The National Park Service was formed by an act of Congress on August 25, 1916. Prior to that, most of our national parks fell under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior (DOI), which was underfunded and responsible for eight different divisions that managed, among other things, patents, Indian affairs, education, railroads, and the census.
Some parks were staffed by the U.S. Army, which had to enforce laws against poaching, grazing, and vandalism. Other sites were managed by civilians. National monuments had minimal staffing. Historic battlefields were run by the U.S. War Department, whose interest in maintaining these sites was low on its list of priorities.
By 1916, thanks to the Model T, millions of Americans actually had the means to visit the parks. But the parks were poorly maintained — many had only rough dirt roads. At the core of the problem was a fragmented management system that couldn’t share resources or information from one park to the next. “The present situation is essentially that of a city with a dozen splendid but largely undeveloped parks, each of them under a separate management,” the Post commented in an editorial from February 1916. “Of course no city would tolerate any such absurd arrangement. It would immediately establish a park board or bureau to manage all the parks coordinately.”
One of the biggest challenges was a lack of agreement on whether conservation meant protecting park land for its wilderness or usable resources. The dispute came to national attention in 1913 when a valley in Yosemite Park was dammed to provide water supply for San Francisco. Fears that the parks’ resources would be squandered prompted the drive to unify the parks.
Post editor George Horace Lorimer was a fierce supporter of the National Park Service bill, which proposed a unified system to run all the nation’s parks and monuments from within the DOI. In the year before the bill was finally passed, he ran no fewer than seven editorials endorsing it, sometimes as frequently as two weeks apart. The Post’s nature writer, Emerson Hough, also wrote in support of conservation and the parks. And his “Made in America” series in 1915 promoted the parks to American travelers who wouldn’t be vacationing in war-torn Europe.
In the aftermath of the bill’s passage, many credited the Post for its drumbeat of support: As Richard B. Watrous, secretary of the American Civic Association, said in a statement before the House of Representatives after the bill’s passage in April of 1917, “I might cite The Saturday Evening Post, which has had an editorial in it every two or three weeks for the past three months by its managing editor, Mr. George Horace Lorimer in very marked approval of the idea of having a national park service.”
Click the blue headlines below to read three of those impassioned editorials:
In 1916, Post editor George Lorimer wasted no time voicing the magazine’s support for the formation of a National Park Service to unify and manage the nation’s four dozen or so parks and monuments, which at that time were maintained separately. The following editorial appeared in the Post on New Year’s Day of that year.
In February of 1916, Post editor George Lorimer showed his support once again for the passage of the National Park Service Organic Bill of 1916, which would establish the NPS as a bureau within the Department of the Interior. In “Parks for Posterity,” he argues that the “wisdom of this plan is so self-evident that no room is left for argument.”
In the Post of March 18, 1916, George Lorimer compared the success of Canada’s national park system to the relative failure of America’s parks, adding a note of patriotism to his arguments in support of the creation of the U.S. National Park Service. He contended that it wasn’t a question of quality, but of management.
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