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Charting the course: seventy-five years ago, NPCA's founders established a mission that continues to guide the association today.

NEARLY 75 YEARS AGO, a small group of scientists and educators gathered at the Cosmos Club across from the White House in Washington, D.C., to establish a group dedicated to protecting the national parks.

In the previous decades, conservationists had rallied to defend the Sierra Nevada Mountains as well as birds being slaughtered for their meat and feathers; why not a group to champion the national parks?

The National Park Service (NPS) had been formed three years before, but the group believed the infant service needed a private organization, not beholden to government, to engage in battles against dam builders, sheep herders, and others who might violate the integrity of the national parks. The time was right to organize, and the National Parks and Conservation Association--originally called the National Parks Association (NPA)--was born at the Cosmos Club meeting May 19, 1919.

Robert Sterling Yard, a journalist, editor, and businessman, led the effort to create the association. The small, intense, hard-working Yard served as a one-man public relations staff for the recently created NPS. He had worked with Stephen Mather, founding director of the Park Service, on the staff of the New York Sun in the early 1890s. Mather brought Yard to Washington to promote both the parks and the agency charged with managing them. Considered a valuable addition to the team, Yard, then 58, received his salary directly from Mather.

Yard was a pivotal figure in the National Parks Association. Though not a young man, the organized and resourceful Yard had remarkable energy and stamina. Under his leadership, the association became the principal citizen guardian of the national parks. He would remain a key figure in its history for nearly a quarter century.

Yard believed inspiration and education were the principal values of national parks, and when the National Park Service was established in 1916, he began promoting education within the new agency. But this did not ignite the small NPS staff still struggling to define its mission, to set up its organization, and to build its presence in Washington.

After a year of frustration, Yard decided to create an education committee outside government. He found scientists and educators receptive to the idea, so in June 1918 they organized the National Parks Educational Committee. Charles D. Walcott, a distinguished geologist and president of the National Academy of Sciences, was elected chairman. William Kent, a national park enthusiast, former congressman from California, and donor of Muir Woods National Monument, became vice chairman. Prominent Washington civic leader Henry B. F. Macfarland was named chairman of the executive committee, and Yard became executive secretary. The mission would be "to educate the public in respect to the nature and quality of the national parks [and] further the view of the national parks as classrooms and museums of Nature."

The National Parks Educational Committee had 25 founding members, and Yard worked for the next 11 months to recruit more. By April 1919, membership had grown to 72 people, most of whom were leaders in science and education. Although the group considered the committee temporary, they agreed to form a more permanent organization--the National Parks Association--if sufficient interest in their agenda existed.

Support for a permanent organization was strong, and even Mather favored the idea. Yard had, Mather noted, suggested the idea in 1916, but World War I intervened. Mather proposed Yard as the association's executive secretary and pledged $5,000 for the secretary's salary and organization expenses. Mather offered to do this because he loved the national parks and was sure "that the association, once it is...launched, will play an important part in their success."

Yard and his associates wanted to protect parks from loggers, dam builders, and other developers as well as preserve national park ideals. This might mean shielding the parks from those who wanted the areas to serve a purpose other than one of inspiration or education. The association founders saw in the emerging National Park System the best expressions of the designs of nature. While the association supported the aim of expanding the National Park System, it believed any additions should satisfy the highest standard. Yard was careful not to tread on the toes of his friend and benefactor Mather, but he was concerned about the government's intent. The time might come, Yard believed, when a group like NPA would be forced to challenge the Park Service. The service might be on the right path now, he said, but NPA must be created and "a basis for common working... established as precedent for later periods when...politics may plunge the service so deeply into the tape basket that policies become prostituted and vision lost," a prediction that would be borne out during the 1980s.

NPA would have three central missions, fundamental principles for the association to this day: to advocate and protect high standards in enlarging and managing the National Park System; to encourage use of the parks for their highest purposes of education and inspiration; and to defend national parks from those who might damage them.

When the National Parks Association was founded, the park system was evolving, its future uncertain. Would the system, as the association's founders believed it should, be "complete and rational" and include "the full range of American scenery, flora, and fauna..." in areas identified by their extraordinary significance? Or would the system include units of lesser quality? The founders feared that Congress might add units of less than national significance, as they believed it had with Platt National Park in Oklahoma, redesignated in 1976 as Chickasaw National Recreation Area. Today the association continues to struggle with this issue. And as the number of park visitors climbs unabated, one question remains central: what purpose do the parks serve? The association's founders struggled with this same question 75 years ago: would the national parks be preserves, museums, and natural classrooms, or resorts, playgrounds, and recreation areas?

During the park system's early years, Mather aggressively promoted new parks and enlisted the support of automobile clubs, railroads, and chambers of commerce in his initiative. Though the association carefully avoided even implied criticism of Mather, it was concerned about the suggestion of boosterism for the future of the system.

And what of national mounments? What should they be, and how should they be selected? Presidents beginning with Theodore Roosevelt had created monuments under the Antiquities Act, legislation that allowed them to do so without gaining approval from Congress. As a result, NPA maintained that national monuments "have been created hit of miss, chosen without plan or purpose, upon chance suggestions." The association committed itself to defining standards for selecting monuments and proposed that "a permanent committee of historical and scientific experts" be formed to apply the criteria. (Such a committee appeared as the Secretary of the Interior's Advisory Board on National Parks, Historic Sites, Buildings and Monuments in the early 1930s.) The association, stocked as it was with scientists, was certain a system that made sense could be achieved.

The founder's ambition was for their organization to become the heart of a national effort on behalf of parks. They understood the need to build coalitions. Yard was charged with building a membership and a presence for NPA in national park and conversation affairs. To launch his membership campaign, Yard searched for an opportunity to prove NPA's spirit. His first skirmish was what he called the "elk opportunity" in Yellowstone National Park. Too many elk, a damaged range, and summer drought followed by deep winter snow drove the hungry elk beyond Yellowstone's boundaries, where they were slaughtered by hunters. The killing outraged park and wildlife advocates, who called for measures to stop it.

The Park Service began feeding the elk. Yard sent out bulletins carrying information about the animals and seeking donations. Any money received was passed along to the Park Service. NPA maintained that the Yellowstone elk herds must be protected. The herds "must be kept within limits of size which a reasonable range will support," but killing by hunters was not an acceptable way to achieve this goal. In April 1920 Yard could report to the association's 700 members that the animals had survived the winter.

The elk crisis helped NPA make a name for itself. Funds were raised, members were educated, and a long campaign involving hunting and wildlife was launched. This episode, only the first in a long line, would give the fledgling organization an opportunity to demonstrate its aims and methods.

That spring brought another opportunity for Yard to establish the association in the national effort for park protection. Yellowstone was again the subject of controversy, but this time the issue concerned water for irrigation and protecting national parks from intrusion. Rep. Addison T. Smith of Idaho introduced a bill into the 66th Congress proposing an irrigation reservoir in the Falls River-Bechler River basins within the southwest corner of the park. The water would flow to farmers in Idaho. Director Mather and Yellowstone Superintendent Horace Albright did their best to slow necessary surveys of the basins, while NPA and other organizations opposed the legislation at congressional hearings. The reservoir threat was, at least temporarily, averted.

Soon the association was in another battle, this time over legislation to create a Federal Power Commission (FPC) to permit water development on public land, including national parks. A dam had been authorized nealy a decade earlier in Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy Valley, and national park defenders were determined not to allow another such intrusion in the National Park System. The struggle raged through the halls of Congress, and NPA became a full-fledged foot soldier to combat what Yard called "The War on the National Parks."

Influential Western interests sought access to the parks through the Federal Power Commission, and in the first congressional round, they pushed through a bill giving the FPC jurisdiction over park waters. To counter these Western forces, Yard worked to develop a network.

Working with groups such as the Appalachian Mountain Club, Sierra Club, and Mountaineers, Yard set up regional organizations in various cities throughout the country. But his most important allies were the National Association of Business and Professional Women and the General Federation of Women's Clubs. Established in every congressional district, these clubs pursued a legislative agenda as part of their regular activity. Yard recruited and received their support, creating a lasting alliance that would be a significant ingredient in building NPA's influence.

With help from these clubs, Yard won partial victory in the struggle over the Federal Power Act. An amendment to the act stipulated that the FPC could not authorize water projects in existing parks and monuments but could do so in any new units unless specifically prohibited. Yard warned the trustees that the defense of national parks against water projects would be a long struggle. His words would prove prophetic. In 1993 NPCA issued Park Waters in Peril, a report detailing the magnitude of the threats to water throughout the park system.

By the second annual meeting in 1921, the association could claim 1,300 members. It watched Congress closely from its Washington base, while alerting people across the nation when threats to the national parks occurred. The association could also apprise members and others of opportunities to improve and strengthen the National Park System. This was not the form of education initially envisioned by the founders, but they saw its importance and would pursue other projects as time and resources allowed.

NPA's founders clearly believed the National Park Service could not (and perhaps would not) undertake certain projects. Politics to some degree would dictate the policies of the service, which would be subject to the will of Congress and the executive branch of government. The founders were idealists who believed they could work for the "big fruits of the national parks movement... unhampered by politics and routine." While so far the association had worked alongside the service, the founders awaited the time when they would stand firm for their ideals against powerful political forces within government.
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Title Annotation:National Parks and Conservation Association
Author:Miles, John
Publication:National Parks
Date:Nov 1, 1993
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