National Parks and Conservation Association Is Founded Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The National Parks and Conservation Association, a private organization, was founded in 1919 to give support to the national parks of the United States.

Summary of Event

Stephen T. Mather and Robert Sterling Yard founded the National Parks Association with the aim of creating a nonprofit public-service organization to support the numerous national parks in the United States through the backing and activities of private citizens. The national parks had a long history—Yellowstone, the first national park, had been created in 1872—but until well into the second decade of the twentieth century, there was no central direction or control of the country’s parks and national monuments. The need to coordinate the various national parks was widely recognized: Even the generally conservative U.S. president William Howard Taft had, in 1912, urged the creation of a national parks bureau, but Congress had failed to act on his suggestion. Environmental organizations National Parks and Conservation Association Conservation;wilderness Wilderness preservation [kw]National Parks and Conservation Association Is Founded (May 20, 1919) [kw]Parks and Conservation Association Is Founded, National (May 20, 1919) [kw]Conservation Association Is Founded, National Parks and (May 20, 1919) Environmental organizations National Parks and Conservation Association Conservation;wilderness Wilderness preservation [g]United States;May 20, 1919: National Parks and Conservation Association Is Founded[04770] [c]Environmental issues;May 20, 1919: National Parks and Conservation Association Is Founded[04770] [c]Organizations and institutions;May 20, 1919: National Parks and Conservation Association Is Founded[04770] Mather, Stephen T. Yard, Robert Sterling Albright, Horace M. Grinnell, George Bird

Taft’s successor, Woodrow Wilson, was not particularly interested in conservation, but his secretary of the interior, Franklin K. Lane, Lane, Franklin K. was more committed—even though he had supported the damming of Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley Hetch Hetchy Valley Yosemite National Park against the bitter opposition of many conservationists, including John Muir Muir, John and members of the Sierra Club. Sierra Club In 1913, Lane gave responsibility for the national parks to Adolph C. Miller, Miller, Adolph C. an economics professor from the University of California, who brought with him to Washington one of his assistants, Horace M. Albright. Miller soon moved to the Treasury Department to assist in planning the Federal Reserve Board, and in January, 1915, Lane chose Mather, a former schoolmate, as Miller’s replacement. A wealthy California businessman, Mather was also a member of Muir’s Sierra Club. He had been a Republican but deserted the party in 1912 to follow another apostate Republican, the former president and noted conservationist Theodore Roosevelt, into the Progressive, or Bull Moose, Party. Roosevelt, however, lost his bid for a third term as president to Wilson, a Democrat.

Mather, indefatigable and filled with energy and vision, realized that one of his major challenges was to obtain the necessary funds from Congress to both administer and develop the parks. As elected politicians, congressmen would likely respond to voters’ demands; Mather thus strove to increase publicity for the national parks. Years earlier, he had worked at the New York Sun, and he had maintained many contacts from his newspaper career. After assuming responsibility for the national parks, Mather encouraged his acquaintances in the journalistic profession to give the nation’s parks more recognition.

He also convinced Robert Sterling Yard, a longtime friend and the editor of The Century magazine, to come to Washington to organize the parks’ publicity campaign. Mather and Yard were more than mere business acquaintances—Yard had been Mather’s best man at his wedding in 1893. Several years older than Mather, Yard was an easterner who had come to love the wilderness through literature. After accepting Mather’s offer, he quickly took up the national park cause. There was no budgetary provision for Yard’s salary, so Mather, whose family had accumulated considerable wealth in California’s borax-mining industry, agreed to pay most of Yard’s salary himself.

Although legislation had been introduced annually since 1911 to establish a national park service, it had never succeeded in becoming law, in spite of considerable congressional support for the creation of new national parks. In part as a result of the publicity engendered by Yard and Mather, Congress acted, and in August, 1916, Wilson signed the legislation creating the National Park Service. Implementation of the law was slow. One setback occurred in the beginning of 1917, when Mather suffered a nervous breakdown, but in April, under the shadow of war, Congress voted the necessary funds for the service. Mather, who was still recuperating, was chosen as the director; Albright was named assistant director, and he served as the acting director until Mather’s return to work in 1918.

By the end of World War I, Yard had met the challenge of gaining publicity for the national parks. In addition to writing numerous articles, in 1917 he successfully distributed 250,000 booklets about the parks, 83,000 park maps for automobile users, and 350,000 feet of motion-picture film to churches, schools, and other organizations at no charge. He also assembled two volumes, Glimpses of Our National Parks Glimpses of Our National Parks (Yard) and National Parks Portfolio, National Parks Portfolio (Yard) the latter of which became one of the National Park Service’s best sellers.

A new complication occurred toward the end of World War I. Mather had continued to provide most of Yard’s salary as well as part of Albright’s. In 1918, an amendment to an appropriations bill was adopted prohibiting the use of private funds to support any government activity. Even though the amendment was the byproduct of an issue that had nothing to do with conservation matters or the National Park Service, it had a significant effect on the partnership between the two men. Albright’s income was reduced only slightly, given that he had a government salary, but Yard lost most of his income. At the age of fifty-seven, he suddenly had a bleak future. Mather tried and failed to obtain a position for Yard with the American Civic Association, which was dedicated to conservation issues.

On May 20, 1919, however, Mather and Yard and a few others founded the National Parks Association. Mather personally contributing five thousand dollars. At the time, the organization was one of a number of conservation groups, but it was the only one specifically dedicated to the preservation of the nation’s parks. Its stated objective was “to defend the National Parks and National Monuments fearlessly against the assaults of private interests and aggressive commercialism.” Yard became the new organization’s executive secretary.


At the time of its founding, the National Parks Association had only about one hundred members and the money contributed by Mather. Mather and Yard were optimistic, however, envisioning that the several million people who had visited the national parks would flock to the association’s banner. The immediate impact of the formation of the National Parks Association, however, was minimal. Newspaper coverage was almost nonexistent. Yard composed a series of bulletins, but these were initially amateurish in appearance, and for many years they were published only sporadically. Their topics were varied: For example, bulletin number three discussed the increasing number of park visitors, bulletin number four pointed out the disaster facing the elk herd in Yellowstone, and number twelve featured details on a park-to-park automobile tour. By 1921, the bulletins had become more professional, and although the association continued to publicize the parks, it also began to focus on threats to parks posed by special interests, congressional legislation, and Washington bureaucrats. The association had found its voice as a militant organization dedicated to preserving the parks from overdevelopment by either private or public sources.

By necessity, the association became a one-man operation—and that one man was Yard. In spite of hopes and expectations, in the 1920’s membership never rose above one thousand, and though Yard continued as the executive secretary for many years and remained as the editor of the bulletins until the late 1930’s, Mather severed his formal connections with the National Parks Association soon after its founding. As director of the National Park Service, Mather had been in a difficult position in his relationship with the private National Parks Association. As a government employee heading a department dependent on funds approved by Congress, Mather had to be something of a politician. Still, he was an effective director of a growing park system. In 1916, visitors to national parks numbered less than one million, but in 1933, 3.7 million people toured the parks. Mather had also spearheaded the building of new park roads and visitor facilities. Paradoxically, the more successful Mather was in developing the parks for tourists, the more suspicious Yard became of Mather’s intentions.

During the politically conservative 1920’s, conservation had become more and more the province of business interests and of their quest for efficiency and profits. Mere preservation was not widely popular. Even the Sierra Club lost its militant edge, becoming primarily a social organization. During the decade of normalcy, the National Parks Association was the only conservation group dedicated to wilderness preservation, which was ironic because Yard was not an outdoorsman; he noted that the park he knew best was New York City’s Central Park. Even the National Park Service became one of Yard’s particular worries. Mather retired in 1929 and was succeeded as director by Horace M. Albright. Albright was more suspicious of Yard’s radicalism than Mather had been, and although Albright and Mather were members of the National Parks Association, they were more concerned about the public and recreation than about preservation in the abstract.

Yard tried to increase the membership of the National Parks Association but had little success. In 1923, he made the somewhat grandiose claim that the National Parks Association spoke not only “in defense of the Conservation of the National Parks System” but also “in the interest of Thousands of Organizations and Millions of Americans working together for these ends.” The difficulty with such an assessment was that few people actively supported the organization or its crusades. The National Parks Association’s income averaged less than fifteen thousand dollars per year during the 1920’s—including an annual contribution from John D. Rockefeller, Jr., of about two thousand dollars—and Yard was forced to divide his time and his energies among fund-raising, park defense, and wilderness advocacy. Occasionally, he expressed discouragement when so few people seemed to care, and Mather’s National Park Service received much of his criticism. In 1926, Yard visited Yosemite Valley and was disgusted with the commercialization of the area, which featured jazz, dancing, and a so-called Bear Show, in which animals were fed for the public’s amusement. All these activities were encouraged by the park’s private concessionaire, and thus, in Yard’s opinion, by Mather.

Although the National Parks Association was largely Yard’s endeavor, he did succeed in getting prominent individuals to serve on its board of directors. In 1924, for example, Herbert Hoover, then the secretary of commerce and future president of the United States, was the organization’s president. George Bird Grinnell, who succeeded Hoover in 1925, also represented the American Forestry Association. His conservation philosophy and approach differed from Yard’s, and Grinnell’s influence was manifest in moving the organization into a more institutional, perhaps less confrontational, direction by the end of the 1920’s. Yard gradually lost his paramount leadership position, and although he remained as editor of the bulletin, his control over the National Parks Association waned. As the association met fewer of his professional aspirations—and, perhaps, his personal needs—Yard joined with Aldo Leopold Leopold, Aldo and Robert Marshall Marshall, Robert in 1935 in founding the Wilderness Society, Wilderness Society and he became the secretary and editor of the organization’s publication, The Living Wilderness.

There were always unresolved tensions between the concept that the nation’s parks were for the nation’s people and the need to preserve as much primeval nature as possible. These were not easily compatible. In the 1920’s, Yard was concerned about protecting the parks from developmental excesses by special economic interests and from ignorant or venal politicians and bureaucrats. The larger issue of use versus preservation was even more daunting. In 1954, the association reported that 46 million people had visited the park system the previous year. It is perhaps no wonder that preservationists such as Yard would be more attracted to the Wilderness Society, an organization less committed to defending the public’s right of park access and use. Nevertheless, the National Parks Association did increase its membership, particularly after World War II. By the end of the 1950’s, membership had reached approximately ten thousand; a decade later, at the time of its fiftieth anniversary, the association claimed forty thousand members. Yard’s National Parks Bulletin had been superseded by a glossy publication, the National Parks Magazine, which in 1970 was renamed the National Parks and Conservation Magazine, subtitled The Environmental Journal. The same year, the association changed its name to the National Parks and Conservation Association (NPCA). These changes were undoubtedly an attempt to capture the new interest in conservation and the environment emanating from the numerous social movements of the 1960’s.

Mather died in 1930, and Yard died in 1945. As the century progressed, the organization they founded took up a middle ground in the preservation-versus-use debate. Still committed to as much preservation as was feasible, the association nevertheless had to consider the needs of both park users and supporters, groups that did not always overlap. The association continued to work to protect wilderness, but it was no longer at the cutting edge of preservation. By the latter part of the century, even the revived Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society had been overtaken on the preservation front by radical groups such as Earth First! If the NPCA had abandoned the left wing of the environmental movement, however, its move to a more moderate preservationist stance may well have stimulated increased membership, which had grown to 300,000 by 2005. Environmental organizations National Parks and Conservation Association Conservation;wilderness Wilderness preservation

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Albright, Horace M. The Birth of the National Parks Service. Salt Lake City, Utah: Howe Brothers, 1985. Albright, a colleague of Mather and Yard and the second director of the National Park Service, writes about the service during the years from 1913 to 1933, when he resigned as director.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Allin, Craig W. The Politics of Wilderness Preservation. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1982. In discussing wilderness preservation, the author illustrates, in the context of other organizations, the activities of the National Parks Association as a continuing force for preservation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fox, Stephen. John Muir and His Legacy: The American Conservation Movement. Boston: Little, Brown, 1981. This crucial work includes considerable material on all aspects of the conservation movement. Contains useful information about Yard and the National Parks Association.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Frome, Michael. Regreening the National Parks. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1992. A fascinating work that discusses the troubled national parks from the 1960’s to the 1990’s. Recounts the battles the National Parks Association has fought in recent decades.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hays, Samuel P. Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency. 1959. Reprint. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1999. A seminal work on the early history of conservation. Argues that the movement began as a search for greater efficiency in resource management, not as a democratic crusade against supposed business rapacity.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Merchant, Carolyn. The Columbia Guide to American Environmental History. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. Discusses how humans and environment have interacted throughout American history, including human impacts on animal species. Includes an environmental history time line and an extensive guide to resources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nash, Roderick Frazier. Wilderness and the American Mind. 4th ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001. Intellectual history of Americans’ relationship with the wilderness, beginning with the earliest days of European contact. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shankland, Robert. Steve Mather of the National Parks. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1951. This valuable biography of Mather also includes considerable discussion of Yard, but relatively little on the National Parks Association after its founding in 1919.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Watkins, T. H. Righteous Pilgrim. New York: Henry Holt, 1990. A brilliant and massive biography of Harold Ickes, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secretary of the interior. Watkins discusses all of the various U.S. conservation organizations, including the National Parks Association.

Pinchot Becomes Head of the U.S. Forest Service

U.S. Congress Approves a Dam in Hetch Hetchy Valley

National Park Service Is Created

Mineral Act Regulates Public Lands

Izaak Walton League Is Formed

Marshall Writes The People’s Forests

Marshall and Leopold Form the Wilderness Society

Darling Founds the National Wildlife Federation

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