Three Inspirational People Who Changed National Parks Forever

By James Kaiser

Everyone knows America’s national parks are visually stunning, but the story behind the scenery is equally impressive.

Many of our most treasured landscapes were saved thanks to the passion and dedication of a few individuals. As we celebrate the National Park Service’s 100th birthday, let’s remember three inspirational people who helped create the parks.

John Muir

In March 1868, a Scottish-born 29-year-old arrived in San Francisco and was asked where he wanted to go.

“Anywhere that is wild,” John Muir responded. He then headed to the Sierra Nevada Mountains to visit Yosemite Valley, which he called “the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter.”

Over the next six years, Muir wandered among flower-filled alpine valleys and soaring granite peaks. He filled journal after journal with detailed notes about the region’s plants and animals. He was enraptured by the scenery-and disturbed by looming threats. Tourist development proceeded unchecked in Yosemite Valley, and grazing sheep (“hooved locusts” Muir called them) were destroying the surrounding meadows.

At age 36, the aimless Muir made a fateful decision: he would devote his life to saving Yosemite.

Muir wrote dozens of passionate articles about the beauty of the Sierra Nevada, which he dubbed the “Range of Light.” His writing became wildly popular, and Muir leveraged his fame to push for the creation of Yosemite National Park in 1890. Two years later, he co-founded the Sierra Club and became its first president.

Looking beyond Yosemite, Muir argued for more national parks, and he was instrumental in the creation of Sequoia, Mount Rainier and Grand Canyon.

Today he is often called the “Father of National Parks.”


Teddy Roosevelt

A few months after 42-year-old Teddy Roosevelt became the youngest president in U.S. history, John Muir published “Our National Parks.” The collection of essays had a profound impact on Roosevelt, who invited Muir to guide him through Yosemite in 1903. Ditching the president’s entourage, the two men camped on the rim of Yosemite Valley and discussed wilderness conservation.

A staunch conservationist, Roosevelt had already established America’s fifth and sixth national parks, Wind Cave and Crater Lake, and created the nation’s first wildlife refuge, Pelican Island in Florida. After meeting with Muir, however, Roosevelt stepped up the pace.

Roosevelt created the U.S. Forest Service and declared 150 national forests. He established three more national parks and dozens of new wildlife reserves. All told, he protected over 230 million acres-nearly 10% of the present-day United States.

Roosevelt also signed the 1906 Antiquities Act, which grants presidents the power to declare national monuments. He used this new power to declare 18 national monuments, and future presidents would declare over 100 more. (Obama has declared 23 so far-more than any other president.) Today, roughly a quarter of all National Park Service units were protected using the Antiquities Act.

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Stephen Mather

In 1914, a wealthy member of the Sierra Club, Stephen Mather, wrote an angry letter to Secretary of the Interior Franklin Lane, complaining about the condition of America’s national parks. Lane’s response: “If you don’t like the way the national parks are being run, why don’t you come down to Washington and run them yourself.”

Mather took him up on the offer, and in 1916, he became the first director of the newly established National Park Service.

To Mather, the problem was clear: without broad public support, the parks would never receive enough funding.

At the time, few Americans visited national parks, so Mather kicked off a grand promotional campaign. To lure vacationing families away from Europe, Mather urged Americans to “See America First.”

To physically transport them to remote parks, Mather partnered with railroads and automobile companies. And to make sure visitors enjoyed their stay, Mather championed the construction of grand rustic lodges.

Over the next 13 years Mather transformed America’s national parks from scenic curiosities into iconic destinations. Under his leadership visitation surged, as did public support for national parks. Mather’s legacy continues to endure. Today three-quarters of Americans express “strong support” for the National Park Service-one of the highest ratings of any government agency.

James KaiserJames Kaiser is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He has written several best-selling guides to national parks, including Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Acadia, Joshua Tree. To help promote Every Kid In A Park, a new initiative that gives free national park passes to fourth graders, he presents national park slideshows at elementary schools. Make sure to follow me on Instagram or Twitter.