This year marks the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service! In 1916, the very idea of a parks system was in its infancy – and now, our world-class parks network is a treasured and fundamental part of our national identity.
How did this momentous change come about? Although many generous, passionate people contributed to the success of our parks, it’s safe to say the American landscape wouldn’t be the same today without the vision and energy of the pioneering conservationist Stephen Mather.
A California native and self-made millionaire, Mather loved the outdoors and greatly admired the work of his contemporary, John Muir. In the early years of the 1900s, there was a growing appreciation for the spectacular American landscape, and several iconic areas within existing federally owned land were set aside as parks. Before the National Park Service (NPS) existed, the fate of those parks was still very uncertain.
Mather used his social and financial clout to push for the creation of a network of parks of the highest quality, to be managed for conservation and public enjoyment. By 1916, with the help of his old college friend Franklin K. Lane, Secretary of Interior, Mather had helped to design the National Park Service to protect these special places “unimpaired for future generations,” and became its first director.
This was all happening at a time when the relationship between Americans and our landscape was evolving. Natural places were increasingly viewed as having scenic, recreational and natural value beyond their value for resource extraction and private benefit — and nowhere was that juxtaposition more tangible and compelling than in the redwoods.
In 1917, having set the National Park Service in motion, Mather played a central role in bringing the ancient redwood forest onto the conservation agenda. Three colleagues of Mather’s — John Merriam, Henry Fairfield Osborn and Madison Grant — made an expedition into the Northern California redwoods in the summer of 1917. They were amazed by the beauty of the forest, and dismayed by its widespread destruction. They reported their findings to Mather, who enthusiastically endorsed their idea of forming Save the Redwoods League, provided a founding donation, and was among the first to join the Board as a founding member.
Within the span of a couple of years, Mather had helped found the National Park Service and Save the Redwoods League: two organizations that would go on to safeguard millions of acres in hundreds of parks. In spite of frequent poor health, Mather helped get both organizations off the ground by devoting huge amounts of his time, energy, and personal funds; even paying rangers’ salaries out of his own pocket.
The redwoods have always been core to the story of the National Park Service, and even now the NPS logo includes a redwood tree. Mather was well aware of the role the redwoods played in inspiring the American public to embrace the conservation movement, and he stayed engaged in the work of Save the Redwoods League for the rest of his life.
Today, many national parks bear a bronze plaque dedicated to Stephen Mather’s life and work. It reads:
“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.”
Let’s say “thank you” this year by getting outside as much as possible to enjoy the incredible places he gave so much to protect.
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