George R. Stewart was not really a national parks person; he was more active in national forests, where he did much of his research. But we met at a small state park, Thornton State Beach, where I was a Ranger. And there, thanks to fellow Ranger Steve Gazzano, we named our nature trail for Stewart, not realizing then how much it would mean to him. Stewart was enthralled with place-naming. To have someplace beautiful named for him was, in his eyes, an exceptional honor.
State park systems grew from the National Park system. So this tale of the founding of the National Park Service is part of the George R. Stewart story:
100 years ago today, the bill establishing the National Park Service was signed.
The National Parks were established before the Service, but there was no coordinated management and things were poorly run. Wealthy businessman (he gave us Twenty Mule Team Borax) and conservationist Stephen T. Mather wanted a Service that would make sure all parks had good management and staffing.
Mather had been escorting a group of influential writers and businessmen, which included the famous photographer of Native Americans Edward S. Curtis, on a strenuous trip along the just-finished John Muir Trail. His assistant, Horace Albright, had stayed in Washington to make sure the bill was passed and signed. As soon as it was passed, Albright took the bill to the White House, in the evening, to get it signed. President Wilson was not well, but he was able to sign the bill and did so at 9 pm. Albright immediately sent a telegram to Mather, who had finished his Mountain Party and was staying with the group at the Palace Hotel in Visalia: “Park Service bill signed nine o’clock last night. Have pen President used in signing for you….”
The opening lines of the Organic Act of the National Park Service still ring as some of the most beautiful legislative language ever written:
“The fundamental purpose of the said parks, monuments, and reservations… is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
The world changed that day, and we’ve all benefited. There are now national parks and national park services in many countries, inspired by this action.
Like many lucky folks, I did a stint as a National Park Service Ranger. I worked on Alcatraz, at Grant-Kohrs National Historic Site in Montana, and – on a detail – in the Superintendent’s office at Yellowstone National Park during the Fires of 1988. Since the Superintendent’s office at Yellowstone is a summit of Rangering, it was all downhill from there, and I left the Service in 1992. Yet I’d accomplished a few things in those 6 years:
- Helped upgrade the interpretive program from a movie version of Alcatraz history into one which emphasized the roots of the penitentiary idea in the work of Founding Father Benjamin Rush. (And had the rare pleasure of meeting his great-great-great-etc grandson, Benjamin Rush, on one Cellhouse tour.)
- Thanks to Ranger Ted Stout and District Ranger Armando Quintero, developed and presented a series of workshops about the history of the National Park Service and UC Berkeley. The Service was born and initially housed at UCB, where Mather and Albright had been students. (Many people don’t realize that the Ranger Stetson is actually the “Senior Sombrero” for Albright’s class of 1912.) (There’s some debate about the year of the Stetson; but the one on display at Berkeley a few years ago had “1912” embossed on the hatband.) Quite by coincidence – or was it a coincidence? – the Mather family showed up on Alcatraz just in time for Stephen T. Mather’s great-grandson, Stephen Mather McPherson II, to be involved in the workshops.)
- In a story whose details must remain secret, I unknowingly helped derail the plans of the Superintendent of the GGNRA to “destroy” – his term – the National Park Service.
- And in Yellowstone, I was able to build on pre-existing work and bring NASA into the fire effort, thus establishing the concept of NASA-NPS partnerships which continue to this day – most recently, in Craters of the Moon, with the leadership of NASA’s Dr. Chris McKay and Craters of the Moon’s visionary and excellent Chief of Interpretation, Ted Stout.
The Yellowstone effort, informal as it was, is especially rewarding. It was a fulfillment of an idea that came from George R. Stewart’s work, which gave the literate public the first example of the Whole Earth vision, first presented in Ordeal By Hunger: That humans can now understand Earth from the two perspectives of space and ground. Chief of Interpretation at Craters of the Moon National Monument, Ranger Ted Stout, and NASA’s Dr. Chris McKay, have done much to bring that idea into fulfillment.
Now, NASA, under the direction of ISS Expedition 48 Jeff Williams, has illustrated Stewart’s pioneering vision, in honor of the Centennial of the National Park Service. Click on the mission patch to see his video.
Credit for such accomplishments is not always given. But the important thing is that work was done, for the good of the Agency and the public. It’s what public service is all about.
There were rewards, though, in addition to the doing of it.
- Connections with Dr. Chris McKay and NASA-Ames Chief Education Officer Garth Hull led to a wonderful career with NASA Education.
- An invitation to the Dedication of the Ranger Museum in Yellowstone.
- The gift of a biography of Stephen T. Mather, autographed by the Mather generations.
- And an unexpected experience in England that reinforced how important the National Park Service is to the world:
Attending a conference on heritage preservation at the University of Warwick, I went down late one morning to get breakfast in the university dining hall. The couple seated across the table were distinguished in appearance and demeanor. He was all in black except for a gold chain of office around his neck.
He said nothing. She nodded. Then asked, “Where are you from?”
“I’m an American, here to attend the conference.”
“What kind of work do you do?”
“I’m a National Park Service Ranger.”
At that, he put his fork down, looked at me and said, “I say. This is an honor, to meet you.
“Do you get to wear one of those hats?”
“Yes, I do.”
“I would give anything for one of those hats,” he said.
He paused, then said, “You know, I think that if America has an aristocracy, it is the National Park Service Ranger. You represent the best your nation has to offer.”
And he went back to his breakfast.
All the time, his wife was listening with a smile on her face. Now, she asked, “Do you know who he is?”
“He’s the Archbishop of Canterbury.”
I have one regret about our meeting – I never sent him a hat. But his words showed just how important the National Park Service and its Rangers are, and how important it is to keep that integrity alive – not easy to do in a day of skimpy budgets (except for war) and politically-inspired personnel practices.
The battle continues – the NPS has been weakened by poor funding and poor, political hiring and promotion practices in too many cases. We need another Mather, and a re-creation of the National Park Service.
Yet, this is a day for celebration; and whatever the issues or the challenges, we have this wonderful Agency with us, pointing us down a good path, into a better future.
So let’s give three Huzzahs for the National Park Service, and its dedicated Rangers. People like Ted, John, Phil B., Bob V., and all the others who work for sunsets so we can hike the trails in Mather’s and Muir’s footsteps.
Let us all thank the Mather family – Steve MM and Steve MM II – who carry on the work of their ancestor. Huzzah to the Mathers!
And let’s add one more Huzzah – for the Rangering in the parks that brought me to George R. Stewart.