When President Woodrow Wilson signed the bill establishing the National Park Service 100 years ago, on Aug. 25, 1916, the law had been preceded by an intensive journalistic campaign to convince people that such an agency was needed.
The leading writer behind this campaign to bring together the disparate management of the existing parks, Robert Sterling Yard, was a longtime New Yorker and prominent journalist then in his mid-50s. Prior to being chosen as a pro-wilderness promoter, he had little to do with the wild outdoors, at least professionally. But the city slicker had been handpicked by his longtime friend Stephen Mather, an industrial tycoon and nature-lover who had been appointed as a special assistant to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, as the man for the job. And Yard felt strongly about the need for protected land: “I, the treader of dusty city streets,” he once said, “boldly claim common kinship with you of the plains, the mountains, and the glaciers.”
Mather and Yard reasoned that public support for a centralized management of the national parks would be a key step in making sure that the government took action. The duo’s ensuing campaign generated “unprecedented press coverage” and “put pressure on Congress to create an independent parks agency,” as told by Paul S. Sutter’s book Driven Wild: How the Fight against Automobiles Launched the Modern Wilderness Movement.
The cornerstone of the Mather-Yard public relations endeavor was the National Parks Portfolio, a collection of nine heavily-illustrated pamphlets that conveyed the grandeur and diversity of America’s natural scenery, and also suggested that visiting these national parks, aside from being enjoyable, was an act of good citizenship. The Portfolio’s 1916 first edition ran 275,000 copies, many of them distributed to prominent Americans, including every member of Congress. Millions of additional copies were circulated in a lower-cost version.
So how exactly did Yard make the argument for the National Park Service? By explaining that the parks were worth the effort. “Stay with the wilderness and it will repay you a thousandfold,” Yard promises in the Portfolio.
He touts Yellowstone National Park as “the fitting playground and pleasure resort of a great people; it is also the ideal summer school of nature study.”
He describes Crater Lake National Park as “a gem of wonderful color in a setting of pearly lavas relieved by patches of pine green and snow white – a gem which changes hue with every atmospheric change and every shift of light.”
About Rocky Mountain National Park, he declares that, “There is probably no other scenic neighborhood of the first order which combines mountain outlines so bold with a quality of beauty so intimate and refined. Just to live in the valleys in the eloquent and ever-changing presence of these carved and tinted peaks is itself satisfaction. But to climb into their embrace, to know them in the intimacy of their bare summits and their flowered, glaciated gorges, is to turn a new and unforgettable page in experience.”
About the Grand Canyon, which Native Americans saw as the “road to heaven,” Yard says: “Even the most superficial description of this enormous spectacle may not be put in words. The wanderer upon the rim overlooks a thousand square miles of pyramids and minarets carved from the painted depths. Many miles away and more than a mile below the level of his feet he sees a tiny silver thread which he knows is the giant Colorado. He is numbed by the spectacle. At first he cannot comprehend it. There is no measure, nothing which the eye can grasp, the mind fathom.”
Yard did more than just gush about Nature, though. His June 1916 article, “Making a Business of Scenery,” appearing in The Nation’s Business magazine, touts all the potential tourism money of our national parks, which, properly managed, could be “quickly turned into an economic asset of incalculable value to this nation.” Citing Switzerland – which “lives on her scenery” and “makes it a business” – as an example, he points out how this European nation “perceived that snow-covered peaks were as good as gold mines; that glaciers and precipices paid like factories; and lake shores were as profitable as ocean fronts.”
In Yard’s view, “There are few Americans today who know, or hearing it, actually realize that American scenery in quality, variety and quantity outclasses Switzerland’s decisively.” He contends that, “Our national parks have had little patronage because few have ever heard of them,” and asks: “What has the United States been doing [with its national parks]?”
He then proclaims that he and other Americans in the know, “want our national parks developed…We want roads and trails like Switzerland’s. We want hotels of all prices from lowest to highest. We want comfortable public camps in sufficient abundance to meet all demands…We want sufficient and convenient transportation at reasonable rates…We want special facilities for nature study.”
Yard concludes that such developments are a “business proposition and must be built up soundly. We have the biggest and finest stock of scenery in the world and there is an enormous market for it.”