Table of Contents



Biographical Vignettes

Recommendations for
Further Reading

Parks and People

Evolution of a National Park Concept

Wildiands Designated...But Vulnerable

Creating a Service to Manage the System

Expanding the Scope

Revising the Mission

Rehabilitation and Expansion

Partners and Alliances

National Park Service: The First 75 Years
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"The idea of a national park service strikes me favorably. If the railroads were conducted in the same manner as the national parks, no man would be brave enough to ride from Washington to Baltimore."

Franklin Lane, 1913

Secretary of the Interior Lane may have somewhat overstated the case for creating a new bureau to give organizational cohesiveness to the national parks — but not by much. With only a few exceptions, park resources, visitors, and employees were mutually in harm's way — each a threat to the other. Though 37 national parks and monuments were extant before the Organic Act was passed on August 25, 1916, the collection could hardly be called a "national park system."

Citizens with very special courage, skill, and foresight had created most of the parks and monuments of 1916. Keeping them intact and preserving their collective integrity demanded the same brand of courage and foresight, but required fundamentally different skills.

Pioneering is an act of courage, whether driven by desperation, opportunism or altruism. And joining "the Mather Team" to create a new arm of the bureaucracy was certainly an act of courage. The sociopolitical climate of 1916 hardly seemed stable and fertile for such an effort. People — politicians in particular — had other things on their minds.

  • March 1916, five months before passage of the Organic Act, Pancho Villa invaded the United States after murdering seventeen Americans living in Mexico.

  • April 1916, four months before passage of the Organic Act, British troops crushed the "Easter Rising" rebellion, executing numerous Irish Republican leaders.

  • July 1916, one month before passage of the Organic Act, the World War I Battle of Somme, France, saw the successful use of armored tanks against German troops; but the "winning" French and British lost 600,000 men in the process.

  • By the end of 1916, production records showed that 1,525,578 automobiles were sold during the year, bringing the total sales since production began in the United States around 1900 to 4,508,963!

Furthermore, pioneers in other fields were experimenting with new ideas.

  • In sports, the first Rose Bowl game was played (Washington State beat Brown University, 14-0).

  • Art of the period — modernism, surrealism, cubism, and abstractionism — saw architects, painters, and sculptors exploring new forms and defying classical parameters of realism.

  • Literary changes were underway, too. Jack London died in 1916. His achieving successors that year included James Joyce, Edna Ferber, and Carl Sandburg.

The year 1916, it seems, was indeed a time when courage found many manifestations and, arguably, ignited others.

Few of the Service's "founding fathers" were skilled in working within the framework of a federal bureaucracy. Certainly Mather, Albright, McFarland, Marshall, Yard, and many others brought specific capabilities to their crusade, not the least of which was an ability to marshall support from those who did understand the political and legislative system. The skills of leveraging, persuading, cajoling, entertaining, and even intimidating were all brought into play for the benefit of the National Park Service Act and for the parks themselves. Often these skills were deployed with finesse; other times they were carried out clumsily. Learning how and when to use the skills of persuasion were often acts of sheer temerity, and with experience became matters of judgement.

Foresight is an elusive quality to document. Certainly the men and women who built the National Park Service were fueled by a vision of a park system that could be created by their industry, energy, and personal commitment. But the magnitude of difference between what was in 1916 and what is in 1991 is astounding. This author asked historian Mary Shivers (Marcy) Culpin if Albright, whom she knew and studied, and Mather could have imagined, in 1916, the enormity of what might be preserved in 1991. Marcy confidently affirmed that they did! Such foresight has been — and will continue to be — a key ingredient for all periods of significant growth in the Service.

This book was not conceived and is not meant to be a complete history nor a comprehensive chronicle of important dates, events, and people of the National Park Service. It is, at best, a primer about the rich and colorful evolution of the Service, the organization that safeguards the system, which some have boldly claimed is "the best idea America has ever had."

The personages highlighted in this book are representatives selected somewhat arbitrarily from the history of the Service. They are not, collectively, a "who's who" of the organization. They are examples of the caliber of individuals who significantly contributed to the integrity of the National Park Service. Their accomplishments and their lifestyles describe, in Aristotelian fashion, the "culture" of the National Park Service. That culture is alive, and these are not obituaries. Role models have always been an integral part of the National Park Service culture. They are more vital now than ever.

At twenty-seven, only one year after the Service was created, Horace Albright stepped into the shoes of leadership, becoming acting director during the one-year absence of a physically and emotionally exhausted Stephen Mather. In his report to the secretary of interior that year, Albright observed, prophetically:

"We stand now in the light of a new order of things, but as we gaze back from the threshold of the future to the efforts of the past, accomplishments of large importance gather before us and we recognize in them tremendous influences that will wisely guide us in our onward and upward steps."

Bill Sontag
National Park Service
Lakewood, Colorado
October, 1990



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