What part did politics play in the creation of Mount Rainier National Park? To answer this question I used information from the book, “Mount Rainier Wonderland: An Administrative History of Mount Rainier National Park.”
“Diverse interest groups successfully combined their efforts in the campaign for Mount Rainier National Park. These groups included scientific organizations and mountain clubs, university faculties and chambers of commerce, people of national stature and local newspaper editors.”
Key political and economic beliefs and interests also helped bring the park into existence. These aspects will be the focus of this week’s column.
It is an axiom that the longer a bill takes to attain passage through Congress, the more political opposition there will be. Passing Mount Rainier National Park into law required six difficult years in Congress from 1893 to1898 and, with each passing year, more qualifications and amendments were added before the final document was placed on the president’s desk. As originally drawn, the concept of the “worthless land” argument played a big part:
“The boundaries of the proposed national park have been so drawn as to exclude from its area all lands upon which coal, gold, or other valuable minerals are supposed to occur, and they conform to the purpose that the park shall include all features of peculiar scenic beauty without encroaching on the interests of miners or settlers.”
Because of this argument, the size of the park was reduced from 24 miles by 26 miles to its eventual size of approximately 18 miles by 18 miles.
The Northern Pacific Railroad also played a major, though covert, part in the park’s creation. Land grants given to NP within the park’s boundaries were cancelled. In return for this concession, NP would be able to acquire an equal amount of timberland elsewhere, that area being in Oregon. This was the tribute preservationists had to pay in order for the Northern Pacific to support the bill. This final wording of the law, though hotly denied by NP, demonstrates its influence.
The NP would also benefit from the creation of Mount Rainier National Park because millions of tourists who would visit it would ride on NP’s trains.
Additionally, the creation of a national park required an act of Congress, while the creation of a national forest only required, “a stroke of the president’s pen” to turn it into law. Very clearly, economic pragmatism separated national parks from national forests. National forests would be treated as crops while national parks would be viewed as wilderness preserves.
Mount Rainier National Park also created and protected a regional watershed, which especially benefitted the two major cities of Seattle and Tacoma. The within-two-hour proximity of Mount Rainier to these two cities would also benefit these cities economically as tourists traveled through them to visit the park.
Some Congressmen objected to the creation of national parks because, once created, they would become an economic burden to the federal government. A Texas representative thought the state of Washington ought to pay for the expense of the park. Adding pressure to this attitude was the powerful Speaker of the House, “Uncle Joe” Canon, who made a final demand: he said he would kill the bill unless no money was requested after passage, “to improve the place and make it possible to bring visitors to go there.” He exacted this promise from Seattle businessman John P. Hartman, influential in the bill’s support, before he gave his approval: “I promise you, Sir, that if this Bill is passed I will not be here asking for money from the federal treasury to operate the place so long as you shall remain in Congress.”
With that pledge, Speaker Canon said, “I will take you at your word and let the measure go through, if otherwise it can travel the thorny road.”
To mollify angry settlers, Washington Congressman James Hamilton Lewis gave them the same rights as the Northern Pacific – to be able to settle elsewhere on federal lands “in lieu of their lands in the park.”
Finally, the name of the park was changed from “the politically sensitive but dull Washington National Park” to Mount Rainier National Park in a late final amendment.
President McKinley signed the bill into law on March 2,1899.
Mount Rainier National Park had followed the precedent set by Yellowstone National Park and firmly imbedded the two approaches to federal lands: preserves or national forests open to harvest and development. It also set the example for later parks like Crater Lake (1902), Wind Cave (1903) and Mesa Verde (1906).
Bills take a tortuous and time-consuming route to get through Congress. Compromises have to be made and various interests groups paid off. Perhaps the recent successful push to end pork barrel legislation is not such a good idea after all. Perhaps part of the reason for our gridlocked Congress stems from the end of these entitlements – the grease that lubricates the system?