Stephen Mather Builds the National Park Service

  • Nature, Animals & Parks
  • 1916

Stephen Mather was the first director of the National Park Service, but he was much more than a bureaucrat. His abilities as a manager and his personal donations as a private citizen were his greatest contributions to nature conservation, not least in creating the Park Service itself. An outdoorsman from an early age, Mather always found time to climb mountains and hike canyons no matter how busy he got as a businessman (he made a fortune selling borax) or philanthropist. He was not only interested in protecting scenic resources and natural areas, but devoted to encouraging new transportation methods that would allow Americans to reach and enjoy them. By 1915, he had gotten a group together to buy the Tioga Road to Yosemite for $15,500 and donate it to Yosemite National Park. In 1915, Mather accepted a position as assistant secretary of the interior in Washington, D.C., and when the National Park Service was created in 1917 he was appointed its first director.

Mather wished to have the parks supported by avid users. This led him to focus on access and programming. In 1916 he convinced several railroad companies to join him in donating $48,000 to publicize the national parks. He got automobile companies to “democratize” parks by supporting the construction of roads to get a broader cross-section of Americans into them. He spent thousands from his own pocket to improve park access, and created the first visitor centers, including providing $25,000 of personal funds to build the Rangers’ Club at Yosemite. Mather pushed for “nature study” and interpretation programs that would attract citizens to their parks, and invited in concessioners who could provide basic comforts. He also led and paid for trips to parks by influential people, and supplied material to the press which generated 1,050 magazine articles on parklands from 1917 to 1919 alone.

Mather continued to buy acreage and donate it to the parks, and convinced wealthy friends to do likewise. He took on talented staff and paid them himself, and professionalized the park ranger corps into one of the most competent parts of the federal work force. With this impressive start, the National Park Service went on to attract an estimated $48 billion in private preservation investment from 1916 to the present.

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