Happy centennial day for the National Park Service! On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson took up his pen and made official the National Park Service Organic Act. To be clear, Wilson’s autograph did not originate our national parks system. That distinction goes to the establishment of Yellowstone in 1872, or to federal protection of Yosemite in 1864, or to reserving Hot Springs in Arkansas in 1832. Indeed, the parks had been around awhile by the time Wilson made it to the White House. By 1916 we had collected a total of 35 national parks and monuments. Wilson’s contribution involved giving his approval to a plan for the management and care of these national treasures by carving out a new agency in the vast and growing bureaucracy of the federal government.
The Organic Act charges the National Park Service with care and management of the parks, but it also directs the agency to promote them. The legislation instructs the newly created National Park Service to “promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks, monuments and reservations,” and from the beginning promoting visitation has been a priority for the agency. The second Director of the National Park Service, Horace M. Albright, took seriously his promotional duty when he advocated road building in the parks; he wrote in 1931 regarding Great Smoky Mountains National Park besides the “serious responsibilities involved to protect and guard as much wilderness as possible,” he had a duty to make the park “reasonably accessible for the motorist. We may have to concede it a fact,” he explained, “that by far the greatest number of people will see what they are permitted to see of this glorious mountain country from their motor car, and not by horseback or hiking” (quoted in Southern Journeys: Tourism, History, and Culture in the Modern South by Richard D. Starnes, page 200). For Albright, the guiding principle of management focused on what “the greatest number of people will see.” Indeed getting the public into our parks has been an important mission of the National Park Service throughout their history.
Today’s official celebration of their centennial culminates one of the park service’s most ambitious and successful promotional campaigns in their long history of enticing folks out to the parks. Without the help of government money (other than incidental costs related to the participation of Park Service officials in organizing, implementing, and coordinating park involvement in the campaign), Americans have been encouraged to “Find Your Park,” and they have responded in record numbers: visitors this year have been arriving in the national parks at a greater rate than last year’s unprecedented attendance records. The Park Service has unquestionably fulfilled its responsibility to promote America’s national parks.
Their success is cause for celebration, and today in the little gateway town of Gardiner, Montana, celebrants will be raising a cheer to the legacy of our national parks. Under the able leadership of Bill Berg, local resident, long-time friend of the parks, and founder of Cool Works, an online service that has helped thousands of park lovers find work in parklands across the continent, a day of revelries will entertain a crowd of thousands. In the little park at the base of the iconic Roosevelt Arch, poised majestically at the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park, and spilling out onto the football field of the adjacent Gardiner School, those who were lucky enough to get tickets will enjoy entertainment from no less than Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, and John Prine. It may be one of the biggest parties ever thrown for our national parks. Certainly one of the biggest bashes Gardiner has ever hosted.
America’s national parks certainly are worth celebrating, and Yellowstone, with its widely acknowledged status as the world’s first national park, seems the most appropriate place for the festivities. Maybe a few cynical curmudgeons will dismiss it all as an unsavory scheme of promotional hype, but any occasion to bring attention to America’s treasured destinations can’t be all bad, can it? For today, let’s raise a toast to the grand legacy of our national parks. Maybe tomorrow we can think some about what it all means. ♨