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The Story of the National Park Service

THE national park idea was born in 1870 around a camp fire near the junction of the Firehole and the Gibbon rivers in what is now Yellowstone National Park. At that time, Yellowstone was a wilderness more popularly known as "Colter's Hell," so named from the stories told about the area by the intrepid trapper and hunter, John Colter. The remarkable features of the Yellowstone were first described by David E. Folsom and C. W. Cook of Montana, who explored part of what is now the park in 1869.

It was in 1870 that the now famous Washburn-Langford exploring party, assisted by Lieutenant Gustavus C. Doane and five cavalrymen, undertook the complete exploration of the Yellowstone. The party consisted of General H. D. Washburn, commander; Samuel T. Hauser, Cornelius Hedges, W. C. Gillette, Walter Trumbull, Truman C. Everts, Benjamin Stickney, Jacob Smith, and N. P. Langford, all residents of Helena, Montana, then a frontier settlement.

This party was tremendously impressed with the geysers, the hot springs, the boiling mud pots, the lake, the canyon, and the waterfalls, and because one of their number, Truman C. Everts, became lost, the explorers lingered long in the vicinity of Yellowstone Lake, hoping to find Everts. Giving him up as lost (he was later found by searchers after enduring almost unbelievable hardships), the party pushed on toward Virginia City, Montana, hoping to avoid the early snowfall. The birth of the national park idea has been described by Nathaniel P. Langford, who afterward served as first superintendent of the park.

"It was the first camp we made after leaving the lower geyser basin," he wrote. "We were seated around the campfire, and one of our number suggested that a quarter-section of land opposite the great falls of the Yellowstone would be a source of profit to its owner. Another member of the party thought that the upper geyser basin would furnish greater attraction for pleasure seekers.

"Mr. Hedges then said that there ought to be no private ownership of any portion of that region, but that the whole of it ought to be set apart as a great national park. The suggestion met with a quick and favorable response from other members of the party, and, to quote from a recent letter of Mr. Hedges to me, 'The idea found favor with all, and from that time we never lost sight of it.'

"On our return, Mr. Hedges advocated the project in the public press. . . . All this was several months prior to any government exploration."

Less than two years later, on March 1, 1872, Congress created Yellowstone National Park, setting aside an area approximately 62 miles long and 54 miles wide, consisting of 3,348 square miles, or 2,142,720 acres, "for the benefit and enjoyment of the people forever." It was enlarged in 1929 and now has an area of 3,458 square miles or 2,213,206 acres.

It is true that the area which is now Hot Springs National Park had been set aside for the public benefit in 1832, but a national park was not created until 1921. Likewise, in 1864, Congress had passed an act turning over to the state of California the areas that are in Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees, but the Yosemite National Park was not created until 1890 when another act of Congress set aside the great area of high mountain peaks, glaciers, forests, valleys, and waterfalls of the Sierra Nevada, approximately the present area of Yosemite Park. Curiously enough, by that time the federal government had lost control of Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees, the two outstanding attractions of Yosemite Park. They had been ceded to the state and were administered by state officials. This division led to many disputes, culminating in a disagreement over which group of authorities should fight a forest fire on the wall of Yosemite Valley half way between Yosemite Valley, the state's domain, and the rim, under control of federal authorities. While the dispute continued, the fire raged, doing considerable damage, and roused public indignation. This led to the popular demand for one authority in Yosemite, and in 1906 the state ceded the valley back to the federal government.

Sequoia National Park was established by Congress in 1890 to preserve the choice groves of big trees, among them the General Sherman Tree, generally conceded to be the largest in the world. Mount Rainier National Park was formed in 1899, Crater Lake in 1902, Wind Cave in 1903, Platt and Mesa Verde in 1906, Glacier Park in 1910, Rocky Mountain in 1915, Hawaii and Lassen Volcanic parks in 1916, Mount McKinley in 1917, and Grand Canyon and Zion in 1919. Bryce Canyon became a national park in September, 1928. Grand Teton National Park was established on February 26, 1929 and Acadia formally became a park after being known under another name for ten years. In 1930 Carlsbad Caverns National Park was added to the system after six years as a national monument. Great Smoky Mountains Park was established the same year. Shenandoah became a national park in 1935, followed the next year by Mammoth Cave. Olympic National Park was created in 1938. The three newest national parks are Isle Royale, Kings Canyon, and Big Bend, the former two set up in 1940 and the latter established in 1944. The only park in process of formation is the Everglades in Florida.

In the early days national parks were created from time to time by Congress without any particular policy governing their establishment. Previous to 1916 the Parks were administered by the Secretary of the Interior as a part of his miscellaneous activities. To maintain order, the Secretary of the Interior called upon the War Department for troops which were stationed in Yellowstone, Yosemite, General Grant and Sequoia parks each summer.

In the parks where the troops were on patrol, the acting superintendent was a military officer, usually a different one each year. In parks not placed under military control, the superintendents were often political appointees. With the exception of the Yellowstone, Crater Lake, and Mount Rainier National parks, where road systems were built by the army engineers, very little road building was done. Fort Yellowstone was built at Mammoth Hot Springs, not so much to combat redskins, as was commonly supposed, as to keep the "white Indians," the grafters, and racketeers from despoiling the park. When Yosemite and Sequoia parks were created in 1890, troops were assigned to them at once. These parks were under military control until 1914, when troops were removed and National Park Service officials assumed their duties. In Yellowstone, the cavalry stayed until 1918; likewise the army engineers.

(From the Stanford University Press edition)

A superintendent who deserves special mention was Nathaniel P. Langford, who had charge of Yellowstone during the first five years after the creation of the park. Mr. Langford not only served without remuneration, but paid all his own expenses as well. He had no assistance and lacked adequate authority, and in his constant struggle to protect the park from depredations he had little to aide him except persuasion and discussion. Yet he was able to do much to protect the park in those early days and kept visitors from carrying away valuable exhibits.

In parks not placed under military control, the superintendents were often political appointees, chosen because of favors to their parties rather than because of particular qualification for their work. Fortunately, some of these men were very good executives. In some cases, they made miserable failures of their tasks of preserving the park wonders for the future. Appropriations were small, and with the exception of the Yellowstone, Crater Lake, and Mount Rainier National parks, where road systems were built by the army engineers, very little road building was done at all. There was little money for the maintenance and protection of the parks. In the early days, following Mr. Lanford's administration and preceeding the coming of the military, protectors of the Yellowstone received little compensation and their earnings came principally from dividing fines and fees with justices of the peace who were appointed for the territories in which the park lay. This system was particularly vicious because the visitors to the parks were harassed and fined for minor infractions of the rules or for no breach of conduct at all, in order that the justice of the peace and the arresting officer might increase their incomes.

The politicians who followed in public-spirited Langford and his successor, Colonel P. W. Norris, in Yellowstone, were so careless and inefficient in the performance of their duties that employment of troops was necessary to preserve the park from despoliation. Fort Yellowstone was built at Mammoth Hot Springs, not so much to combat redskins, as was commonly supposed, as to keep the "white Indians," the grafters, and exploiters out of the nation's playground.

When Yosemite and Sequoia parks were formed in 1890, troops were assigned to them at once. These parks never had civilian administrations the year round until 1914, when troops were removed and National Park Service officials assumed their duties. In Yellowstone, the cavalry stayed until 1918; likewise the army engineers.

As a rule, it took from three to seven years after the creation of a national park before funds for its care and upkeep were provided, and up to 1910 there was little that a non-military park superintendent could do. In that year, following the formation of Glacier National Park, the American Civic Association, led by its vigorous and able president, Dr. J. Horace McFarland, who had carefully watched the growth of the national park idea for years, launched a campaign for the creation of a national park bureau. The Secretary of the Interior, Walter L. Fisher, and President Taft himself, urged Congress to set up a central bureau for the administration of the parks. The President sent a special message to Congress on the subject. Senator Reed Smoot of Utah and Congressman John E. Raker of California introduced identical bills in the Senate and the House creating such a bureau.

That was the situation when Franklin K. Lane became Secretary of the Interior in 1913 upon the inauguration of President Wilson. The parks were the orphans of the federal government. They were nobody's charge and anybody's worry. Officials looked after them in odd moments as best they could. Fortunately, private exploitation of the parks was prevented largely through the efforts of W. B. Acker, chief clerk of the Department of the Interior and an able official and astute attorney.

In 1913, Secretary Lane called Dr. Adolph C. Miller of the University of California to become his assistant, devoting his particular attention to the national parks. However, he was soon drafted by the President to work on banking problems and Secretary Lane was again looking for a man to adopt the national parks. This time he called upon his old college friend, Stephen T. Mather, a Californian, living at the time in Illinois, a man familiar with the great out-of-doors and the West, and a lover of the mountains. Mr. Mather became assistant to the secretary, and when by Act of Congress of August 25, 1916, the National Park Service was established, he became the first director. Mr. Mather held that position until January 12, 1929, under three administrations, two of them Republican and one Democratic, serving under five different secretaries of the Department of the Interior. To him goes the everlasting thanks of the American people, for he fathered the National Park idea through its most trying period.

The national military parks, and the monuments and other reserves of park character which were established from time to time by the Congress and the President, and the public parks, parkways, buildings and structures such as the Washington Monument and the Statue of Liberty, which have been under special administration or within the jurisdiction of the War Department for many years, were brought into the National Park fold by a proclamation of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, dated June 10, 1933. These additions include such famous battlefields as Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Antietam and Shiloh, as well as all national monuments under the War and Agricultural Departments, Lincoln's Birthplace, the home of Robert E. Lee at Arlington, and all the national capital parks and parkways in the District of Columbia. This order ended the curious inconsistency in arrangement of governmental duties whereby the Battlefield of Yorktown was under the jurisdiction of the Park Service in the Interior Department, while Gettysburg was under the War Department; likewise, George Washington's Birthplace was a national monument under the Department of the Interior, while Abraham Lincoln's Birthplace was a type of national park under the War Department.

The act creating the National Park Service gave its officers authority to "promote and regulate the federal areas known as the national parks, monuments, and reservations," and enunciated the fundamental purpose of the parks: "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."

Those were broad and comprehensive powers. Exercising them, however, was another matter. For years private interests had advanced schemes for the commercialization of the parks, the using of park lands for cattle and sheep grazing, the diversion of waters for irrigation and power, the invasion of the mountains by ugly mining shafts. One of these schemes was successful, the plan of the city of San Francisco to dam the Hetch Hetchy Valley, a miniature Yosemite, flooding the valley with a lake. Another persistent proposal was the draining of water from Yellowstone Lake for irrigation purposes and the elimination of parts of the southwestern area of the park for reservoir sites.

The first job of the new National Park Service was to save the parks from the exploitation schemes already undertaken. In the case of Hetch Hetchy, the building of the dam was already authorized by Congress, and nothing could be done. Under Mr. Mather's administration the National Park Service took the position that if the natural features of a park are sufficiently important and valuable to be placed within a national park by an act of Congress, they should forever remain there, regardless of their value from a commercial point of view, and if they are not of national park caliber, they should be eliminated from the park by appropriate legislation. The National Park Service has opposed the creation of parks in certain areas because they did not measure up to the standard of the other parks. Among the areas strongly approved for park status by the National Park Service is the Everglades region of Southern Florida. Likewise, the service hopes to see certain areas added to some of the parks, notably Mount Banner and Mount Ritter, the Minarets, and Thousand Island Lake southeast of Yosemite Park, and the glaciers and peaks south of Rocky Mountain Park. Since most of these areas are now federal lands, their addition to the parks involves merely transfer from one government department to another. Of course, Congress may later give national park rank to some of the national monuments like Death Valley and Jackson Hole.

(From the Stanford University Press edition)

The National Park Service since its establishment has never had any political standing. Appointments are made on a merit basis, in accordance with civil service rules and regulations. Even the director is a civil service employe. Secretaries of the Interior, since the creation of the park service, have taken so great an interest in its development and welfare that they have resisted efforts to inject politics into the handling of the parks or the appointment of park officials.

It is the policy of the National Park Service to keep its organization small. It has no ambition to be the biggest bureau in the government service. It does not seek to build up a corps of experts in every activity which touches national park operations. It has a small engineering organization for planning purposes and to execute certain lines of construction. It has a landscape engineering department which supervises all building plans, approves plans and layouts for hotel and other concessioner developments, and has charge of all planting work, modification of scenic areas through installation of roads, trails, and telephone lines. It has an educational division which supervises the work of interpreting the parks to their visitors, has general oversight of museums, natural history activities, research, and so on. For all specialized scientific service, the National Park Service calls on other bureaus. For insect control work in the forests, the Bureau of Entomology is our adviser. Road construction is under the Bureau of Public Roads. The United States Public Health Service designs all water and sewer systems and oversees their construction. It also keeps a sharp oversight of conditions of health in the parks, but at our request. The parks are exceptionally healthy places and epidemics are almost unknown. Streams and lakes are stocked with fish through co-operation with the Bureau of Fisheries. The Biological Survey, the Geological Survey, the Forest Service, are other bureaus that co-operate closely with us.

The administration of some of the parks is complicated by the fact that before they were established as parks, private and state holdings existed in them. For example, when Yosemite National Park was established in 1890, over 60,000 acres of its territory were in private ownership. In 1905, the boundaries of the park were revised, and all but about 10,000 acres of the private holdings were eliminated. This delimitation of the park deprived it of a large area of magnificent forests containing fine stands of sugar pine, yellow pine, fir and cedar. Lumber companies later devastated part of these lands, as well as some of their holdings which remained in the park, and which were still under their control because not owned by the Government.

It was not until 1930, under authority of Congress, providing for land acquisition in national parks, one half of the cost thereof to be met by Federal appropriations and one half by private contributions, that the Yosemite forests were saved from complete destruction. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., contributed nearly $1,650,000 in financing, with the United States Government on a dollar for dollar basis, the purchase of 15,570 acres of land, over 13,000 acres of which retained virgin forests, including the finest stands of sugar pine, next to the giant sequoia or Big Tree the largest and most stately tree of the western mountains. Another tract of 640 acres of splendid forest was purchased and donated by George A. Ball. Certain of the lands bought in co-operation with Mr. Rockefeller were outside of the Yosemite Park, but by law were included by proclamation of the President.

In 1917, the Giant Forest in Sequoia National Park was purchased with a fund of $70,000 of which $50,000 was provided by Congress, and $20,000 by the National Geographic Society. After this purchase it was over ten years before Congress recognized the private land problems, and made any attempt to solve them.

Since 1928, with appropriations which reached a total of nearly $3,000,000 and aided by private contributions in large amounts, considerable progress has been made in returning to Government ownership these important tracts of private land which passed out of Federal control before the national parks were created. Much remains to be done, especially in Glacier, Rocky Mountain, Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Grand Teton Parks in the acquisition of lands within park boundaries which are still in private hands.

A similar condition in Yosemite obtained with respect to roads. Prior to the creation of the National Park Service, all of the roads built into Yosemite Valley were privately constructed and owned. The Wawona Road was constructed by a turnpike company which at first transported passengers by horseback, then by horse-drawn stage, and finally by automobile. One of the first problems of the Director was to persuade this company to turn the road over to the public in exchange for a grant for the exclusive use of the road for stagecoaches during a certain number of years under government maintenance.

An even more interesting situation prevailed with respect to the Tioga Pass Road, one of the most spectacular scenic drives in any of the parks. This road was built by a mining company across the heart of territory that is now Yosemite Park, before the creation of the Park Service. Fortunately, the mines did not pay and they were abandoned. The company still owned the road. Government funds were lacking to purchase it, and Director Mather, with some friends, bought it privately and deeded it to the federal government, thus providing Yosemite with a route into the high Sierra country.

In Grand Canyon there have been some delicate administrative problems that have hampered the superintendents and the rangers in their efforts to serve the public. Most of them arose from private ownership of holdings in the park. Local Arizona politicians, through control of affairs in a county adjoining Grand Canyon National Park, tried to block government access to the Bright Angel Trail, the main route into the Grand Canyon. It was this situation which roused President Theodore Roosevelt to declare the Grand Canyon a national monument in 1908. That checked privateering, and in 1919 Congress made the area a national park. However, it was not until 1926 that the last mining claim was canceled by the courts, after it was proved that minerals did not exist in sufficient quantities to justify the claims.

In the meantime, other trails were built into the Grand Canyon, and the original offer of the federal government to the county in question was reopened; namely, that in exchange for government ownership of the Bright Angel Trail the United States would build an approved approach road to the park through that county. Sometimes it is impossible to "do business" with the local owners of roads and trails. The instance of the Coulterville Road into Yosemite Valley is an interesting example. Failing in their efforts to persuade the owners of this road to make it public property, the park superintendent ceased to maintain the road within the park. The public traveled the roads which were improved and kept up. Today the Coulterville Road is merely a forest protection trail.

(From the Stanford University Press edition)

In one corner of Yosemite Park an old privately owned homestead has been cut up into summer homesites and put on the market. Fortunately, it is so located that id does not interfere with the activities of the park. But, unfortunately for the victims, many of whom undoubtedly buy lots in Yosemite expecting to be within sight of Yosemite Falls, the mere fact that this homestead is within the boundaries leads "suckers" to believe that the enterprise has government approval. Quite the reverse is true and the public should realize that any scheme to exploit lands within the parks has strong government disapproval upon it.


Oh, Ranger!
©1928, 1929, 1934, 1972, Horace M. Albright and Frank J. Taylor
albright-taylor/chap9.htm — 06-Sep-2004