National Park Service Centennial: 100 Years of America’s Greatest Idea

Today, America’s National Park Service turns 100.  One century of preservation of this country’s natural and historical beauty, one century of activists legacies of protecting some of the gems of the wilderness from ourselves.

This epic of preservationists, conservationists versus corporate interests goes back farther than the establishment of Yellowstone National Park.  I can’t pinpoint an exact date, but I can say that has always been an ongoing battle.

In 1872, either way, the Yellowstone Park Act became effective.  But for 46 years, it was loosely protected by the Secretary of the Interior, with no sub-department to specialize.  The park infrastructure was crumbling (the majestic sequoias and lovely Yosemite meadows were at risk), and self-made, nature-enthusiast businessman Stephen T. Mather was livid. He sent off a letter to an old schoolmate who had become the Secretary of the Interior (Franklin K. Lane).  Lane’s brusque reply was somewhere along the lines of, “Well, if you’re so upset, why don’t you come down and run it yourself?”.  Mather decided that Lane was right.  If you want something done well, do it yourself.   On August 25, 1916, the National Park service was established.

Zoom forward 5 months, and following Mather’s sudden descent into depression (which only the wilderness ever cured) his young assistant, Horace Albright, quietly filled the position temporarily, and agreed with Lane to keep undisclosed Mather’s condition while he received treatment.

Tragically, though, one battle fought between San Francisco for water rights and conservationists for the fate of the Hetch Hetchy valley (often called Yosemite’s twin valley) was lost.  In 1919, construction of the O’Shaughnessy Dam began.

In 1929, after Mather suffered from a stroke and died at age 63, Albright took the reins.  (Historical note: FDR established the CCC during the Great Depression- Albright’s administration as part of the New Deal.  The CCC was a work relief program that gave young men work improving parks of all types, NPS-run, or state-run.)  With the beginning of WWI, Western interests jumped at the opportunity of exploiting protected lands for lumber, hunting, and livestock grazing.  However, when Lane directed Albright to allow 50,000 sheep to graze in Yosemite Valley, he threatened him with his own resignation, Lane conceded his defeat on that issue.  Arno Cammerer took over in ’33.  Newton Drury replaced him in ’40.  During WWII, visitation levels dropped.

In 1950, visitation levels hit record levels for the time, at 32 million people per year.  Arthur Demaray took office briefly, for 8 months.  Conrad Wirth held the post, and during his administration, Eisenhower authorized the Interstate Highway System, which as a byproduct made transportation to the National Parks easier to the public.  Visitation rates began ascending faster in the years to come.  More and more people, Americans or not, got to enjoy the pristine wilderness of many of the parks.  And that’s how it still is today.

That’s a gift that has been passed down to us.  It’s a thing gone right in a world where things have gone wrong, beauty in the midst of ugliness.  Let’s all take care of it for our children and our children’s children, and our children’s children’s children, so they can have a moment of peace too.

Ohhhhh…so that’s what stewardship means.

It’s an amazing world of science out there…let’s go exploring!

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P.S.:  The parks are out there for everyone to share, no matter where you come from.  If you haven’t already, go out there and #findyourpark!

Historical note: FDR established the CCC during the Great Depression- Albright’s administration as part of the New Deal. The CCC was a work relief program that gave young men work improving parks of all types, NPS-run, or state-run.  Also, railroads counterintuitively were one of the biggest supporters of the first national parks.  They needed tourist destinations (not coal)  and the National Parks were the perfect “Wonderland”-like locales that satiated the thirsts of wanderers worldwide.

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Sources:

nps.gov (previously linked to within article)

youtube.com (previously linked to within article)

pbs.org

wikipedia.org