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On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed a bill establishing the National Park Service (NPS) as an agency within the Department of the Interior. Traditionally known as Founder's Day, August 25 offers a chance to reflect on the impact of that signing by President Wilson, fully 98 years ago. On this special anniversary, national parks across America will welcome visitors to learn more about and gain a better understanding of the legacy entrusted in the care of this federal agency –the National Park Service.
A good starting point for understanding the significance of the NPS creation is a piece written by historian Barry Mackintosh in 1999. Mackintosh's full account, which summarizes the years from the early 1920s through the end of the 20th century, can be found at https://www.cr.nps.gov/history/hisnps/NPSHistory/briefhistory.htm. The following excerpted paragraphs from Mackintosh's treatise describe the movement to create a single nationwide park system, up through the signing of the Organic Act in 1916. Barry Mackintosh authored:
The national park concept is generally credited to the artist George Catlin. On a trip to the Dakotas in 1832, he worried about the impact of America's westward expansion on Indian civilization, wildlife, and wilderness. They might be preserved, he wrote, "by some great protecting policy of government... in a magnificent park.... A nation's park, containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their nature's beauty!"
Catlin's vision was partly realized in 1864, when Congress donated Yosemite Valley to California for preservation as a state park. Eight years later, in 1872, Congress reserved the spectacular Yellowstone country in the Wyoming and Montana territories "as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people," the world's first area so designated.
In 1906 Congress passed the Antiquities Act authorizing presidents to set aside "historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest" in federal custody as national monuments. Theodore Roosevelt used the act to proclaim 18 national monuments before he left the presidency. By 1916 the Interior Department was responsible for 14 national parks and 21 national monuments, but had no organization to manage them. Interior secretaries had asked the Army to detail troops to Yellowstone and the California parks for this purpose. There military engineers and cavalrymen developed park roads and buildings, enforced regulations against hunting, grazing, timber cutting, and vandalism, and did their best to serve the visiting public.
The parks were also vulnerable to competing interests, including some within the ascendant conservation movement. Utilitarian conservationists favoring regulated use rather than strict preservation of natural resources advocated the construction of dams by public authorities for water supply, power, and irrigation purposes. When San Francisco sought to dam Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy Valley for a reservoir after the turn of the century, utilitarian and preservationist wings of the conservation movement came to blows. Over the passionate opposition of John Muir and other park supporters, Congress in 1913 permitted the dam, which historian John Ise later called "the worst disaster ever to come to any national park."
Hetch Hetchy highlighted the institutional weakness of the park movement. Among those recognizing the problem was Stephen T. Mather, a wealthy and well-connected Chicago businessman. When Mather complained to Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane about the parks' mismanagement, Lane invited him to Washington as his assistant for park matters. Twenty-five-year-old Horace M. Albright became Mather's principal aide upon his arrival in 1915.
Crusading for a national parks bureau, Mather and Albright effectively blurred the distinction between utilitarian conservation and preservation by emphasizing the economic value of parks as tourist meccas. A vigorous public relations campaign led to supportive articles in National Geographic, The Saturday Evening Post, and other popular magazines. Mather hired his own publicist and obtained funds from 17 western railroads to produce The National Parks Portfolio, a lavishly illustrated publication sent to congressmen and other influential citizens.
Congress responded as desired, and on August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson approved legislation creating the National Park Service within the Interior Department. The act made the bureau responsible for Interior's national parks and monuments, and "such other national parks and reservations of like character as may be hereafter created by Congress."
In managing these areas, the Park Service was directed "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."
Secretary Lane named Mather the Park Service's first director and Albright assistant director. A policy letter Lane approved in 1918 elaborated on the bureau's dual mission of conserving park resources and providing for their enjoyment. While reemphasizing the primacy of preservation, it reflected Mather's and Albright's conviction that more visitors must be attracted and accommodated if the parks were to flourish. Automobiles, not permitted in Yellowstone until 1915, would be allowed throughout the system. Hotels would be provided by concessionaires. Museums, publications, and other educational activities were encouraged as well.
Please join us in celebrating 98 years of protecting our nation's treasures and providing a safe, enjoyable, and memorable experience for visitors from across the United States and around the world. Entrance fees will be waived on Monday, August 25 at Grand Teton National Park and birthday cake will be served at high noon at each of the park's visitor centers: Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve Center, Craig Thomas Discovery & Visitor Center, Jenny Lake and Colter Bay.
As an added bonus, the Grand Teton Association is offering 10% off all items sold at bookstores located in the park visitor centers on Monday, August 25th. And a traditional guitar sing-along and evening program will take place at 9:00 p.m. at the Colter Bay amphitheater. This free public program is titled, "For Future Generations: The story of America's National Parks."
To learn more about the 401 units in the National Park System, go to www.nps.gov.
Attached photo is online at https://www.nps.gov/features/yell/slidefile/history/1919_1945/employees/Page.htm.