45 C. Function of U.S. Commissioner

Crater Lake National Park: Administrative History by Harlan D. Unrau and Stephen Mark, 1987


Print this page




CHAPTER TEN: Administration Of Crater Lake National Park: 1916-Present


<< Previous | Table of Contents | Next >>


On November 21, 1916, three months after enactment of 39 Stat. 521 established the position of U.S. Commissioner at Crater Lake, Judge Charles E. Wolverton of the U.S. District Court appointed William G. Steel to that position. Steel resigned as park superintendent on November 20 to assume his new duties. In this position Steel had authority to handle misdemeanor cases in the park. [27]

The position of U.S. Commissioner in the park apparently had few duties and responsibilities. In 1921, for instance, Superintendent Sparrow reported that during the year one man was brought before Steel “for rolling rocks inside the rim of the lake.” After a brief hearing the man was “reprimanded and escorted out of the park.” [28]

In February 1921 the Department of Justice informed the U.S. District Court for Oregon that Steel’s term had expired on November 20, 1920. While it is likely that officials of the new administration of Warren G. Harding were interested in naming their own man to the position, the department based its decision to terminate Steel on the premise that his appointment was limited to the same four-year term as other United States Commissioners as provided in an Act of Congress on May 28, 1896. In response the U.S. District Court for Oregon argued that the position of Crater Lake National Park commissioner was different from that of United States Commissioners as provided in the 1896 act and was thus a new office. The 1916 act (39 Stat. 521) contained no language for a fixed term, and thus the court argued that Steel’s position was “a continuing appointment.” After accepting the court’s arguments, the Department of Justice recommended that Steel be reappointed on a continuing basis retroactive to November 20, 1920, and that his authority and acts also be declared retroactive to that date. The reappointment process was ordered by Judge R.S. Bean on March 7, 1921.[29]

After his formal reappointment Steel continued to serve as U.S. Commissioner in the park until his death in October 1934. Park records indicated that he handled few cases during those years. In 1927, for instance, Superintendent Thomson reported that there were no automobile accidents and not a single arrest in the park. [30] Various records show that no cases were brought to the attention of Steel in 1929, 1930, and 1932. [31]

After the death of Steel in 1934, his daughter Jean Gladstone Steel was appointed park commissioner. She would remain in that position until the early 1940s. [32]

During the 1940s the U.S. Commissioner’s position at Crater Lake became a matter of controversy between the Department of Justice and the National Park Service. The position was vacated during the war when the Department of Justice asked for the commissioner’s resignation as an economy measure due to the reduction in park visitation and restricted park operations. After the war U.S. District Court Judge James A. Fee refused to appoint a new commissioner. His refusal affected Park Service law enforcement and irritated Superintendent Leavitt. In June 1947 Leavitt reported on the need for a U.S. Commissioner:

. . . it was found that we had an entirely different class of visitors to the park last year, people who had little or no appreciation of what the parks represented or what they stood for, so that there was a wanton disregard of the park rules and regulations and they did not take kindly to requests to obey these rules and regulations when they were called to their attention. We needed a U.S. Commissioner in the park last year as we have never needed one before, and there is every reason to believe that this need will continue in future years. . . .

For a year the National Park Service has been urging the Department of Justice to appoint a U.S. Commissioner for the park. The appointment, which is in the hands of Judge James Alger Fee of Portland, has been held up. Judge Fee has insisted that the Commissioner selected should be a law-trained man. It has not been practicable to secure a law-trained man who would be willing to “bury” himself in the park where his jurisdictional duties would be very light and where he would be too far away from a city to conduct a law practice on the side. If he remains in the city, he would be too far away from the park to satisfactorily handle the duties of his position there. The Superintendent has urged that a person without law training be appointed to the position, experience in the past indicating that such a person can handle that position satisfactorily.

When Congress passed a new judicial code on June 16, 1948, the legislation vested in the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon discretionary authority to appoint a U.S. Commissioner for Crater Lake. Since the section dealing with Crater Lake was phrased in permissive language, Judge Fee continued to refuse to appoint a commissioner. He based his refusal on the ground that Congress had granted to the park commissioners authority that was unconstitutional:

In the first place, it puts a judicial official under the control of the Secretary of the Interior as to residence. In the second place, it requires that the commissioner, if appointed, be vested with the powers to try what are euphemistically called minor offenses on government reservations. In the third place, I believe that the section is unconstitutional because of the fact that there is an attempt to confer upon a commissioner so appointed power to forfeit property. This power can only be conferred upon a United States District Judge. [33]

Since nothing could be done to force Fee to appoint a commissioner, Secretary of the Interior Oscar L. Chapman took the matter to the Judicial Council for the Ninth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals of which Chief Judge William Denman was the head. Writing on February 8, 1949, Chapman detailed the reasons why it was important to have a U.S. Commissioner at Crater Lake:

The basic need for a special commissioner for Crater Lake National Park arises from the fact that the United States has exclusive jurisdiction over the Park. This situation, coupled with the fact that we are now getting approximately a third of a million visitors to the Park annually, results in a great many law-enforcement problems dealing chiefly with violations of Park laws and regulations. A commissioner residing in or near the Park, who can handle these cases promptly and efficiently, is urgently needed. The lack of a special commissioner necessitates considerable travel to distant points away from the Park since it is necessary to take arrested persons before the United States Commissioner in Klamath Falls, Oregon. Such Commissioner, if there is sufficient evidence, bonds the person over for trial by the Federal District Court in Portland, Oregon. This procedure results in an increase in expenses and a loss of time on the part of personnel. Administrative difficulties in connection with Park administration are multiplied. An excessive loss of time for persons who are charged with violations of Park laws and regulations also results from the lack of a commissioner. In many cases the persons charged with violations must return to their work or engagements on the day following their arrest. This becomes almost impossible when there is no Park commissioner available to handle their cases promptly. The situation is complicated further because there is no jail in the Park. As a result, the rangers must spend considerable additional periods of time with arrested persons, which time is urgently needed elsewhere in the administration of the Park. [34]

The issue of a resident commissioner at Crater Lake became embroiled in the general debate over the need for commissioners in numerous other parks. Accordingly, the National Park Service was requested to provide data to justify the need for such persons in fourteen national parks. On April 20, 1949, Superintendent Leavitt submitted information and recommendations concerning the necessity of having a commissioner at Crater Lake. The data emphasized the need for a part-time park commissioner. During the period 1946-49 Leavitt noted that:

. . . there were many cases of misdemeanors in the park that could have and should have been taken before the United States Commissioner for hearing, but could not be handled because of our lack of a commissioner.

Only the most flagrant cases were handled by taking them before the nearest United States Commissioner, who is Burt Thomas of Klamath Falls. Under present regulations, he is authorized to hold only a preliminary hearing and fix bail by remanding them to the Federal District Court in Portland, Oregon.

During the year 1947 there were two cases of theft, and during 1948, one case of dumping garbage within the park and one case of drunkenness and disorderly conduct.

I have no suggestion to make concerning additional powers and functions that might be granted to a commissioner, and only one comment to make. Because of the nature of his duties in most parks and he would not be regularly and continuously employed, he would be happier if he could be authorized or permitted to assist in the park work, in such duties as would not be incompatible with his duties as park commissioner. I refer to such duties as giving information to park visitors, serving as librarian, helping to entertain official, distinguished, or important visitors by serving as guide to points of interest in the park, and other duties of a similar nature. There is frequent need for someone to perform these duties and often times there is not the necessary personnel available who can be spared from regular work. [35]

As a result of these recommendations, a park commissioner was finally appointed. Documentary evidence, however, indicates that the position continued to decline in importance and in some cases may have been a hindrance to park law enforcement. In 1967, for instance, Chief Park Ranger Larry L. Hakal wrote:

The inavailability of the commissioner hinders law enforcement action. Many cases are dropped after a severe warning rather than take the time to contact the Commissioner. Only the worst cases are brought to court. And usually this follows some what of a delay in contacting him. Then when court time is set either he comes to the Park or the Ranger must take his case and violator to Medford.

The commissioner is Mr. Frank Van Dyke with his office located in Medford. Mr. Van Dyke is a very busy person. He is a partner of a law firm, and president of the Medford Chamber of Commerce. In court he goes all out to see that the violator knows his rights. This may take a good half hour. He usually holds himself neutral but will give advice on tough legal matters. Some times he asks what we would like for punishment following a conviction. This we should never do as this is his and only his decision. His fines are light unless the offense is major. Traffic offenses usually will have half of the fine suspended. [36]