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Creating a National Park Service - B&C Impact Series

By PJ Delhomme

In the early 1900s, national parks were under constant threat from private industry, which hoped to capitalize on those unique landscapes. Two charismatic members of the Boone and Crockett Club worked the halls of Congress to ensure management of those wonders fell to a new agency that would prioritize their protection. 

B&C Members Horace Albright (top), Stephen Mather (bottom) and Glacier National Park.

By 1916, the U.S. was home to more than a dozen national parks. Thanks to the efforts of early members of the Boone and Crockett Club like Theodore Roosevelt and George Bird Grinnell, places like Grand Canyon, Glacier, and Denali were set aside as public land. These places, though, were far from protected. Private special interests in mining, logging, and the railroad industry worked to exploit the potential resources inside designated parks. Standing in their way were Boone and Crockett members like Stephen Mather and Horace Albright, who fought for years to establish what we now call the National Park Service. Here’s how they pulled it off. 

The Need for an Agency 

When the Yellowstone Act passed in 1872, there was much to celebrate, but the act merely designated Yellowstone; it did nothing to protect the park. Other parks established before 1916 were under similar threat. For more than a decade, John Muir and the Sierra Club fought to prevent the construction of a dam inside Yosemite National Park. After years of debate, the dam won approval, and a reservoir buried the Hetch Hetchy Valley. 

Hetch Hetchy Valley before and after the dam was constructed within Yosemite National Park. 

Muir wasn’t the only person to notice issues within the parks. When Stephen Mather, the man who would become the National Park Service’s first director, visited Yosemite National Park, he found cattle grazing in the meadows. When his travels took him to Sequoia National Park, he found loggers eager to topple the giant sequoias. He was appalled at the dismal conditions of trails and facilities as well.

In the early 1900s, legislation gave lawmakers some power over these unique American landmarks. The Antiquities Act of 1906 was signed into law by Boone and Crockett founder and U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. At the time, the law’s purpose was to protect prehistoric cliff dwellings from plunder and looting by enterprising artifact hunters, which it still does. The act also gives the president the power to proclaim and set aside “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures and other objects of historic or scientific interest.” Roosevelt used it 18 times to establish national monuments like the Grand Canyon in 1908. 

Tourists looking at south rim of Grand Canyon from point of view named "Mather Point".

At the time, management of the national monuments fell to the agency that administered the land. In other words, a national monument located within a national forest would be managed by the U.S. Forest Service. “Over the years, several national parks and monuments were ‘carved’ from national forest land and often adjoined each other, as well as several established by donations of private land,” writes Gerald Williams in National Monuments and the Forest Service.

Vintage posters marketing the parks.

Taking land away from the U.S. Forest Service did not sit well with some, including fellow Boone and Crockett members Gifford Pinchot (first chief of the Forest Service) and Henry Graves (the second chief). “In 1911, the bills for a national park bureau had not gone anywhere because the parks had few friends in Congress,” writes Horace Albright in The Birth of a National Park Service. “Efforts to establish a National Park Service were opposed by the Forest Service, whose officials considered national parks a threat to the national forest domain, and blocked early attempts to pass Park Service legislation.” The resistance wouldn’t last long, as Walter Fisher replaced Pinchot. Fisher supported legislation to create a new agency to oversee the national parks. 

Mather’s Marketing Magic 

With Pinchot out of the way, the wealthy and passionate Stephen Mather worked his marketing magic to convince any holdouts of the need for a new agency. At his own expense, he orchestrated the Mather Mountain Party, which invited just about anyone who had influence and an interest in the outdoors on a camping trip. 

Attendee Gilbert S. Grosvenor, director of the National Geographic Society and editor of its magazine, devoted the entire April 1916 issue of National Geographic to the national parks. This helped put the plight of the national parks in the public eye, and lawmakers took notice. It also helped that Mather’s close personal friend was California Representative William Kent, who introduced HR 15522. While only two pages long, this legislation, known as the Organic Act of 1916, established the National Park Service (NPS) and placed all existing national parks and some monuments under its management. 

U.S. Congressman William Kent (left) and Stephen T. Mather in Redwoods National & State Parks. The plaque on the rock reads: This tree is Dedicated to Gifford Pinchot. Just under a mile, today visitors can walk the Kent-Mather Loop Trail.

It wasn’t until 1917 that Mather officially became the agency’s first director. And much like the creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872, the legislation establishing the NPS was simply a legislative formality. “It remained little more than a piece of paper for almost eight months, because it was April before Congress appropriated any funds at all to start the service,” writes Albright. “Until we could get an appropriation from Congress, there was no way we could actually organize the new Park Service, and we would have to continue to operate essentially as we had before.” 

Mather and Albright Build the Foundation 

With Mather at the helm and the loyal Albright at his side, the two men worked tirelessly to create an entire agency from the ground up. They had to hire staff and even jockey for office space, desks, and chairs within the Department of the Interior. Albright traveled to Yellowstone to manage the transition from army oversight to this new civilian agency. As things heated up in Europe, the army, Albright recounts, “had for several years been increasingly interested in being relieved of the responsibility of taking care of Yellowstone.” On the other hand, the Corps of Engineers wasn’t as willing to part with control of the bridges and road maintenance. 

As a team, Mather and Albright worked to expand the existing park system and defend the parks under their management. Mather dreamed of creating Redwoods National Park, and he toured the area with fellow Boone and Crockett member Madison Grant. On their tour, the men stopped at little towns along the way encouraging locals to support the idea of preserving the redwood groves, which wouldn’t happen until 1968. A drought from 1919-1920 fueled efforts by western lawmakers to proceed with not one but four water projects inside Yellowstone, including constructing dams on Yellowstone Lake. It was Hetch Hetchy again, but the dams never happened.

The men worked to build cohesion within the newly-formed ranks of rangers and to reiterate the nature of service to the public. Mather told his superintendents that the chief rangers of all the parks should get together to build morale and talk about ideas. In January 1926, the first conference of chief rangers was held in Sequoia National Park. And it wasn’t always about the boys, either. 

The first chief rangers conference was held in 1926 in Sequoia National Park.

One evening, Albright was walking through Mammoth Hotel in Yellowstone. He overheard Isobel Bassett, who was visiting with her parents, speak about Yellowstone's geysers and how they compared to geysers in New Zealand and Iceland. Albright invited her back the following summer and hired her as Yellowstone’s first female ranger. It also was the genesis of the interpretive ranger program, which is still in place today. 

Between 1920 and 1927, Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Horace M. Albright hired nine women as park rangers. Pictured abo ve is Isobel Basset, circa 1920.

By 1928, Mather’s love for the parks was no match for his severe bipolar disorder. His failing health caused him to retire in 1929. Albright left his post as superintendent at Yellowstone National Park to serve as the agency’s director. The marketing blitz under Albright’s leadership wasn’t as elaborate as his predecessor's. But what Albright’s personality lacked in outward flare, it more than made up for in political savvy. 

More Parks, More Battlefields 

By 1930, there were 23 national parks under NPS management. And by 1932, there were 57 proposals for national parks waiting for review and 68 proposals for national monuments. That wasn’t enough for a man like Albright. While serving as acting director in 1917 during one of Mather’s extended manic episodes, Albright publicly expressed his desire for the National Park Service to oversee military parks and battlefields as well. When he became director in 1929, he once again took up the cause. 

In April 1933, on an auto tour with President Franklin Roosevelt, Albright waited for the perfect moment to pitch the idea of transferring military parks from the War Department to the NPS. Albright chose an unassuming stretch of a backroad to point out to the president, a student of history, where the battle of Bull Run started. The president admitted he thought the battle started elsewhere, and Albright used the opportunity to pitch his idea of the NPS managing military parks and battlefields. 

Two months later, President Roosevelt signed an executive order, which reorganized the executive branch and government administrative agencies. Because of the order, 64 national monuments, military parks, battlefields, cemeteries, and memorials were placed under NPS management. This order added millions of acres to the National Park Service. 

In 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order transferring the management of national military memorials, cemeteries, and parks to the National Park Service. The order included sites like the one above at the Gettysburg National Cemetery, which is near the site where President Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. 

Today, the National Park Service includes 423 areas covering more than 85 million acres. That’s 10 million acres more than all of New Mexico. The largest area is Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, at 13.2 million acres. The smallest (0.02 acres) is the Pennsylvania home of Polish freedom fighter Thaddeus Kosciuszko, who served in the American Revolution. Also under NPS management are Theodore Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch in North Dakota, his home at Sagamore Hill on Long Island, and his birthplace at 28 E. 20th St. in Manhattan, New York. 

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"The wildlife and its habitat cannot speak. So we must and we will."

-Theodore Roosevelt