ON A BRIGHT autumn afternoon, there's no more delightful place in this country than the Skyline Drive. It opened 50 years ago today, with a ceremonial procession of 1,300 cars chugging down the first section of it, from the Panorama intersection to the Crescent Rock Overlook. Last Sunday, there were 28,990 cars on the drive. It, and the Shenandoah National Park that it traverses, are among the great and treasured public resources of this region.

The park itself was established in 1926, under legislation in which Congress declared that no federal funds were to be spent for the land. The money was to be raised from private contributions. But with the arrival of the Depression, private contributions became exceedingly scarce. In the end, it was the state of Virginia that provided most of the purchase money. Harry Flood Byrd -- the father of the present senator -- was governor, and he had a strong attachment to the Blue Ridge. He had spent his honeymoon in a cottage at the present Skyland, built by his own father, and he was determined to see the whole mountain preserved in public trust.

The construction of the Skyline Drive began under the Hoover administration, with federal drought relief funds. President Hoover, incidentally, had a rural retreat under the eastern side of the mountain. The farmers who then lived on those slopes were poor in the best of times, and by 1931, between the Depression and a severe drought, they were in desperate circumstances. Federal money couldn't make it rain, but it could put them to work building the new road and get them through the winter. For some, it meant survival all through the decade. The Skyline Drive was completed to its full length, from Front Royal to Rockfish Gap, in 1939.

As you drive that magnificent road -- or walk the Appalachian Trail, its close companion for the length of the park -- you might reflect that it was created by deeply conservative men. That generation -- unlike, apparently, the present one -- saw the connection between conservatism and conservation.

Men of wealth and power, with their own refuges on the mountain, were moved to turn it into a great park to be held open to anyone who might wish to come. They upheld a sense of the public good, in respect to open land and natural resources, that has nothing in common with the coarse rule of smash and grab that is currently traveling around the country disguised as conservatism. The present national administration says that the country does not have enough money to expand its parks for its growing population, or to protect the full length of the Appalachian Trail. How much money did Virginia have in 1930? Skyli