Thursday, August 25, 2016

Happy Birthday to our National Park Service

I spent many a day, and night, in our national parks...enjoying the wildlife, the beauty of nature, the well cleaned restrooms and emptied trash bins (just think about it, if there wasn't a Park Service).

Thanks to Garrison Keilor's Writer's Almanac for today, I now know more of the history of the Park Service...and am sharing it with you below.

It was on this day 100 years ago, in 1916, that President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the act that established the National Park Service. Yellowstone was designated as the first national park in 1872, and by the 1890s, there were three others: Yosemite, Sequoia, and General Grant (now known as Kings Canyon). When Congress created the first national parks, it didn't assign a part of the government to run them, and the task ended up falling to the Army. The Army patrolled for poachers or vandals - traveling on skis in the cold Yellowstone winters -but they didn't have any legal recourse to deal with criminals, so they just gave them warnings. In 1894, the last remaining wild buffalo herd in the country was in Yellowstone, and it was small. That year, a poacher named Edgar Howell bragged to reporters that there wasn't much anyone could do about his buffalo hunting, since the most serious penalty he faced would be to get kicked out of Yellowstone and lose $26 worth of equipment. The editor of Field and Stream ran that story in his magazine, and there was a huge uproar. President Grover Cleveland signed the "Act to Protect the Birds and Animals in Yellowstone National Park," but that was just one park. Without a national system regulating the parks, the government remained limited in its control.

The Department of Agriculture, the Department of the Interior, and the Department of War all claimed to protect the National Parks, but no one was really doing the job. In 1914, the conservationist John Muir died, after losing a long fight to preserve Yosemite's beautiful Hetch Hetchy Valley against developers who wanted to turn it into a dam and reservoir for the city of San Francisco. Although Hetch Hetchy was dammed, Muir had stirred up public opposition, and many citizens worried that the national parks weren't adequately protected. The issue was brought up in Congress that year, but they wouldn't sign a bill to change it.

Secretary of the Interior Franklin Lane knew that they needed a good lobbyist to convince Congress to protect the parks better. Then he got a letter from an old college classmate named Stephen Mather. Mather was a self-made millionaire who struck it rich as the sales manager for Pacific Coast Borax Company, thanks to his genius for advertising and promotion. In his letter, Mather complained that he had just been on a visit to Yosemite and Sequoia and was upset by what he saw: cattle grazing, development, and trails in terrible condition. Lane told Mather that if he was unhappy he should come to Washington and fix the problem himself. Mather agreed.

Mather was talented and he was rich: a perfect lobbyist. He went to Washington and threw himself into a publicity campaign to designate a government agency specifically for the national parks. He hired Horace Albright, a legal assistant, and Robert Sterling Yard, the editor of the New York Herald. He paid much of their salaries himself. He sponsored the "Mather Mountain Party," a two-week trip for 15 extremely influential business leaders and politicians in the Sierra Nevadas - he paid for it himself - and the men enjoyed a luxurious vacation, hiking and fishing, and enjoying fine dining (complete with linens) in the midst of the parks. By the end of the two weeks, they all supported Mather's request for a national agency to oversee the national parks. He partnered with the railroads in their huge "See America First" publicity campaign. He got national newspapers to run headlines about the cause, started a campaign for school kids to enter essay contests, and after convincing National Geographic to devote an entire issue to the national parks, Mather gave every member of Congress a copy. His assistant Albright drafted a bill to create a parks bureau, which would be part of the Department of the Interior. On this day in 1916, Wilson signed it into law, and the National Park Service was created.

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