head. Okay. I thought I’d fly it. Okay. I think in terms of the urban ones, there’s other urban parks, like Philadelphia and Jefferson Arch, which might go better with Gateway, so I think there’s still some contextual issues to hash out, but we’ve got a little bit of time before 1972. Those won’t be on the registry yet, will they?

I think the other big issue as we work to preserve these is the natural, cultural, and recreational divide, right?. I think thinking about which takes priorities in this, I’m going to show my hand here and say that Arbuckle, where it’s a small park staff and there’s cultural resources within their reservoir area, I am so not advocating for … Julie’s going to kill me… I’m so not advocating for a lot of conservation of cultural resources other than the kind of bare minimum within that reservoir district, because it’s about the recreation man, and the legislation says it’s about the recreation. Shouldn’t do these things in public, should I? That’s bad. Okay.

One final thing here. In this centennial year for the NPS, when increasing visitation and connecting people to the parks is a goal, I think there’s a parallel there to the 1930s and the 1960s, right? Here it is: We were worried then about how to get people to parks. There’s not enough parks. Now we’re talking about, “How do we get the people into these parks?” I would say that recreation is still a problem in the National Park Service, only it might be in the opposite direction, as we compete with virtual reality, 360 views of those historic sites, right? Who needs to go to a park anymore, folks? Recreation may still be a problem, but perhaps from the other side. Thank you very much.

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