Stephen T. Mather: A League and National Parks Trailblazer

Stephen T. Mather is one of the great pillars in the history of the American conservation movement and a founder of Save the Redwoods League.

Stephen T. Mather
As revealed in The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, Stephen Mather, (pictured in 1915), combined a flair for promotion with a deep belief in the value of national parks. Photo by Albright Schenck

Born in 1867 in San Francisco, Mather developed a deep affinity toward the natural world. Throughout his life, he turned to the forests for rejuvenation. A member of a wealthy family, Mather graduated with a Bachelor of Letters degree in 1887 from the University of California, Berkeley. His first career led him to become a financially successful mining executive with the Thorkildsen-Mather Borax Company.

An avid hiker and mountaineer, and an admirer of the work and ethic of his older contemporary John Muir, Mather used his wealth and reputation to promote the preservation of the nation’s public land. He joined the Sierra Club in the early 1900s, eventually serving that organization as Honorary Vice President. In 1915 he moved to Washington, DC, to assist with administering the national parks and to lobby for the creation of a bureau to more formally and consistently handle the task. His efforts were successful: the National Park Service (NPS) was created in 1916 by President Woodrow Wilson and within a year Mather was appointed its first director.

Among Mather’s first actions as head of the NPS was to persuade three accomplished naturalists to investigate the state of the redwood forests in northern California. Through his influence, Madison Grant of the New York Zoological Society, John C. Merriam of the University of California, Berkeley, and Henry Fairfield Osborn of the American Museum of Natural History, embarked on an historic expedition to the redwoods. Their experience there in 1917 laid the foundation for Save the Redwoods League, which was created the next year in large part through funds raised by Mather. Throughout the rest of his life, Mather used his personal and political relationships to mold the organization into a successful partner of private and public institutions.

In both his personal and public life, Mather was a champion of protecting the nation’s natural treasures. In his professional work as director of the National Park Service, he designed policies that ensured national parks would be accessible and attractive to all. Through the creation of such amenities as roads, informative visitor centers, and a well-educated staff of rangers, Mather’s system encouraged all Americans from all walks of life to visit the parks and enjoy their splendor. Mather served as director of the NPS until the year before his 1930 death. As testament to his legacy, many national parks bear a bronze plaque dedicated to his life and work:

“He laid the foundation of the National Park Service, defining and establishing the policies under which its areas shall be developed and conserved unimpaired for future generations. There will never come an end to the good that he has done.”

Read more about the League’s history and involvement with park development.