Tuesday, August 25, 2015

National Park Service: America's Best Idea Turns 99

National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.
                                                                                                        Wallace Stegner

The National Park Service celebrates its 99th birthday today. It's an important day in our household.  My wife and I devoted over 55 years of combined employment toward achieving its noble mission so vividly stated in the enabling legislation of 1916:

"....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."

Seeking a working balance between preservation and use was often a serious challenge but overall the work was extraordinarily satisfying. Even after several years of retirement our blood still runs green with the memories of working in eight sites and one regional office in eight states.

The journey from an idea to a resource management agency charged with overseeing more than 400 sites has been complex.  Here is part of the chapter, "Early Growth and Administration," taken from a Department of the Interior publication, A Brief History of the National Park Service (1940). It describes the national park movement leading up to the formation of the NPS.

The United States had a system of national parks for many years before it had a National Park Service. Even before establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 as "a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people," the Government had shown some interest in public ownership of lands valuable from a social use standpoint. An act of Congress in 1852 established the Hot Springs Reservation in Arkansas (which became a national park in 1921), although this area was set aside not for park purposes, but because of the medicinal qualities believed to be possessed by its waters. It was not until 1890 that action was taken to create more national parks. That year saw establishment of Yosemite, General Grant, and Sequoia National Parks in California, and nine years later Mount Rainier National Park was set aside in Washington.
Soon after the turn of the century the chain of national parks grew larger. Most important since the Yellowstone legislation was an act of Congress approved June 8, 1906, known as the Antiquities Act, which gave the President authority "to declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States to be national monuments."
In these early days the growing system of national parks and monuments was administered under no particular organization. National parks were administered by the Secretary of the Interior, but patrolled by soldiers detailed by the Secretary of War much in the manner of forts and garrisons. This, of course, was quite necessary, in the early days, for the protection of areas situated in the "wild and woolly" West. it is a fact that in this era highwaymen held up coaches and robbed visitors to Yellowstone National Park, and poachers operated within the park boundaries. The national monuments were administered in various ways. Under the Act of 1906 monuments of military significance were turned over to the Secretary of War, those within or adjacent to national forests were placed under the Department of Agriculture, and the rest—and greater number—were under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior. Chickamauga-Chattanooga National Military Park, established in 1890 as the first Federal area of its type, was administered by the War Department.
Under this disjointed method of operation, national parks and monuments continued to be added to the list until 1915 when its very deficiencies exposed the plan as unsatisfactory and inefficient. The various authorities in charge of the areas began to see the need for systematic administration which would provide for the adoption of definite policies and make possible proper and adequate planning, development, protection, and conservation in the public interest.

Within two years, Secretary of the Interior, Franklin Lane, had secured the help of the philanthropist, Stephen Tyng Mather, to develop a management system to propose to Congress. Mather did so promptly and by 1917 it had been established and officially organized.

For more information, NPS Historians, Barry Mackintosh and Janet McDonnell, have written an excellent brief history documenting the agency to 2005. Their work, The National Parks: Shaping the System, is available online here.

The former directors of the National Park Service have left us some candid, and in some cases historic, commentary on managing the preservation-use dichotomy referred to above. I highly recommend their books, along with a biography of Stephen Tyng Mather, if readers are so inclined:

Albright, Horace M. (as told to Robert Cahn). The Birth of the National Park Service. Salt Lake City: Howe Brothers, 1985.

Albright, Horace M, and Marian Albright Schenck. Creating the National Park Service: The Missing Years. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.

Hartzog, George B. Jr; Battling for the National Parks; Moyer Bell Limited; Mt. Kisco, New York; 1988

Ridenour, James M. The National Parks Compromised: Pork Barrel Politics and America's Treasures. Merrillville, IN: ICS Books, 1994.

Wirth, Conrad L. Parks, Politics, and the People. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980.

Shankland, Robert; Steve Mather of the National Parks; Alfred A. Knopf, New York; 1970

Here's wishing the National Park Service a happy birthday. So that friends of the NPS can join in the celebration entrance fees will be waived tomorrow at all 400+ sites. Go enjoy a park in your neighborhood!



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