Underwriting provided by:
The Laura Moore Cunningham

Thomas Cox

Thomas Cox is a retired professor and the author of The Park Builders. This interview was conducted by Bruce Reichert in the summer of 2013.

In terms of state parks, how does Idaho differ from, say, Oregon and Washington?
The parks in Oregon, Washington and Idaho were the ones I mostly focused on; and the histories of the three were quite different because the three states are quite different. There’s no one pattern, but in all three, key individuals provided the momentum.

Sometimes they were public officials; sometimes they were people in the private sector, but it’s something that doesn’t come from the technocrats and the governmental officials.  It comes from, in a way, the middle class grass roots. There is a lot of involvement of service clubs and groups like that, too.

And of the three states, Idaho is the most conservative in how it runs parks?
Then and now.

Thomas Cox being interviewed at Harriman State Park [Courtesy Jay Krajic]
Thomas Cox being interviewed at Harriman State Park

One of the people you focused on was Idaho Governor Robert Smylie. What were your impressions of him?
He was an impressive guy, fun to interview, but a bull dog. He spent over 10 years trying to get a state park system established in Idaho. And there were all sorts of road blocks. People said, oh, that’s socialistic; people said, oh that costs money. A lot of opposition from the Democrat party at the time, because they controlled the state Land Board, and there were some nice patronage jobs there that they didn’t want to lose. So opposition came from a lot of places; and he, bit by bit, built up support, and here we are.

Harriman State Park, where we’re conducting this interview, played a key role in finally establishing a park system, didn’t it?
Very much so. The Harriman family had owned Railroad Ranch here --     which is now Harriman State Park -- for years and years. Young Averell and Rowland Harriman spent a lot of time out here; and they loved this place. As they were getting older, they couldn’t stand the idea of it being chopped up into sub-divisions or resort developments; so they were looking for a way to have it saved like this.

They were torn between the federal government or the state of Idaho; and they were impressed with some of the work the state of Idaho had done, and Fish and Game, on the Henry’s Fork. So they opted to give the land to Idaho, but it all had to be kept secret until the negotiations were nailed down.

Governor Smylie flew off to New York to work out the final details of the agreement. And the Statesman in Boise jumped all over him; “oh, he’s always off flying around someplace. He ought to spend more time in the state.” Then, of course, when he came back with the agreement in hand, they quickly changed their tune, because this was a multi-million dollar gift and a once in a lifetime opportunity.

But it came with strings attached, right?
Oh yeah, which I suspect was an idea that originated with Smylie. I think he was the one that said, hey, put this one in: the requirement that, for the donation to become final, Idaho had to have a professional parks department, which in spite of Smylie’s ten years of effort, it still didn’t really have.

So the legislature voted to accept the gift, but they still hadn’t created a professional parks department. So it’s sort of an empty vote in a way, and that was one more piece in the momentum that Smylie had been building, and finally the legislature voted.

By that time Smylie’s party had a majority in both houses of the legislature, so they were able to get it through and the gift became final.

But then the parks department spent some years studying this place to figure out how to use it so that it wouldn’t be overused, wouldn’t be destroyed. A lot of the meadows are very fragile eco-systems, and they wanted to make sure that when they started to administer it, they would administer it responsibly.

Those were impressive years for a brand new organization. They brought in really quality people, and that’s always the secret. But they also listened to the local folk, who knew the land and knew the needs and the problems in ways that the professionals might not if they came from some other area.

Harriman is one of the premier state parks in the country. Not just in Idaho, in the country, because the Harrimans and Smylie and the original park department were all committed to keeping it special and did a marvelous job.

Averell and Kitty Harriman [Courtesy IDPR]
Averell and Kitty Harriman [Courtesy IDPR]

That local connection really gets at the heart of this whole notion of state parks, it seems.
Oh yeah. Most of the visitors are local, but you go to the parking lot and there are an awful lot of out-of-state license plates, too. That was part of what Smylie had argued all along. He said Parks are good business. 

Tourism just boomed after World War II, and Idaho wasn’t any more prepared than anybody else; and it was troubling that all these people were going through from Yellowstone to the Pacific Coast, and Idaho was just a highway enroute.

Smylie said if we can get them to stay a day or two, that’s money in the bank. So you need parks that are big enough, attractive enough, special enough to attract and hold people for a while, and Harriman is one of those. There are others, too, of course.

That’s part of that post-World War II tourist boom. People came out of World War II with a lot of savings and pent up desire to travel and see things. During World War II posters were all around – Is this trip really necessary? The 1950’s saw the reverse side of the coin. Yes, this trip is necessary; and this is part of what Smylie wanted to catch, the Idaho share of the tourist trade.

Part of his strategy in trying to convince Idahoans that this was a possibility was getting first the Girl Scouts and then the Boy Scouts World Jamboree to be held at Farragut State Park in north Idaho. Ten thousand girl scouts came, then 12,000 boy scouts came, and that got the attention of all sorts of people who said, hey, there’s money in them thar hills.

The idea that state parks are favored by Democrats was not really true back then, was it?
It wasn’t then. Smylie was Republican, but then it was a different Republican party. He was an Eisenhower Republican, which didn’t view the federal government as a boogey man. The problem, Smylie argued, was that too many of the federal officials are too isolated from the grass roots. We needed somebody that can serve as a go-between, so they work from a better basis of local information and knowledge. So it wasn’t, get rid of the federal government; it was, help it to work better. The Democratic Party was a little harder to characterize in the Smylie era; but the park story suggests pretty much a Democrat was more interested in patronage and partisan politics than policy in any larger sense.

Can you make a case that, as soon as Idaho got a parks department, it made a difference?
Yes, it did make a difference in a couple of ways. In the first place, it got it out of the realm of legislative politics; and it became now a question of administering and building, which was a whale of a step forward. But it also was important in that it gave a kind of stamp of approval that the public could rally around. The parks became, for quite a while, a fair-haired boy in Boise and in the larger public.

Governor Robert Smylie [Courtesy Idaho Historical Society]
Governor Robert Smylie [Courtesy Idaho Historical Society]

In a state like Idaho, with so much federally administered public lands, state parks seem to be at a disadvantage sometimes. Why spend money to get into a state park when you can just go to the Sawtooth National Recreation Area?
Idaho’s fortunate. It’s got all these wonderful places – the Sawtooths, the Frank Church Wilderness area – so many of those are places that you have to be pretty fit to get into and appreciate. State parks, by and large, are lower elevation, more accessible; they reach a much broader kind of an audience and serve an educational role for the next generation of kids coming here, field trips and family trips and learning about the out of doors, and that’s something those high mountain areas, much as I love them, can’t really serve in the same way.

Park managers also push this notion of creating memories at state parks.
I would agree 100%, memories that are founded on learning, finding new things, discovery. Another thing that should be kept in mind about state parks is they serve more people every year in the United States than the national parks do, and they do it for far less money.

State parks provide a place – a laboratory is too technical a term – but a special kind of place where people can come, especially young people, and learn about the out-of doors, and come to appreciate a part of the world that maybe they haven’t had much previous contact with. It’s the introduction of a lot of people to the greater outdoors. The next step might be the Sawtooths.

These days state parks seem to be on the chopping block, financially.
Governments are stretched thin, just like you and me financially, so the states cut where they can, and often that means state park budgets. That has forced the state parks to rely more and more on volunteers to fill positions that were filled by professionals and I don’t see anything wrong with that. Quite the contrary, it’s useful because it helps to build a constituency.

When people spend a summer working as a volunteer, they are going to be knowledgeable about it and spread information. They are going to support it in all kinds of ways; so in a sense what parks have done because of the financial problems, is they have gone back to their roots, because it started out with a lot of grass roots efforts.

Do you have a favorite state park in Idaho?
Harriman and Heyburn, and not necessarily in that order. I’m not sure of the order.

Heyburn was in a sense an accidental park. Senator Heyburn introduced into the U.S. Senate a bill to have Heyburn made a national park. It’s a spectacular place. It’s probably as deserving of national park status as a number of other things that were created as national parks at the same time, but Congress wasn’t buying. And so while he was off on some business, an amendment was introduced to allow the state of Idaho to buy the site for a state park. So Idaho was given this license to buy, but they didn’t have any money, so they fished around and they found $11,000 in the Fish and Game fund. And that was about the closest connection they could find with which they then bought Heyburn and made it into a state park and named it after the senator who had wanted a national park, in a kind of irony.

Heyburn State Park 1925 [Courtesy Idaho Historical Society]
Heyburn State Park 1925 [Courtesy Idaho Historical Society]

Heyburn Park was always a problem for the state of Idaho. In a sense, they got it before they were really ready, and they didn’t know quite what to do with it. They leased out summer home sites, which proceeded over time to pollute the lake, and so it became a headache in and of itself. And at another juncture they logged it to generate money to run the park. One would say, well, that’s hardly kosher; but that’s the way Idaho came up with the money to run Heyburn.

At one point the Coeur d’ Alone tribe brought suit against the state of Idaho to have Heyburn State Park returned to the tribe, because they said the state had mismanaged it, that they hadn’t used it for park purposes as the enabling legislation had required. And the question became, well, is leasing a summer home site a public park purpose?

The tribe and their attorneys argued, No; but if you look at Glacier National Park, the federal government leased out summer homes, so Idaho wasn’t going off on some wild tangent of its own. They were within the practices at the time.

The upshot of the suit that the Coeur d’Alenes brought was the state had to take steps to manage the pollution from sewage and what-not. I don’t know of any park that has been created in recent years that has summer home sites within it. There may be some. I don’t know of any.

Are there any cautionary last words about Idaho’s state parks?
One thing I’m concerned about – partly because I’ve seen it already begin to happen in some states – is that in the face of budget shortfalls and cutbacks, people will turn to commercializing the parks as a way to generate money to keep them running. That’s a dangerous road to tread. 

Would Harriman be the same if there were a hotel right here, if there were a cafeteria down the road, if there were motels on that point? I don’t think so. Indeed, that’s exactly what the Harriman brothers were trying to avoid. They couldn’t stand the idea of this place being turned into another suburban development. And it would have. It’s too attractive not to have drawn people, and probably the people wouldn’t have been Idahoans, either.  

Also, the challenge is to do a better job with what you’ve got. Not to try to be empire builders. Empire builders tend to get into trouble.