--Branching Into History
--Interpretation In Crisis
Before the National Park Service
Well before some of America's most spectacular natural places were reserved as national parklands in the last half of the 19th century, persons seeking adventure and inspiration visited them. Some of these pre-park visitors found the wild beauties of these lands sufficient to occupy their attention. Others, supplementing aesthetic appreciation with scientific curiosity, sought to understand and explain the remarkable natural phenomena they encountered.
Among the latter was John Muir. In 1871, while living and working near Yosemite Valley, Muir recorded in his notebook, "I'll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm and the avalanche. I'll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can." Muir's use here of "interpret" has been cited as the first precedent for its later adoption by the National Park Service, although the context suggests an effort more toward understanding than communication.
Muir did communicate the natural values of the Sierra eloquently through his writings. Other forerunners of written park interpretation include The Yosemite Guide-Book of 1869 by J. D. Whitney, California State Geologist, and In the Heart of the Sierras by James Mason Hutchings, a former Yosemite Valley hotel operator, published in 1886.
After the U.S. Army assumed protection duties in Yellowstone National Park in 1886, some of the soldiers stationed in the Upper Geyser Basin undertook to explain thermal features to visitors. These early interpretive "cone talks" owed little to scientific knowledge, but they were no worse than the explanations forthcoming from commercial sources in the park. According to Robert Shankland:
In the early days at Yellowstone, the tourist who neglected to stuff himself in advance at the encyclopedias was liable to have a dark time of it among the volcanic phenomena. There was little on-the-spot enlightenment. Most stagecoach drivers liked to descant to the customers, but in a vein of bold invention. A few voluble guides worked out of the hotels; they cruelly punished the natural sciences. Under the regulations the guides could charge no fees. They did well, however, on tips, which they induced by a classic method: every audience harbored an unacknowledged accomplice, who at the end of a guide's remarks voiced resounding appreciation and, with a strong look around, extended a generous cash award. 
After the turn of the century some improvement in the quality of public presentations was evident. The Wylie Camping Company, which housed Yellowstone visitors in tents, recruited teachers who gave lectures and campfire programs while performing other duties. Elsewhere, the trend was illustrated in and near the future Rocky Mountain National Park. Enos Mills, who established Longs Peak Inn near Estes Park, Colorado, in 1901, was an American pioneer in "nature guiding." While working for establishment of the national park--achieved in 1915--Mills led and promoted guided hikes through the area aimed at appreciation of its natural values.
In 1905 Frank Pinkley, custodian of the Casa Grande Ruin Reservation (later Casa Grande National Monument) in Arizona Territory, pioneered another category of interpretation when he assembled a sampling of pre-historic artifacts recovered from archeological excavation in the ruin. Pinkley's display has been called the forerunner of national park museum exhibits. The year before, 1st Lt. Henry F. Pipes, a surgeon with the 9th Cavalry stationed in Yosemite National Park, laid out paths and labeled 36 species of plants near Wawona as part of an arboretum. This natural exhibit was abandoned after it was discovered to lie on private land, and the military superintendent's plan for an adjoining museum and library building was not realized. By 1915 Yosemite did have what it called a museum, in the form of a flora and fauna specimen collection exhibited in the headquarters building. 
Of the several forms of early park explanatory media, publications reached the largest audience. In 1911 Laurence F. Schmeckebier, the Department of the Interior's clerk in charge of publications, asked the superintendents of the larger parks to submit material for a series of handbooks containing basic information on access, accommodations, and the like. A second handbook series promoted by Schmeckebier and written by Smithsonian Institution and U.S. Geological Survey scientists interpreted major park features. Booklets included The Secret of the Big Trees: Yosemite Sequoia and General Grant National Parks (1913) by Ellsworth Huntington, Origin of Scenic Features of Glacier National Park (1914) by N. R. Campbell, Mount Rainier and Its Glaciers (1914) by F. E. Matthes, and Fossil Forests of Yellowstone National Park (1914) by F. H. Knowlton. In a 1912 article in Popular Science Monthly, "the national parks from the educational and scientific side," Schmeckebier publicized the values forthcoming from popular study and professional research. 
Schmeckebier's activities were part of an Interior Department effort to build popular support for the national parks and political support for creation of a new bureau within the department to manage them. In 1915 Stephen T. Mather began to advance these objectives full time as special assistant to the Secretary of the Interior for national parks. Mather hired Robert Sterling Yard, a former colleague on the New York Sun, to handle park publicity (personally paying his $5,000 salary). They tied their campaign to the contemporary "see America first" movement, aimed at encouraging affluent vacationers to spend their dollars at home rather than abroad.
Yard's first product was The National Parks Portfolio, financed with $43,000 contributed by 17 western railroads profiting from park tourism. Two hundred seventy-five thousand copies of this lavishly illustrated publication were printed in June 1916 and distributed free to prominent Americans, including members of Congress. "It is the destiny of the national parks, if wisely controlled, to become the public laboratories of nature study for the nation," Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane wrote in its introduction. Thus, while the promotion was grounded in economic and political considerations, it advanced the prospect of an overriding educational purpose for the parks.