Revisiting America’s Best Idea: The History of the National Park Service

A Brief History of the NPS

Tom Warwick

This article is part of our ongoing “Revisiting America’s Best Idea” series. In this piece Tom Warwick provides a brief history of the National Parks Service. You can read the series’ introduction post here.

“I have always thought of our Service as an institution, more than any other bureau, engaged in a field essentially of morality–the aim of man to rise above himself, and to choose the option of quality rather than material superfluity.”

-Theodore Roosevelt

There is something uniquely American about the wilderness.  It greeted us when the first European settlers landed on America’s eastern shores; it fed us and was the source of our national wealth through timber and produce as those first settlers expanded up and down the east coast; it challenged us, resisted us, and fed us as we expanded west with our young nation; and, even in the modern digital world we’ve created, it continues to seduce us.  It seems only natural that we, as a society, would want to preserve and protect these natural treasures which are so integral to our culture and which, in the minds of many Americans, rival or even surpass Europe’s cathedrals and the Egypt’s pyramids. The National Parks Service, whom we have entrusted with this mission, has become so woven into American culture that is it hard to imagine the country without them. However, the road to the creation of the NPS was far from easy. At the time it was a truly revolutionary idea, with no precedent to rely on.  But through the dedication of naturalists, industrialists, presidents, and average citizens, “America’s Best Idea” became a reality.

The history of the National Parks Service really begins with naturalist John Muir. Muir was originally born in Scotland in 1838, but immigrated to the United States when he was eleven years old. Muir’s introduction to the natural wonders that he would one day advocate for started in an unconventional way, an industrial accident.  While working in a factory Muir was nearly blinded, the experience lead him to seek out a “world unaltered by man or machine” (NPS). He originally enrolled at the University of Wisconsin studying natural science, but soon dropped out to enroll in what he called the “University of Wilderness” (NPS). The pivotal moment for both Muir and the National Parks Service came in 1868 when Muir visited Yosemite for the first time. Overwhelmed by the natural wonder Yosemite, Muir began to put into words an elegant description of natural wonders throughout the American wilderness.. In an age before advanced photography or convenient travel, these essays helped to communicate the beauty of the future national parks to the entire nation. Through lines like “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings” and “Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine into trees,” people who would have never been able to travel to see the Valley in person were able to get a taste of what the land had to offer.  Muir’s words soon became part of the popular culture, and a new movement to preserve and protect America’s lands began.  Just a few years later in 1872, Congress would pass the Yellowstone National Park Act officially establishing the “world’s first true national park.”

If John Muir gave the movement to create a National Parks Service its voice, President Theodore Roosevelt gave the movement its legs.  President Roosevelt had a long personal history with the outdoors. While Roosevelt’s obsession with natural science can be traced back as far as his early boyhood, his first exposure to the land he would one day declare a national park came in 1883.  While he was still a member of the New York City Council, Teddy took a hunting trip to North Dakota.  The trip changed his life. The beauty of the country resonated with the still young man, prompting him to buy a ranch in the badlands and return there regularly to ride and hunt. After the death of his mother and first wife, Roosevelt would retreat to this same cabin to recollect himself and ease his pain.  After becoming President, coincidentally just as he was finishing his summit Mount Marcy, the tallest peak in the Adirondacks, Roosevelt would become an “even greater champion of conservation” (PBS).

The main tool through which Roosevelt would use in his efforts was the Antiquities Act. The Act, passed in 1906, authorized the President to “proclaim and preserve historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest on lands owned or controlled by the United States as ‘national monuments,’’ President Roosevelt would take this new power and run with it.  In the seven years he was in office he would “double the amount of national parks; create 18 national monuments, including the Grand Canyon; set aside 51 federal bird sanctuaries, four national game refuges, and more than 100 million acres’ worth of national forests” (PBS).  Roosevelt’s contributions to the park service were of such importance, that there are now more National Park Service units “dedicated to Roosevelt’s life and memory than any other American” (PBS).

While the Antiquities Act helped to establish these new parks and other nature reserves by empowering the President to designate protected lands, there was still no central organization to manage them.  This (lack of) management style led to commercial interests seeing an opportunity.  Soon railroads, sawmills, and industrialists began to exploit the resources, often unchecked, carelessly soiling the land and entirely defeating the purpose of the land’s “protection.”  Realizing what was happening, Stephen Mather, himself a millionaire industrialist, began to gather support for the creation of a central management organization.  Mather was born in California to a family with deep New England roots. He graduated from the University of California, Berkeley and then went to work as a sales manager for the Pacific Coast Borax Company.  Mather, who had a gift for promotion, helped to rebrand the product and as a result sales skyrocketed (PBS). He would go on to start his own company, and by the age of 47, become a millionaire several times over. While on a hike in Sequoia National Park, Mather was “disgusted by the poor condition of the parks;” when he complained to then Secretary of the Interior Franklin Lane, Lane invited him to Washington to “do something about it himself” (PBS). Mather did just that, coming to Washington as the Assistant Secretary in Charge of Parks.  In the position, Mather began “a crusade to mold a haphazard collection of national parks into a cohesive system and to create a federal agency solely devoted to them: the National Park Service” (PBS).

Taking on a staff that he paid out of his own pocket, Mather began a public relations and political lobbying campaign to build awareness for the parks.  Mather went as far as purchasing land himself and donating it to the National Park Service for protection (PBS). Eventually the coalition, made up of business leaders, newspaper editors, leading conservationists, and even schoolchildren, succeeded in its efforts.  On August 25, 1916 the modern National Park Service was created.  Mather was appointed by President Wilson as the first Director of the National Park Service and tasked him with the mandate of “protecting the parks for the enjoyment of future generations and promoting their use by all people.” One hundred years later, the National Parks System is still dedicated to preserving and protecting our National Parks. Today the park service employees over 20,000 people, oversees 413 units and 59 parks, and welcomes over 280 million visitors a year.
You can read the next post in this series here.

Works Cited:

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