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Expansionism in the 1970s [1970s]

Hiker at Shenandoah National Park, 1978
The National Parks and Recreation Act:

Despite caution on the part of several presidential administrations, Congress adopted an activist stance toward park creation. It required the NPS to submit annual reports on potential new areas, including 12 that "have potential for inclusion in the National Park System."

The National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978 authorized 15 new national park units, added eight rivers to the Wild and Scenic Rivers System, designated nearly two million acres of wilderness in eight national parks, and set aside $725 million for the renovation of recreation facilities in urban areas. This act also specified that there is no hierarchy of parks. All parks hold the same importance within the NPS, regardless of designation. Critics referred to the bill as "park barrel legislation." To some, the bill demonstrated the excessive expansion of the National Park Service while highlighting the lengths to which those in Congress would go to secure funding projects for their own states. During the debate over the act, Senator Robert Dole of Kansas jokingly asked, "Is there any state other than Kansas that did not end up with a park?" (Another senator responded, "Did we leave you out, Bob?") Critics questioned the importance of many sites that were being added to the National Park System.

Photo: Hiker at Shenandoah National Park, 1978

Polychrome Glaciers, Denali National Park and Preserve
The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act:

Congress passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980. This act almost doubled the total size of the national park system. Compared to what Alaska had previously, the state gained seven national parks, 10 national preserves, and a wild river. The national preserves are similar to national parks except that they allow hunting. In total, the act added 47 million acres to the National Park System. The act also prohibited any further use of the Antiquities Act to establish national monuments in Alaska, just like the final agreement reached in Wyoming 30 years earlier over the monument proclaimed for Jackson Hole.

Photo: Polychrome Glaciers, Denali National Park and Preserve

Autumn tree with golden yellow leaves, Bandelier National Park, New Mexico
Funding sources:

Funding for this expansion came, in part, from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which had been established in 1964. The fund earmarks revenues from visitor fees, surplus property sales, fuel taxes, and offshore oil and gas leases to be used for the acquisition of state and national parklands.

Photo: Autumn tree with golden yellow leaves, Bandelier National Park, New Mexico

Three Mile Island
Culture and the political climate:

During the 1970s, prices for energy, particularly gasoline, increased dramatically as the United States had to turn to other countries to maintain its level of consumption. Nuclear power plants were being used as a way to generate electricity without worry of foreign supply. The nuclear plants were championed as a safe, clean way to generate energy. On March 28, 1979, the view of nuclear power changed dramatically when the nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island suffered a series of safety failures. According to the New York Times, the disaster unfolded in the following manner:

"Because of a complex series of human and mechanical errors, signaled by that harmless blast of steam, a reactor at the Metropolitan Edison Company plant in the middle of the Susqeuhanna River began to tear itself apart, loosing small whiffs of radioactivity into the predawn chill of central Pennsylvania. The reactor's cooling system had malfunctioned —a valve inexplicably had failed— and the reactor's nuclear core was rapidly overheating, raising the possibility of a 'meltdown' sequence in which the core would get so hot it would sear its way out of its thick steel-and-concrete cocoon, drop to the open ground and begin to spew radiation wildly" (pA1).

The core never did meltdown, which certainly contained the level of radioactivity that leaked into the environment. Despite this, the incident demonstrated in very real terms the risks that nuclear power posed. Over the next decade, hundreds of nuclear power plant projects were cancelled and no orders were made. The incident also served as further motivation for scientists to develop other alternatives to energy, including solar and wind power.

Photo: Three Mile Island



'Reflection' icon

What if there were no National Parks?
The NPS, as the most restrictive of the federal land management agencies, embraced the environmental era and its conservation-oriented movements.