Eventually the National Park Service came under the umbrella of the Department of the Interior. Actually, the Department of the Interior, itself, wasn’t even created until 1849. Prior to that, all of the responsibilities it would hold were those of the Department of State. At the time, there were a number of organizations that didn’t seem to really belong to the Department to which they were assigned. The General Land Office didn’t seem to have much to with the Treasury and the Patent Office was under the Department of State.

Leaf in Needles

Leaf in Needles

Though the idea of a separate department for domestic affairs was considered at the first congress in 1789, those offices were given to the Department of State and remained there for about 60 years amidst occasional rumblings about the need to segregate those responsibilities. But the idea finally got “legs” around the time of the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) as the duties of state began to grow significantly. By then the goal was to offload responsibilities of State rather than organize the cabinet. Opposition came, largely from the southern states fearing that an Interior Department could easily consolidate to strip states rights. Interestingly (maybe even, ironic), Jefferson Davis of Mississippi sided with Daniel Webster of Massachusetts saying, “There are duties respecting our foreign relations; and there are duties respecting our internal affairs.” He felt it was a “…plain and practical question….”

In spite of the sectional debates, the actual vote was split along party lines. Nevertheless, the new Department of the Interior was created and, euphemistically, called “The Department of Everything Else.” The Department of the Interior was largely responsible for the land management in the “territories”. Most of the country west of the Mississippi was just territory. There was the recently acquired Texas (in 1845, which included parts of what now is Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas and maybe some of Utah). But the rest were territories; Minnesota Territory, Mexican Cession Territory (acquired in 1848), Oregon Territory (boundary dispute settled in 1846), and the remnants of the Louisiana Purchase. Land management included handling homesteading, Indian Affairs and resource management.

Most of these responsibilities were handled by the General Land Office and the Bureau of Indian Affairs while some needs of the west were handled by additional, smaller offices of the Interior.

By 1872, Nebraska, Kansas, California, Oregon and Nevada had become States. Texas was whittled down to its current boundaries. The rest of the “territories” were now carved up into the areas bounded by those of the corresponding states of which they would become (except for the Dakota Territory which encompassed both North and South Dakota). This was also the year that Yellowstone was named the first National Park. It was done because, unlike Yosemite, there was no state to which it could be granted. It only seemed natural to have it administered by the Department of the Interior. When John Muir became concerned about the fragility of the “out country” of the Yosemite Grant, he appealed to congress. In 1890 it was made the third National Park[i] (Sequoia was the second, created a week earlier). Muir then worked to get California to return the Grant back to the Federal government as he felt the Federal Government could better take care of the whole park better than California could do.

Lembert Dome with Shadows

Lembert Dome with Shadows

By 1890, Wyoming became a state and in less than 10 years, Utah would be a state. The last three states of the continental United States; Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona would all be states by 1912. At the same time, those states that did exist were starting to spread out from their established cities, grow in population and had a need for more of the resources still held by the Federal Government; land and water. Understaffed and under budgeted from the outset, the Interior Department was becoming overwhelmed by its responsibilities, especially those of the National Parks. It wasn’t even clear which office of the department administered to the public parks unless the needs deal with its resources.

Though it wasn’t quite clear yet, the first seeds for the need of a National Park Service were sown in 1901 with the passage of the Right-of-Way-Act. This act was proposed by San Francisco, written and shepherded through both houses of congress by a representative and a senator from California. This bill would allow rights of way to be made through public lands, including parks, for transmission lines, telegraph, pipes, irrigation, water supply; virtually anything whatever.

Once this law was on the books, San Francisco immediately used it to claim the water rights to the Tuolumne River and the Hetch Hetchy Valley to contain it. Secretary of the Interior, Ethan Allen Hitchcock denied the claim in 1903, but in doing so, he was torn between the Yosemite Act of 1890 (becoming a National Park) and the Right of Way Act which allowed use of the public grounds for public use, just such as this. Some even argued that the Right of Way Act actually required approval of such requests. Right here, at this point in history, a conflict in interest occurred putting the same person to decide which of two conflicting mandates to uphold in the same office. For those of us that agree, Hitchcock made the right choice, but in a few years, his successor would make a different choice.

By today’s standards, it is easy to characterized those of 100 years ago as belonging to one of two factions; our side, that of sensitive environmentalists, flying in on fairy wings spreading their pixie dust of goodness and light everywhere for the protection of our national wonders or the other side, the evil land-rapers bent on flattening the landscape reaping all resources available for the exploitation of the money machines that would distribute its spoils. However, such a characterization is overly simplistic, unnecessarily caustic and just, flat wrong.

Upper Yosemite Falls with Fog

Upper Yosemite Falls with Fog

Even as late as the beginning of the 20th century, the job of the federal government with regard to the land it still owned was still ill-defined. What was becoming quite clear is that the wilderness was quickly being ravaged by commercial exploits. Indeed, this sentiment brought about the Yosemite Grant in the first place (40 years earlier) and the 12 National Park created subsequent to the establishment of the National Park System. A national conservatism was still growing. This conservatism manifested itself to two primary forms. The Preservationists wanted to protect the wilderness and especially the National Parks from any kind of commercial exploitation of its resources. The Progressives, also concerned about the wanton destruction of our nation’s natural resources and the lands they occupied wanted well-managed use of timber and other resources. Their mantra was “the greatest good for the greatest number” without leaving total devastation in the wake of its progress. Both were conservative ideas, the difference just being a simple matter of degree. This was simply a logical division of sympathies. Hitchcock can be characterized as a preservationist because of his denial of San Francisco’s requesting in 1903 and, once again in 1905.

The 1906 Earthquake in San Francisco did a lot to garner sympathy for San Francisco and their water and power issues. Ironically, San Francisco was working on alternative water resources after loosing the Hetch Hetchy Valley and the Tuolumne River with the latest Hitchcock denial in 1905. The earthquake got the attention of the whole country (and the world). It got the attention of Gifford Pinchot, a progressive forester in charge of the US Forest Service who suggested to San Francisco that, if still interested in the Yosemite resources, their claim may now fall upon more sympathetic ears. It did, sort of. James Garfield (grandson of the former President) granted rights of way of the Tuolumne River in 1907, but, because the dam was to be in a National Park, congressional approval was necessary to construct the dam.

The rallying of preservationists, inspired by John Muir, succeeded in getting a bill tabled in December of 1908 that would have allowed the damming of the Tuolumne River in Hetch Hetchy Valley. It was tabled, not defeated. Another thrust by San Francisco was successful in December of 1913. By 1934, the dam was in place and the valley was flooded.

Yosemite-Falls-at-Night-From-TrailAnother, lesser known infringement on National Park property was begun in 1914 with the construction of the Sherburne Dam just outside the boundary of Glacier National Park in Montana. The resulting Lake Sherburne extended well into the park. This dam was constructed partially for flood control and partially for irrigation purposes down stream. There was no John Muir for Glacier National Park. There was no National Park Service to counter other factions of the Department of the Interior.

Much of the opposition to these dams came from the private sector. The Sierra Club was very much involved in Hetch Hetchy. In August of 1907, the board of directors adopted a resolution to be sent to the Secretary of the Interior (now James Garfield) opposing the dam. They sent letters to all members urging them to write to both the President and the Secretary of the Interior. John Muir wrote an article in the Sierra Club Bulletin condemning the dam. None of the offices at the Department of the Interior fought against the dam and many offices, indeed, came to the aid of the progressives and the US Forestry actually instigated it. In spite of the loss, preservationists continued to call for an office within the Department of the Interior that would oversee the PRESERVATION interests of the National Parks. There is no doubt that at least some credit for the success of the campaign was due to the plight of Hetch Hetchy.

At least part of this movement came from Stephen Mather, a millionaire industrialist and member of the Sierra Club. He was one of many in the crusade to create a National Parks Service, but certainly one of the most important. He garnered support from other industrial leaders, newspapers, even school children and the National Geographic Society. Once the office was created, August 25, 1916, Mather became its first director.

He was born in San Francisco, Graduated from UC Berkeley, spent 5 years as a journalist and then became a Marketing and Sales manager for Thorkildsen-Mather Borax Company (in Boron, California…just about half way between Barstow and Mojave along California Highway 58). It was his idea for the logo of 20-Mule Team Borax. He then founded a competing Borax company with Thorkildsen, became a millionaire, and retired at the age of 47 (in 1914).

He had joined the Sierra Club in 1904. He had met John Muir and other naturalists with whom he shared his passion for the outdoors. On one particular hike in 1914, Mather was disappointed in facilities at the Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks. So he wrote to the Secretary of the Interior (Franklin K. Lane, also of San Francisco and also attended UC Berkeley) and complained about conditions in the parks. Lane wrote back, suggesting, “…why don’t you come down to Washington and run them yourself….”

I’m sure Lane’s response was in jest, but Mather took him up on it. After a meeting, Mather accepted a position overseeing the parks as an assistant to Lane for one year with “…no rank or fame or salary….” He did, however, get his own assistant. The various offices (usually the US Forestry Service) had jurisdiction over the parks, but management of the parks was handled by a variety of offices or organizations. Yellowstone, Sequoia and Yosemite were managed by the US Army. Other parks were overseen by politically appointed supervisors. This is when Mather began lobbying for a separate department to manage all the parks. With his instigation, the National Park Service was signed into existence by President Woodrow Wilson on August 25, 1916; just about 100 years ago.

Valley View in Winter

Valley View in Winter

Mather was assigned as the first director of the National Park Service in April of 1917 and served 12 years until he retired in 1929. During his tenure as director, he, initially, arranged for additional funding from private/corporate sources. He sought out new properties for park status based, solely, on their scenic attraction and/or its historical significance. He preserved park resources; protecting it from encroachment by mining, ranching and logging interests, which interests the US Forestry Service was actually trying to encourage. He protected vistas and encouraged nature studies.

With the National Park Service in place, conflicting interests from other departments over resources were stopped when it came to National Park resources. At least two attempts to put dams in National Parks were thwarted by the park service. In 1943, a dam at Glacier View was stopped. Another Dam proposed at Echo Park within the heart of Dinosaur National Monument was stopped in the 1950s.

With the establishment of the National Park Service, the Department of the Interior was, for the first time, able to fulfill its complete mission; to manage the natural resources of this country and protect the National Parks.


Details for this post came for a variety of sources. Some of those are:

The Ahwahnee: Yosemite’s Grand Hotel by Keith S Walklet. Yosemite Association 2004, 1st Edition, 2nd Printing.

The Battle Over Hetch Hetchy: America’s Most Controversial Dam and the Birth of Modern Environmentalism by Robert W. Righter. Oxford University Press. 2006 1st Edition, 1st Printing.


Timeline: http://vault.sierraclub.org/history/timeline.aspx

Stephen Mather: http://vault.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/people/mather.aspx


Sierra Club: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sierra_Club

Stephen Mather: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Mather

National Park Service: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Park_Service

[i] Actually, it became the 4th National Park in 1890. In 1875, Mackinaw Island became the second National Park. So, in 1890, Sequoia became the 3rd National Park and Yosemite the 4th. It wasn’t until 1895 when Mackinaw Island was reverted back to the State of Michigan that Sequoia moved to the Number 2 spot and Yosemite, 3.