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A Brief History Of The National Park Service




National Park Idea

Early Growth

NPS Created






Plans and Design





Historic Conservation

Land Planning

State Cooperation


Work Camps

Recreation Study




Antiquities Act

Organic Act

Historic Sites Act

Recreational-Area Programs Act



Development of the Educational Program

Although Congress authorized establishment of the first national park as a "pleasuring ground," growth of the system by the addition of many areas of truly outstanding importance as living laboratories of natural history made it obvious that the parks offered superb educational opportunities. It was logical, then, that a program of research and education should be developed along with a program of recreational use.

The educational advantages of the parks were recognized early by individuals and university groups, and at the turn of the century teachers were leading classes into these reserves for field study. In 1917 Director Mather launched his plans for an educational program by appointing Robert Sterling Yard as chief of the educational division. Immediately the Service introduced educational material into its booklets of information on the parks. At the same time, individuals without the Service—notably John Muir of the Sierra Club, C. M. Goethe and Joseph Grinnell of California—were attracting interest in the educational opportunities of the parks and stimulating in many persons a desire to study the geologic and biologic features of these areas.

A national park educational committee was organized by Dr. Charles D. Walcott of the Smithsonian Institution in June of 1918. About a year later this group, consisting of 75 university presidents and representatives of leading conservation organizations, merged into the National Parks Association, and Mr. Yard left the National Park Service to become associated with this new organization.

It was at this time that the concept of nature guiding, developed in a world survey which brought the idea from Europe to America, was being well demonstrated in Yosemite, where Dr. Harold C. Bryant, educational director of the California Fish and Game Commission, was delivering a number of lectures, and where trips afield for nature study were offered. By 1920 Mr. Mather and certain of his friends had become so convinced of the effectiveness of this work that they supported it with private funds. In that year Dr. Bryant and Dr. Loye Holmes Miller offered guided field trips and gave lectures in Yosemite to lay the foundation for later work.

painting relief maps
Staff Artist and CCC Enrollee Assistant Painting Relief Maps, Western Museum Laboratories, Berkeley, California.

The naturalist staff was not represented in the Washington Office until the Branch of Research and Education was established in 1930. Following the resignation of Dr. Wallace W. Atwood, Jr., as assistant in charge of work relating to earth sciences, Earl A. Trager was appointed in March 1932, to take charge of this section of the work. The following year the Naturalist Division was organized with Mr. Trager as Chief.

The Naturalist Division consists of a staff located in the Washington Office, in Regional Offices and in the parks and monuments. The duties of the staff are:

1. To interpret the inspirational and educational features of the parks to the public through the medium of trips afield and lectures.

2. To advise on all matters pertaining to the educational use of or the conservation of the natural or scientific features within the national parks and monuments.

3. To assemble complete data on all scientific and esthetic features of the park area as the basis for both the inter pretation and general administrative program of the park.

The staff in the Washington Office consists of executive and technical personnel; the staff in the field consists of technical personnel whose administrative duties are limited to those necessary to accomplish the field work program.

The naturalists' program of conservation and interpretation involves work in the biological and geological fields. The technical assistance required in biology is supplied by the Wildlife Division. The technical assistance required in geology is furnished by geologists attached to the Naturalist Division.

Coincident with the development of a "free nature guide service" in Yosemite, the Service began the interpretation of park phenomena through museum exhibits. Ansel F. Hall, previously in charge of information at Yosemite, was made park naturalist and developed a museum. In Yellowstone M. P. Skinner, under the direction of the Superintendent, organized a museum program. Nature guide service was established in other parks in the next few years, and in 1923 Director Mather appointed Mr. Hall as chief naturalist to extend the field of educational development to other parks. In the same year Dr. Carl P. Russell was appointed park naturalist in Yosemite and Mr. Hall devoted his efforts to the educational program in all the parks.

Nature Guide Party
Nature Guide Party, Yellowstone National Park, at Emerald Pool.

By this time it was seen that a definite plan of operation was needed, and Director Mather appointed Dr. Frank R. Oastler to investigate the educational work and, in collaboration with Chief Naturalist Hall, to draw up a general policy. An organization plan was prepared after Dr. Oastler had spent four and one-half months in the field in 1924. This outline defined the duties of the chief naturalist and the park naturalists, and advocated the development of an "educational working plan" for each park which would set forth the qualifications and training of the staff, an outline of each educational activity, plans of necessary buildings and equipment, and the required budget. Of special importance was the recommendation in this report that "each park should feature its own individual phenomena rather than try to cover the entire field of education."

Another survey of educational opportunities of the parks was made in 1924 by the American Association of Museums, of which C. J. Hamlin was president, and definite plans looking toward the establishment of natural history museums in some of the larger parks were suggested. On the basis of this study the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial donated funds for construction of an adequate, fireproof museum building with necessary equipment and important accessories, in Yosemite.

Even before the Yosemite museum installations had been opened to the public, demonstration of the effectiveness of the institution as headquarters for the educational staff and visiting scientists convinced leaders in the American Association of Museums that further effort should be made to establish a general program of museum work in national parks. Additional funds were obtained from the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial and new museums were built in Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Parks. Dr. Hermon C. Bumpus, who had guided the museum planning and construction in Yosemite, continued as the administrator representing the Association and Rockefeller interests, and Herbert Maier, now Associate Regional Director, Region IV, was architect and field superintendent on the construction projects.

It was Dr. Bumpus who originated the "focal point museum" idea so well represented by the several small institutions in Yellowstone, each one concerned with a special aspect of the park story, and so located as to tell its story while its visitors were surrounded by and deeply interested in the significant exhibits of the out-of-doors. The trailside exhibits now commonly used in many national parks and first tried at Obsidian Cliff in Yellowstone were an out-growth of the focal point museum idea.

When the museums of, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone had demonstrated their value to visitors and staff alike, they were accepted somewhat as models for future work, and upon the strength of their success; the Service found it possible to obtain regular government appropriations with which to build more museums in national parks and monuments. When PWA funds became available, further impetus was given to the parks museum program and a Museum Division of the Service was established in 1935, embracing historic areas of the East as well as the scenic national parks. Today there are 68 national park and monument museums and two more are planned for the immediate future.

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Last Modified: Mon, Jun 16 2003 10:00:00 pm PDT

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