When Yellowstone National Park was established by an Act of Congress in 1872, it set off a worldwide movement to protect earth’s greatest natural treasures. In the U.S., the Department of the Interior presided over that first park and the ones that came next. But at the urging of naturalists like John Muir (who founded the Sierra Club) and the enthusiasm of Teddy Roosevelt (who oversaw the designation of five new parks) support rose for a specific government agency that would oversee these resources. That goal was achieved on August 25, 1916, with the creation of the National Park Service (NPS).
Flash forward a century and the NPS now handles 400 parks, monuments, historic battlefields, and other sites spread across 84 million acres in all U.S. states and territories. Along the way, the success of the NPS has been made possible by an array of dedicated citizens of whom you might never have heard of.
7 National Park Champions from the First Hundred Years:
- Stephen Mather could have spent a life of leisure just enjoying the millions his family made from Borax. But as an early member of the Sierra Club he became convinced of the need to preserve parklands and advocated mightily for establishing the NPS. He was appointed the first Director of the NPS, and established the idea of providing basic services, encouraging nature studies, and having visitors report feedback.
- Charles Young was the son of former slaves and overcame barriers his entire life. He had the second highest score of any West Point applicant in 1883 and was only the third African-American to graduate. After twenty years in the military he was appointed Superintendent of Sequoia and General Grant National Parks, the first black man ever awarded such a position. His emphasis on road construction allowed visitors access to areas previously cut off, and it is said that in one year as Superintendent, he achieved more than the three administrations before him.
- Marguerite "Peg" Lindsley was the daughter of a Yellowstone National Park Superintendent and grew up devoted to the parks. Though guide jobs were almost entirely awarded to men, she applied for and won a position as a naturalist, and in 1925 became the first woman permanently employed by the NPS. She was well known by Yellowstone visitors, who recognized her easily atop her horse, Rex. When she died, she was lauded as “the breath of Yellowstone.”
- George Melendez Wright focused on nature early on, majoring in forestry in college and becoming a park naturalist in Yosemite in 1927. It was his idea that the NPS should be surveying the wildlife, the resources of the parks, and the way the parks were being used, to promote sustainability—and he offered to pay for the program himself to prove it was valuable. The program became the model for park stewardship and the NPS has continued the practice ever since.
- Marjory Stoneman Douglas was a champion of the Everglades, little known to most Americans until her 1947 book The Everglades: River of Grass. After the Everglades became a national park, she became its most public defender, taking on the Army Corps of Engineers when its construction programs threatened water patterns. She established Friends of the Everglades in 1970 and defeated several major attempts to divert Everglades waterways.
- Freeman Tilden was a novelist who got sick of writing about imagined things and turned his attention to the world around him. He wrote five books about our national parks, including the 1957 Interpreting Our Heritage, which contained the now-famous “six principles” for nature instruction that park service guides still use. The book has never gone out of print.
- Fran Mainella became the first woman to be named Director of the National Parks just as the new millennium was kicking off, serving from 2001 to 2006. By the time she stepped down, she had worked in America’s parks and recreations system for 40 years, including 12 years as Director of Florida State Parks, where she dramatically increased park volunteerism. To quote Mainella at her retirement, “Our nation's parks tell the story of America and the history of this country. National parks represent the soul of America and a gift to the world. They are places of great history, beautiful landscapes, protected ecosystems and endangered species.”
Witness the legacy of these champions of nature on Grand Circle Travel’s America’s Majestic National Parks. You can see the breathtaking beauty that awaits you in this video: