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NATIONAL PARKS CONSERVATION ASSOCIATION CENTENNIAL • 1919-2019

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National Parks and Conservation Association:
Watchdog for the National Parks

Charlene Gray-McClain

This article originally appeared in Courier: The National Park Service Newsletter, Vol. 31 No. 8, August 1986.

Stephen Mather would be proud. His recognition in 1919 of the need for a private citizen's organization to "watchdog" the national park system has been achieved in the work of the National Parks and Conservation Association (NPCA).

In August of 1916, Congress established the National Park Service and installed Stephen Mather as its first director. It was created as an agency committed to preserving the natural integrity and esthetic beauty of the parks. But Mather and close friend and associate, Robert Sterling Yard, believed more was needed to adequately protect the nation's heritage. So at Mather's urging and with his full support, Yard began organizing the National Parks Association (NPA), which was a direct descendant of its NPCA work group predecessor, the National Parks Educational Committee (NPEC). Much of NPEC's illustrious membership roster that included Theodore Roosevelt was then transferred over to NPA's (now NPCA) roll. Mather said after Yard's appointment as NPA's first president, executive secretary, and editor, "With you working outside the government and with me working inside, we ought to make the National Park System very useful to the country."

NPCA's first challenge came soon after its formation, with the proposed damming of Yellowstone Lake, following passage of the 1920 Water Power Act. This Act included the national parks and monuments under its authority. With the lake being threatened, Yard and the NPA quickly sprung into action and mobilized forces. An unrelenting campaign eventually brought full protection in 1925 against Bureau of Reclamation dams. The sweet taste of victory, however, was short lived, for this was the era known as the "War on the Parks."

Shortly after, Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall sought to debase the entire park system by a new policy to expand it to include insignificant recreational areas falling short of the high standards that had been the system's trademark. This new threat, encompassed in a bill to establish an "All-Year National Park," introduced, as Yard stated ". . . every kind of industrial precedent into the National Park System." Nonetheless, the NPA helped to ward off this threat and spent the thirties erecting a "sound national policy for the perfecting of the System."

It was during this time that NPA formed a committee to study ways of preserving unspoiled wilderness beauty while still making it available to increasing numbers of visitors—a challenge that is still confronted by NPCA and the Park Service today.

The efforts of the committee resulted in a sixty-page report which laid the groundwork for policies NPCA still retains. The report, which emphasized education, and advocated rigorous standards for interpretation by the Park Service, was the catalyst for growing public concern for wilderness protection. It was this shared impetus that helped found The Wilderness Society in 1934 by Robert Sterling Yard, who also became its first president while remaining editor of NPA publications.

In the early forties, the National Parks Association led the opposition to the proposal that a tunnel be blasted through Rocky Mountain National Park. Later, on contract with the NPCA, Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr., author of key portions of the act that created the NPS, had to convince skeptical NPCA trustees of the worthiness of the Everglades for national park status. Once convinced, however, the NPCA spearheaded efforts that eventually led to Everglades National Park in 1947, through donations to the Park Service of privately purchased land.

The issue of the Everglades was to become a perennial one for NPCA. In 1969, representatives of 19 major conservation groups met at Association headquarters in Washington to plan strategy against the most serious assault on a national park unit. A planned jetport larger than five of the nation's biggest airports was proposed for construction north of Everglades park. Had it gone through, this would have meant inevitable local development and increased water demands that could have destroyed the habitat of the park, already compromised by severe water mismanagement. Because of strong opposition orchestrated by the coalition, the jetport project was cancelled in 1970, and the Big Cypress National Preserve was established in its place.

In 1970, the National Parks Association changed its name to the National Parks and Conservation Association in order to include increasingly complex issues that peripherally affected the parks. Concerns like water, air, and noise pollution had already begun damaging the quality of the national parks, and work on strict internal park issues was no longer enough to protect them.

Throughout the years, as the nation's only private advocate focused on the entire park system, NPCA has worked as the system's strongest ally. Its on-going lobbying efforts for legislation to better protect, improve, and fund the parks has been a constant one since NPCA's inception. Its efforts on Capitol Hill, while working closely with the National Park Service, hastened the expansion of Redwood National Park in 1978. It was this same mutual interest that led to the enactment of the comprehensive National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978, which expanded park boundaries, created over 5 new parks and added 8 rivers to the Wild and Scenic Rivers System.

This, however, is not to say that the National Park Service and the National Parks and Conservation Association are perfect bedfellows. Though both work to protect the parks, they do not always share the same method of achieving that result.

NPCA's National Park Trust created in 1983 has worked tirelessly to facilitate the transfer of land from private inholdings to the public sector, thus saving the Park Service's greatly needed financial and staff resources. A good example are two sites acquired by NPCA in Big Cypress, the first in the midst of the habitat of the endangered Florida Panther, the second requiring resale to the NPS of a developed inholding that included a motel. NPCA's purchase of the 2 parcels for the Park Service subsequently saved the agency $250,000 and provided a headquarters building for Big Cypress.

As a member of the National Clean Air Coalition, NPCA participated in a nationwide mailing in January of 1985 that emphasized the need to protect parks from impaired visibility and from the adverse effects of surface mines on air quality. In May, the Association was involved in the most extensive congressional investigation to date on the state of air quality in the parks. Working with the House Subcommittee on National Parks, the Association produced witnesses and gave testimony at the hearings. As a result of this, and to further enhance public awareness, NPCA has begun investigating acid rain damage in specific park units and plans to catalogue, summarize, and publicize the results of all such research. Such a study is not an uncommon undertaking for the 67-year-old conservation organization. It plans the release in 1987 of a sweeping proposal called "The Comprehensive National Parks System Plan," detailing the future needs of the national parks.

NPCA has also conducted the badly needed research on "carrying capacity," the effect of visitation on the parks. Last year in the Great Smoky Mountains and at Glacier, NPCA conducted pilot studies of a program to manage the effects of visitors on the parks. This huge undertaking was developed by the Association's staff and a team of noted scientists and park managers. Some of the early conclusions from the study were published in the Journal of Leisure under the title "The Effects of Recreational Trampling on Natural Area Vegetation." A program for training park managers to monitor and act on visitors' effects is currently being developed.

NPCA has a national membership of about 55,000. Its NPCAlert program is a means used to keep its activists (numbered over 4,000) and members well informed of current legislation and issues concerning the parks. Its Federal Activities Staff provides the core of effort for lobbying Congress, giving testimony, drafting reports and assembling research materials. This combination is a potent force, as some of the most significant measures protecting the parks are born of it. In addition, its grassroots support consists of nearly 200 "park watchers," busily keeping vigil to protect specific park units through the National Park Action Program of NPCA. A state chapter based in New York has recently been established to broaden that base.

Stephen Mather certainly would have been proud.

How NPCA operates

NPCA is a private, nonprofit membership organization founded in 1919. It is supported by membership dues, contributions, and foundation and corporate grants. It is governed by a Board of Trustees, and is administered by its president, Paul C. Pritchard. NPCA's headquarters are in Washington, D.C. The staff includes regional representatives covering the Southwest/California region, the Rocky Mountain region, and Alaska. A New York chapter has also been recently added.


For a detailed history of the National Parks Conservation Association (commissioned for its 75th anniversary), consider reading Guardians of the Parks: A History of the National Parks and Conservation Association by John C. Miles.
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