If you watched the 2016 Rose Bowl Parade, you know the National Park Service (NPS) celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. The participants included Yosemite Park Rangers on horseback and documentary film maker Ken Burns as the Parade’s Grand Marshal. One of the rangers celebrated his 50th year as a seasonal ranger last year (more on that later).
The National Park Service’s story is an evolutionary tale. As our European cousins criticized the carnival-like atmosphere of Niagara Falls in the early 1800’s, United States citizens struggled with how to care for the continent’s many natural wonders that indigenous tribes had somehow managed not to spoil despite living here for millennia.
A few prominent Californians helped to plant the seed when they lobbied to set aside Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees (giant Sequoias) for the benefit and enjoyment of the public. President Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant in 1864, granting California responsibility for maintaining those scenic wonders.
The Yosemite Grant was followed eight years later with the establishment of the country’s first national park, Yellowstone. In 1890, President Benjamin Harrison signed legislation adding Sequoia, General Grant, and an expanded Yosemite to America’s collection of national parks. More national parks and national monuments (the latter established by executive order, bypassing any resistance in Congress) would follow.
While the country was working out this new idea of wilderness preservation, someone had to protect national park land. Where there was no protection, there was vandalism, poaching, and sheepherding. There has always been tension between those who wish to preserve America’s treasures and those who wish to use federal lands for private gain – agriculture, mining, and lumber. For several decades, the United States Army played the role of protector.
Early in the twentieth century, Stephen Mather (who made his millions promoting Borax products), Horace Albright, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., and Horace McFarland campaigned for the creation of a federal bureau to manage the National Parks. Their efforts bore fruit when President Woodrow Wilson signed the National Park Service Act (and also know as the Organic Act of 1916) into law on August 25, 1916. The law mandated that the National Park Service “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife [within the parks, monuments, and preserves]” while at the same time providing for current and future generations’ enjoyment of these national treasures. If you have visited a national park on a busy summer day, you understand that conservation and public enjoyment sometimes come into conflict.
As new national parks and monuments have been added and as the number of visitors has grown, the NPS has had to evolve to meet new challenges. The rangers are responsible for fire protection, search and rescue, and law enforcement, as well as the responsibilities we more often associate with them – public education about geology, flora, and fauna; protecting visitors and wildlife from each other; managing campgrounds; providing visitors information about hiking trails and climbing routes. Rangers who were once Jacks and Jills of all trades are now more specialized.
Back to that 50-year seasonal ranger I mentioned earlier (I will use only his first name, Fred.). This past summer, I had the privilege of serving as a volunteer in Yosemite National Park. While there, I met a number of the Rangers. Nothing is more iconic than a ranger on horseback. On one sunny afternoon, a family that included a very young Junior Ranger visited one of the volunteer locations, Parsons Lodge, in Tuolumne Meadows. The young boy was excited about almost everything, including a toad that had managed to hop on a window shutter and a marmot on a nearby stack of rocks. But the Junior Ranger’s really big moment came when Ranger Fred rode up the trail on his horse King. The child was truly star struck as Ranger Fred took ten minutes to engage the Junior Ranger. I’m sure the child will enjoy that memory for quite some time.
Whatever your favorite national park or monument – I have a hard time choosing among Yosemite, Glacier, Gettysburg, the Grand Canyon, and Yorktown, just to name a few – take a few minutes to talk to a ranger. They are often overworked and frequently underpaid. But I’ve never seen one out of sorts with a visitor. Thank the ranger for his or her service. We are privileged to have so many dedicated men and women to enhance our enjoyment of America’s treasures.
- Farabee, Charles R. National Park Ranger: An American Icon. Lanham, MD: Roberts Rinehart, 2003.
- National Park Service History Program (various articles). http://www.nps.gov/parkhistory.