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A Life Of Conservation: Michael Frome And The National Parks

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Michael Frome at 95

Michael Frome, 95 years young and still writing about national parks and conservation. This picture, recently featured in the Ozaukee Press, celebrates but a sample of his prolific career/Courtesy of the Ozaukee Press

Editor's note: As recently reviewed in the Traveler, Rediscovering National Parks in the Spirit of John Muir is Michael Frome’s latest book. A Frome follower for half-a-century, Alfred Runte adds a personal note to our report.

Few of us with roots in the 1960s can imagine the world of environmental writing without Michael Frome. Actually, it was my mother who first discovered his articles following our trip west in 1959. From our home in Binghamton, New York, she had driven my brother August and me 10,000 miles, visiting national parks the entire way.

After spending three days each at Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Grand Canyon, we thought we had seen it all. It little occurred to us, jockeying among the crowds of other auto “campers,” that an even greater, untouched wilderness lay beyond the pullouts, roads, and parking lots.

That discovery awaited the writings of Michael Frome. Born and raised in the Bronx, he became an airplane navigator during World War II. He recalls returning home from military service to resume life as a journalist, ultimately to navigate America through its public lands.

By the early 1960s he had succeeded—and then some, including, among other assignments, a huge following in Woman’s Day and Changing Times.

Mother indeed discovered Michael Frome at the grocery store, where she, along with millions of other women, lavished 10 cents on Woman’s Day every month.

Through Frome’s favorite subject, the national parks, she inevitably retraced our steps in 1959. We might have hiked more and driven less, she realized, looking deeper into that unseen wilderness.

She already regretted that we had not stayed longer in the Tetons, then a glorious respite from frenetic Yellowstone. Of course, Grand Teton National Park was entirely different from the citified landscape we see today. Our campsite beside Jackson Lake was rustic—that on Jenny Lake more primitive still. Ten years later, returning as a college graduation present to myself, I picked campsite 49 on Jenny Lake. Nothing surrounded me but the trees.

Now, how dare anyone call Jenny Lake a wilderness? For that, one would have to ignore the massive parking lot, further tied to a bicycle “path” splitting Jackson Hole.

“What is wrong with a little asphalt?” a ranger asked me, defending those projects on a subsequent return. “This national park is not just for you.”

True enough, Michael Frome agrees. But then, should not the National Park Service be a bit more deliberative in what it changes for the sake of numbers? Certainly, the moment anything commonplace displaces wilderness, the quality of a national park erodes.

In mother’s eyes, he was right. There was too much frivolous development in every national park.

She began looking for his byline in other magazines, principally American Forests and Field & Stream. In both, he grew blunt about the future. If Americans were not careful, they would lose their parks, along with the best of their national forests, wildlife refuges, and other public lands.

Reverberating throughout the 1960s, the controversies just never seemed to end. Fueled by Mission 66, the decade was rife with schemes to “improve” the national parks, and that was before motor homes and SUVs.

Anvil after anvil continued to drop. Two major reservoirs were proposed for Grand Canyon, followed by a Disney ski resort at Mineral King. Located at the underbelly of Sequoia National Park, that project, like the Grand Canyon dams, called for using the park as a stage for development, including “improved” access across the park itself.

In the East, the Park Service further entertained a new trans-mountain highway across Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It made no sense, Frome insisted, other than to serve blatantly local interests.

In the end, every controversy seemed to come down to development. Somebody was always out to citify the parks for greater crowds of visitors.

Others were simply opposed to parks. For example, mother thought the California redwoods had been saved. Again, it remained for Michael Frome to set her straight. She was probably thinking of the giant sequoias in the High Sierra. The best of the coast redwoods were still in jeopardy.

No more old-growth should be cut, he insisted. Yes, coast redwood is faster growing, but it would still take centuries to replace the ancient trees.

A Redwood National Park was a must. However, because it would need to be managed strictly as a wilderness, he feared the Park Service might not be up to the task.

With that honesty he continued to draw millions of readers—along with a few enemies, to be sure. “I will gladly tell you both sides of the story,” he responded to his critics. “I will then tell you which side is right.”

Assured of that, mother just couldn’t get enough of Michael Frome.

Ten Lovely Train Rides

A feature in Woman's Day opens up a youngster's eyes to trains and parks.

Ten Lovely Train Rides

Finally, in November 1963, she insisted I read Woman’s Day. “Seriously, Mom, what do I need to know about all that girl stuff?”

“Nothing—at least not yet—but you’ll like this article by Michael Frome,” she replied.

“Who?” I asked, still sounding like an insufferable 16-year-old.

“Michael Frome,” she repeated. “He writes for Woman’s Day, and this month he’s writing about trains.”

Mother had said the magic word—train! Half of my bedroom was a model railroad. But really, a train article in Woman’s Day? They certainly didn’t sell it at my hobby shop.

“Okay, Mom, if it’ll make you happy, I’ll take a look.”

The article, titled “Ten Lovely Train Rides,” still sounded much too feminine to me. Trains were about power, not about being “lovely.”

Mother smiled knowingly and handed me the article. “Just read it,” she said, and walked away.

Frome had me on his very first sentence. “We had been train-watching, my children and I, at the depot in our town, an old family haunt for a favorite outdoor sport.”

Suddenly, I was back at the Binghamton depot with my father and brother, I still barely four or five. Father also loved frequenting the hotel at Nineveh Junction, where the big steam locomotives came thundering through. “Stay on the porch,” he would say, offering us a ginger ale while he sipped his beer. Moments later, as the whole building shook, August and I would be squealing with delight.

And then, on a glorious December afternoon in 1952, the four of us—including mother in her Sunday finest—had boarded the Phoebe Snow for New York! No steam locomotives, but what a train, cresting Pennsylvania’s Endless Mountains, and then the Pocono Mountains, before snaking into New Jersey through the Delaware Water Gap.

In June 1958, father summoned us back to the Lackawanna Railroad depot, only this time for a sad occasion. We were to meet his casket coming home from Connecticut in the express car of the Phoebe Snow. He had died of a heart attack while visiting friends.

As the hearse backed up to the door of the express car, mother burst into tears, vowing afterward to do something positive in father’s memory. Thus our trip west in 1959.

So this was Michael Frome—my ticket to a flood of memories. Days later, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. We should continue to believe in the best about America, Frome consoled his readers, especially wilderness and the national parks.

I certainly envied him for his optimism, as I did anyone who by using the simplest of words could make train-riding sound so special.

Even his children seemed to read my mind. “Between trains we reminisced about their two grandfathers who were railroad men, when suddenly this pair of sub-teenagers posed a surprising question. ‘When we grow up and have children of our own,’ they asked, ‘will there still be trains we can take them to ride on?’”

He hoped so, both for the beauty of the trains themselves and because railroads respected the environment. “Railroad men have told me of their unhappiness with taxes, high operating costs and Federal regulations, which are rather complicated subjects to explain to my pair of subteen-agers. But to hear the rhythmic hum of the rails, to watch sunrise on the horizon, to sense the manifest mysteries of the still, dark world flashing through the night—these are part of the memory of every grownup, and deserving of a place in our tomorrows.”

“Deserving of a place in our tomorrows.” Who could ever disagree with that? Who would not want to believe that the United States would come to its senses before casting the last of its passenger trains aside?

As important, someone had finally made the connection between railroads and the protection of landscape. As every railroad modeler knows, railroads will tunnel a mountain; they will bend with a river. They are not forever blasting through.

Railroad scenery is then the hardest part to model. The modeler has to “feel” the landscape, too.

Here especially, Michael Frome had brought me back to earth. Throughout their history, railroads had been deliberative landscape architects, engineering for beauty as well as commerce. Railroads were something real—and something important. I should not see them as just a hobby.

“Mom? Do you have any more of these articles by Michael Frome?” I asked.

Jenny Lake aerial view

The ongoing pulse of visitation led the National Park Service to cut into the landscape at Jenny Lake in Grand Teton National Park/Google Earth

Popcorn Playgrounds

Fifty-two years later, he hasn’t lost a beat. Why do we have national parks? Because every generation deserves to have them. They are not for the economy; they are rather for the soul of the country. They are all about keeping our tomorrows whole.

That is especially true for wilderness, he contends. Only if the national parks are managed as wilderness can we expect them to survive as national parks.

At his invitation, we met in 1978 at the Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C. He had seen the first of my published articles and commented, now from his home in Alexandria, Virginia. The next time I got to Washington, I should give him a call.

Because all historians eventually wind up in Washington, I was soon able to make that call.

At the news, mother was absolutely thrilled. “Did I hear you right? You had dinner with Michael Frome?!” she exclaimed. Truly, her son had “arrived.”

In that case, she had also arrived, I reminded her, recalling the article in Woman’s Day. “You told him about that?” she asked.

“Of course I did. After all, it was the first thing of his I read, and I only read it because of you.” She was touched, and so was he.

For Michael, the troubling part about Rediscovering National Parks in the Spirit of John Muir is that such books still need to be written at all. So little has changed, he laments. Too often, Americans still find themselves saying good-bye to the best things about their country.

In the parks, they are asked to say good-bye to wilderness, even as the Park Service claims it is not good-bye. In Jackson Hole, it starts with the assurance that the front country is a lesser wilderness. The Tetons are what people come to see.

A parking lot? A bicycle path? They will help visitors see the mountains better.

No, they will just subdivide the wilderness yet again. If staging into wilderness is needed, all of it should occur outside the parks.

Ironically, staging was best accomplished in the railroad era, when visitation still was small. It has never worked with the automobile, which insists on the right to gobble up every landscape.

All of its spin-offs insist on the same. A 50-foot mobile home? Not a problem. God forbid that anyone’s rig be forbidden to enter the national parks because no road or parking lot has been built to handle it.

It was indeed the auto age, and not the railroad age, that overbuilt the parks. Can’t the Park Service just say no to excess? It should, but so rarely does.

This is to explain why dedicated writers, Michael among them, find it hard not to blame themselves. What more could they have said or done? Why haven’t their writings “broken through?”

John Muir asked it first. How could he have failed to save Hetch Hetchy? Why hadn’t his writings broken through?

Aldo Leopold then shared his lament, and after Leopold’s death, Edward Abbey. Abbey’s Desert Solitaire would win a million readers without ever seeming to change the Park Service’s mind.

Abbey had taken a crowbar to the agency’s nose, accusing it of “Industrial Tourism.” But tourism is good, the Park Service replied. Even more ironic, Desert Solitaire enjoys an honored place in every park visitor center. Does that again prove the Park Service has never read it?

Michael suddenly finds himself in the same predicament. He keeps writing but no one seems to listen, except for the people who have listened all along.

Fewer want to listen, remains the point. The Park Service, now thinking like a bureaucracy, also dictates more than listens. "The parks are for public use and enjoyment, and we get to say what enjoyment is."

No, Michael insists. The Organic Act is clear. Enjoyment means to enjoy preservation; use means to enjoy it, too. If you dare not believe in preservation, you should look for a different career.

Elaborating, he reserves special praise for Olympic Battleground, the history of Olympic National Park by Carsten Lien. Local interests, led by chambers of commerce, are forever taking the Park Service to task for not promoting the parks as destination resorts.

At Olympic National Park, the superintendent added insult to injury and systematically logged the park. Lest anyone grow complacent, those pressures, too, still simmer in the background.

Where are the new activists, Michael wonders? Will there ever be another David Brower, a Rosalie Edge, or Marjory Stoneman Douglas? In the past, wilderness was the environmental movement’s centerpiece. What anchors the movement now?

Nor is government anchored by good history. From Interior secretaries to members of Congress to rangers in the field, few now recognize wilderness as a priority. Or even know how the movement started.

The names Michael recalls are giants, but again, how many in government recognize those names today? John P. Saylor? Gaylord Nelson? Is this another trick question by Jay Leno?

Thus Michael’s frustration remains. Careless assertions about use and enjoyment continue to haunt the parks. Inevitably, development, i.e., the playground mentality, wins out over preservation, and worse, is then justified to a confused and gullible public as what preservation has always meant.

Fired

Well into his sixties, Michael launched a second career, that as an instructor of environmental journalism. Over the years, his appointments would include Northland College, the University of Vermont, the University of Idaho, and the Huxley College of Environmental Studies at Western Washington University.

In part, he was remaining positive after losing his columns at American Forests and Field & Stream. With the growing timidity of the environmental movement, each had suddenly found Michael Frome too extreme.

“Imagine! Field & Stream is no longer carrying Michael Frome,” mother told me on hearing the news. “He was the only reason I bought it. I am not a sportsman, and never will be.”

She immediately dropped it, as she did American Forests. When last she mentioned American Forests, it was to inform me she had ceremonially burned her final copy in her living room stove.

For Michael, it was another case of which side is right. The national forests are the peoples’ woods, he had noted, adding another book, Whose Woods These Are. The timber industry is but one constituent. Yes, logging is important—and legitimate—but so is the protection of wilderness, wildlife, watersheds, and forest soils.

It just did not sit well with American Forests, then defending clear-cutting on the public lands. No less revealing, Michael found it difficult teaching environmental ethics at the university level, even when hired by a forestry school.

“Alfred, universities are just as messed up as the National Park Service or the Forest Service,” he concluded. And with that observation, we became even closer friends.

To be sure, he was there in June 1984 when Christine and I were married. Yes, mother never stopped talking about it the rest of her life.

Gradually, Michael made his final transition from Washington, D.C., to the “other” Washington, settling in Bellingham to enjoy a multiple-year appointment at Huxley College. Whenever he came to Seattle, he generally stayed with Christine and me.

On one visit, he asked what I thought about his getting a Ph.D. “Go for it,” I suggested. “I would personally delight in seeing your critics have to call you Dr. Frome!”

He earned the degree in record time, then in another milestone married June Eastvold Nilssen, the retiring minister at University Lutheran Church in Seattle. Although a second marriage for both, they eagerly looked ahead, choosing New Year’s Eve, 1994, as their wedding date.

Michael Frome's latest book reminds us of the battle over public lands, wilderness, and national parks.

The Best is Yet to Come

Summing up anyone’s life is difficult, especially when the subject of that life is your friend. Michael continues to sum it up by looking ahead. “The best is yet to come,” he still avows.

If anything, he has been consistent, both in his writing and personal life. He prefers smaller cars; he has always lived in a modest home. In 1963, he took just two children down to the depot.

He will stay in a park lodge or take a cruise. He realizes that air travel has opened up the world. However, well into his seventies he still preferred to rough it, having walked, backpacked, canoed, and rafted into every corner of the American wilderness.

If any wilderness may be said to be his favorite, it is probably Great Smoky Mountains National Park. As was true of his article “Ten Lovely Train Rides,” his writings about the Smokies have proved inspirational.

Certainly, his book Strangers in High Places: The Story of the Great Smoky Mountains, has touched its readers deeply, and remains a best-seller throughout the park itself. Sometimes, a piece of writing just seems to jell. At least for me, Rediscovering National Parks in the Spirit of John Muir is another one that jelled, if now only because I fear again that he is right.

In December 2014, celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary, Michael and June returned to Seattle, having earlier moved to Wisconsin to be nearer children and grandchildren. Typically, he insisted the two of us do something special, asking that we honor Carsten Lien. We should go to the coffee shop in my neighborhood where the three of us had frequently met, he decided.

Coffee in hand, Michael reminisced. “You know, Alfred, Carsty was one of the greats. He always told it like it was. No wonder they have never sold his book in Olympic National Park. They would have to admit they logged the place.”

“They’re not likely to sell your new book, either,” I reminded him, “nor to my knowledge have they ever sold one of mine.” At that point he smiled from ear to ear. “I’ve always known I’m in good company. Now, let’s drink a toast to Carsten Lien.”

Few readers see that side of Michael, but his friends are always there. Never did he make a friend he didn’t keep and cherish, especially when both had a wilderness cause to share.

If he is right—and the best is yet to come—we the American people, as represented by the National Park Service, need to reject every notion we got wilderness wrong. If anything, the only thing we have gotten wrong is not to believe harder in our achievement.

Civilization can make beautiful things. I met Michael reading about trains, after all. His point—and the point of history—is that no civilization can make a wilderness. Avoiding the emptiness of a continent without wilderness, we need to be sure of what we change.

Abandoning our trains, we destroyed our landscape. Abandoning wilderness, we destroy our parks. How do we keep our tomorrows whole? First by remembering that tomorrow is already here. 

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Comments

Thank you, Dr. Runte.  I'll be asking our library to buy some copies.

We need more people like Michael Frome today and will need more tomorrow.  I hope all park bookstores will soon have this book on their shelves.

And, by the way, I just started reading your book, Allies of the Earth.


Dittos Lee on Dr. Runte's post. A very enjoyable read. 


Was back in Dirty Coal Country at West Virginia University when I was promoting Frome's NEW national forest book,

Whose Woods These Are to Jim Fazio and years later while at the University of Idaho, Fazio

invited Michael to be part of the "Green Journalism" rage.  Where does the Time Go ?

We have been amused by some in the newer national park word wars like 50 years ago pre Redwood NP, when Michael

was labeled "the Timid Critic of the NPS' as a gentle soul expecting the NPS Bureaucracy to

underwrite Frome's travel to conferences.  Not many of the NPS SUPERINTENDENT LEGACY "TYRANTS"

enjoyed Frome's stories especially those whose ethic was "God made Trees to be Cut Down"

REREAD Frome's Re-Greening of the National Parks, especially the Chapter on Bill Briggle's

Treatment of his wildlife biologist and family.


Just a quick point, since i've spent more than enough time in both the wilderness of the Tetons and the Smokies.  

The author writes "In the parks, they are asked to say good-bye to wilderness, even as the Park Service claims it is not good-bye. In Jackson Hole, it starts with the assurance that the front country is a lesser wilderness. The Tetons are what people come to see."

If the author were to venture beyond the frontcountry of Jenny Lake, and take the paintbrush divide trail, he would surely encounter a very wild wilderness beyond the pavement, most of it is designated wilderness.  In fact, north of the paintbrush divide trail is a very rugged wilderness area that few tourists venture into.  This area remains mostly trailless from the crest of paintbrush divide and then north to Moose Creek.  Granted, a few climber trails can be found scattered throughout some of the canyons from the lakes.  It is the definition of true wild rocky mountain wilderness and remains today, what one would have encountered thousands of years ago (although the glaciers in the area have been melting at a rapid rate recently, so the area would look more barren).  It is definitely what some would refer to as impenetratable wilderness.  If you start on the western side of the park in the Targhee National Forest at Grand Targhee, you can venture north along a few trails in the jebediah smith wilderness and it will take you north into the lake of the wood region, and then enter the Bechler region of Yellowstone.  Here one could continue to hike up into the Gallatin mountain range that skirts into southwestern Montana.  Not only will you encounter few hardy people, but it is also rugged beautiful wilderness.  Only one major road, and one small dirt road intersects about 100 miles of this very primitive area from Grand Targhee up to Gardiner Montana.  

As for the smokies, a lot of trail-less and very rugged wilderness can be found in the park, and much of it is preserved thanks to the efforts of many many people that fought the idea of building another road through the park.  I believe the National Park has done an excellent job in leaving these areas as primitive examples of some of the wildest american wilderness zones left in the United States. I think the term "popcorn playground" especially if you get off the main road is a little off the mark and would be considered a very subjective view.  I wouldn't say that actually, because this ecosystem remains one of the most biologically diverse regions in the entire United States.  This wild and primitive region also remains one of the best black bear sanctuaries in the country.


It is great to learn that Michael Frome is still active and writing.  I believe the National Parks are better places today because of his eloquent writing in the '60's and 70's.  As noted, he was a leader in stopping the proposed Disney development in Mineral King, which at the time was part of Sequoia National Forest.  Mineral King could have ended up as a massive ski area, of which there are plenty, but today it is an exceptional remote trailhead and recreation area within the boundaries of Sequoia National Park.  I think that Frome's magazine articles, more than anything else, inspired me to begin a career as a Ranger.


Dear Ethical Retired,

Thank you! I will be sure to pass your comment on to Michael. He remains my inspiration, too. And yes, he is again working to finish another book.

Sincerely,

Al


Michael brought to Light the Resource Issues and The Biologist former Supt. Bill Briggle Disrespected at Glacier NP in a special chapter Of Regreening of the National Parks:

William J. (Bill) Briggle passed away on August 13, 2017 in Vancouver, Washington. Bill began his National Park Service career working seasonally at Sequoia and Kings Canyon in 1947. His final assignment was at Mount Rainier National Park where he retired as superintendent in 1999.In his over 50 year career Bill's assignments were many and varied. He held supervisory park ranger positions at Theodore Roosevelt, Yellowstone and Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks. In 1961 he became a recreation planner in the southeast regional office then transferred to Washington, DC to work with the new Bureau of Outdoor Recreation. Bill became a protege of Director George Hartzog and served as his special assistant. In 1965 he returned to the field as assistant superintendent at Lake Mead. Throughout his career he was superintendent of four parks: Glen Canyon, Lake Mead, Glacier and Mount Rainier (twice).In 1976, Director Everhardt recruited him to be Deputy Director of the NPS. Bill also served for many years as the deputy regional director, and acting regional director in Seattle. In addition to his regular work assignments Bill was tapped to head several important efforts. He served as director of the National Parks Centennial, marking the 100th anniversary of the founding of Yellowstone. In 1991 Bill was the Steering Committee Chair of the Vail Symposium which commemorated the National Park Service's 75th Anniversary. Donations in Bill's memory may be made to the Coalition to Protect America's National Parks. He was a longstanding member. https://protectnps.org/donate


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