100 Years of the National Park Service – a brief history

Today, the National Park Service turns 100. If the service were a person, she’d be on the Today Show, with Matt Lauer asking for her secret to living so long. Somehow, we think the usual answers of olive oil, wine, bacon or getting to bed before 7 fall a little short of the mark here. So we’re bringing you the real story behind the birth of the National Park Service.

All the way back in 1916, Congress passed the National Park Service Organic Act, turning the park system into a legitimate federal agency. But to get to that point took over half a century’s worth of work.

Many parks and monuments already existed, but it wasn’t until some prominent conservationists teamed up with some ambitious writers that people really started paying attention. And even then, they had to wage a massive PR campaign praising the parks to every member of Congress that would listen before it came to the President’s desk.

So let’s leave the tangled bureaucracy of early 20th century American politics for a minute and talk about how it all really started.

The idea for national parks is often credited to George Catlin. Basically, he was the first artist to travel out west and say “...woah”. Shortly after oohing and ahhing, he noticed all the violence between pioneers, Native Americans and the wildlife caught in the middle, and thought, “someone should probably protect this before we accidentally destroy literally all of it. What about a park?”

Nobody really listened though. Most people still viewed the wilderness as some sort of challenge to overcome, and it wasn’t until some bigger names like writer Henry David Thoreau and painter Thomas Cole jumped onboard that public opinion started to change.

As the gold rush brought a lot more pioneers to the west, businesses followed close behind. In Yosemite, entrepreneurs started publicizing, concession companies landed contracts, and everything started to get real commercial. So commercial, that some wealthy citizens got really annoyed, and then got a bill on President Lincoln’s desk to make Yosemite the first protected state park. This was a big deal.

Almost as big a deal as John Muir, aka the guy who divided his time between publishing scientific papers on the area’s biology, founding the Sierra Club, and trekking about with Teddy Roosevelt until POTUS was convinced the feds should take control (California wasn’t doing so great at it).

And now we’re back to the PR campaign a few years later, with the idea being ‘how about a bunch of parks? Yellowstone seems really nice, everyone can’t stop talking about that giant geyser.’ Yellowstone became the first, and the rest, as they say, is history.