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The Birth of the National Park Service [1914-1916]

1914 - 1916:
Stephen T. Mather
Mather leads the charge:

After Hetch Hetchy, the campaign for an oversight agency for national parks was underway, led by a wealthy Chicago businessman named Stephen Mather. In 1914, Mather, an avid outdoorsman, wrote a letter to Secretary of the Interior Franklin Lane in which he complained about the management of national parks. Lane wrote back, "If you don't like the way things are run, come to Washington and run them yourself." Mather accepted the challenge and, as special assistant to Lane, began building support for the creation of a national parks bureau.

Photo: Stephen T. Mather

NPS Director Horace M. Albright, 1933
Enter Horace Albright:

Once in Washington, Mather met another man equally passionate about the fate of the national parks, Horace Albright. They worked together to promote the parks, attract more tourists, and secure the government support necessary to improve the parks and properly maintain them in the future. They appealed to the powerful railroads that hoped to capitalize on the parks' tourist potential. They also found allies in nature groups like the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society. Their effective public relations campaign reminded political and civic leaders of the parks' magnificence and stressed their potential economic value as tourist attractions.

Photo: NPS Director Horace M. Albright, 1933

Tourists at Yellowstone National Park, 1916
The signing of the Organic Act:

On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the National Park Service Organic Act.

The act, which established the NPS, created a unified system of management for the parks. It also offered a philosophy for the new agency. On the one hand, it must "conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein." On the other hand, it was 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." These statements were composed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., a conservationist and renowned landscape architect who helped plan the development of the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Photo: Tourists at Yellowstone National Park, 1916

An African-American man drinks from a segregated drinking fountain
Culture and the political climate:

Though the Progressive Era was noted for a variety of social reforms (direct election of senators, sanitation, conservation, women’s suffrage), minority civil rights were not among the issues that were effectively addressed. The federal government remained segregated, professional sports such as baseball did not allow African-American players, and restrictions on voting (particularly in the south) prevented African Americans from fully participating in society. It was not until the 1960s that civil rights issues for minorities garnered national attention.

Photo: An African-American man drinks from a segregated drinking fountain



'Reflection' icon

What if there were no National Parks?
The National Park Service is just one of many federal land management agencies – each with its own mandate and set of land use priorities.