National Parks and Education: The First 20 Years
Dwight T. Pitcaithley, 2002

A roadside exhibit (with Ranger and visitors) describing Triple Divide Peak in Glacier Nationa Park, 1960. (NPS Historic Photograph Collection HPC-000007)

The objectives were clear and bold and expansive.

  • To educate the public in respect to the nature and quality of the national parks,

  • To further the view of the national parks as classrooms and museums of nature,

  • To use existing publicity and educational systems so as to produce a wide result,

  • To combine in one interest the sympathy and activity of schools, colleges and citizen organizations in all parts of the country,

  • To study the history and science of each national park and collect data for future use. [1]

Drafted in 1918 by the National Parks Educational Committee to promote the educational opportunities in national parks, these objectives are among the earliest expressions of the National Park Service's founding fathers on the pedagogical aspects of park management. The National Parks Educational Committee was the creation of Robert Sterling Yard, a promoter of parks and of the need for a National Park Service. Yard had been hired, in 1915, by Stephen T. Mather who, in turn, had been recruited by Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane to unify the administration of national parks in a new agency to be called the National Park Service. Yard, a writer, editor, and publisher, and then Sunday editor of the New York Herald, had become friends with Mather during the 1890s when they were both newspaper reporters in New York. Yard's job was to promote the national parks and to raise the profile of the nascent National Park Service. [2]

Following the creation of the agency in August of 1916, Yard became the chief of the Educational Division. (When Congress approved the Service's first budget in the spring of 1917, there were not sufficient funds for Yard's position, so Mather paid his salary out of his own pocket.) Realizing that a budget for the expansive educational goals he envisioned for the National Park Service would not be forthcoming in the near term, Yard reached outside the Service to create the National Parks Educational Committee. He received support for his ideas from Charles D. Walcott, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution; John Huston Finley, New York Commissioner of Education; and conservationist George Bird Grinnell, among others. [3] Yard and Grinnell had been instrumental in lobbying for the creation of the National Park Service. As they met in Wolcott's Smithsonian office to draft the Committee's objectives, the men were no doubt aware that only the month before Secretary Lane had instructed Mather on the educational implications of parks. "The educational, as well as the recreational, use of the national parks should be encouraged in every practicable way. University and high-school classes will find special facilities for their vacation period studies. Museums containing specimens of wild flowers, shrubs, and trees and mounted animals, birds, and fish native to the parks, and other exhibits of the character, will be established as authorized." [4]

George Washington Carver Museum, Tuskegee Institute NHS. (NPS Historic Photograph Collection HPC-000120)

Realizing that the obligations of building parks and park service constituencies would leave little time for developing the educational agenda established by Yard, and that Congress, possibly mindful of an expanding world war one, was unlikely to provide sufficient funds for a viable educational program, Mather endorsed the creation of a separate organization which could operate outside government restrictions in support of National Park Service goals. "His [Robert Sterling Yard's] study of the parks from an educational point of view," Mather wrote, "...and his recently developed plans for organizing the cooperation of schools and universities of the country should be continued under freer and more permanent auspices than the government offers." [5]As a result, Yard and Wolcott created the National Parks Association [now the National Parks and Conservation Association] to promote, in part, the interpretation of the scientific resources of the parks, encourage school groups to be brought to the parks, provide educational materials to schools, and to encourage the general development and distribution of information regarding the national parks. [6]

The affinity between national parks and the educational imperative, however, was thoroughly recognized by the founders of the National Park Service from the Secretary of the Interior, to the Director, to the park superintendents. In his first annual report to the Secretary, Deputy Director Horace Albright reflected (Director Mather being ill at the time) on the meaning of the enabling legislation. After quoting a section of the 1916 law creating the National Park Service, Albright observed, "What a brilliant statement of constructive conservation policy this is...What benefits for the people of our time and for posterity in the direction of safeguarding health and providing recreational facilities are promised. What splendid recognition is given to the economic and educational value of our wonderful playgrounds." [7] Moreover, a resolution developed by park superintendents in 1922 argued that "the educational and economic value of the national parks to the nation, is restricted by insufficient development." The statement, designed to support the construction of badly needed roads and visitor facilities while recognizing the potential problems of over-development, placed education, along with recreation, at the center of the Service's purpose. "Roads and trails," it asserted, "should be improved and extended, ample accommodations should be provided for visitors, and other improvements carried out, so that the parks may better fulfill their mission of healthful recreation and education to a larger number of people." Later on, the resolution elaborated on this theme; "...the mission of the national parks is to provide, not cheap amusement, but healthful recreation and to supplement the work of schools by opening the doors of Nature's laboratory, to awaken an interest in natural science as an adjunct to the commercial and industrial work of the world." [8]

Three years later, Secretary of the Interior, Hubert Work, reiterating Secretary Lane's 1918 direction to the Service, emphasized (even more than Lane) the centrality of education in the Service's mission. In his letter to Mather, Secretary Work listed three "broad, accepted principles" upon which park management should be based. One declared that parks and monuments must be preserved "untouched by inroads of modern civilization"; a second that "the national interest must take precedence in all decisions affecting public or private enterprise in the parks"; and a third announced that parks were set aside "for the use, education, health and pleasure of all the people." Secretary Work then repeated, almost verbatim, the paragraph from Secretary Lane's letter quoted above. Clearly, the Department of the Interior understood from the outset that education was to be a primary activity of this new agency. "In short," Work concluded, "national parks unlike national forests, are not properties in a commercial sense, but natural preserves for the rest, recreation and education of the people." [9]

That same year, 1925, the National Park Service, almost a decade old and with a more secure budget, formally established an Education Division headed by Ansel F. Hall. At that time, the Service only recognized three divisions; the other two being the Engineering Division and the Landscape Architecture Division. [10] Ansel Hall had earlier served as information specialist and park naturalist at Yosemite National Park. In 1923, Director Mather recognized the good work of Hall and designated him chief naturalist with a charge of extending "the field of educational development to other parks." [11] Wanting to highlight the educational work of Hall even further, Mather gained the Secretary of the Interior's approval to create the Educational Division to be located at the University of California, Berkeley where several National Park Service offices were located. The division remained at Berkeley for five years, when it was superceded by the Branch of Research and Education created by then Director Horace Albright and moved to Washington, D.C. [12]

Cooking eggs over one of steam vents in Bumpass Hell, a thermal area with the hottest hot springs in the world, Lassen Volcanic National Park, 1934. (NPS Historic Photograph Collection HPC-001031)

By 1928 the educational activities of the National Park Service were many and varied and of such growing importance to the visiting public that the Secretary of the Interior, wanting to stimulate further growth, appointed a committee to study the educational program and report "on the educational possibilities of the national parks." This ad hoc committee consisting of Dr. John C. Merriam, Dr. Hermon C. Bumpus, Dr. Harold Bryant, Dr. Vernon Kellogg, and Dr. Frank R. Oaster, issued a preliminary report the next year that included a statement of principles, recommendations for the organization of educational work in the parks as well as recommendations for further research on "problems involved in the educational program of national parks." "In view of the fact," the report continued, "that the purpose of national parks is to be found in their inspirational and educational values, there should be an advisory body of five to seven of the ablest men conversant with national parks, appointed by the Secretary of the advise the Director of National Parks on matters pertinent to educational policy and developments in national parks." [13] The following year, Secretary Ray Lyman Wilbur acted on that recommendation and created a National Park Service Educational Advisory Board. Within the year, the joint efforts of the ad hoc committee and the advisory board resulted in a report that, among other recommendations, suggested that a "position of educational director of the National Park Service should be filled by a man of the best scientific and educational qualifications." Director Albright acknowledged the importance of education within the National Park Service by heeding this advise and creating the Branch of Research and Education and appointing zoologist Dr. Harold C. Bryant as assistant director in charge of all educational activities. [14]

As Albright later recalled, the education program in Bryant's care was based on four policies: 1) "simple, understandable interpretation of the major features of each park to the public by means of fields trips, lectures, exhibits, and literature;" 2) emphasis on leading the visitor to study the real thing itself rather than depending on second-hand information;" 3) "utilization of highly-trained personnel with field experience, able to interpret to the public the laws of nature as exemplified in all the parks, and able to develop concepts of the laws of life, useful to all;" and 4) "and a research program that would furnish a continuous supply of dependable facts suitable for use in connection with the educational program." [15]

When Horace Albright became director in 1929 he envisioned an expanded National Park Service, one that not only managed the parks and monuments then under its administration, but also national monuments and battlefields then managed by the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of War. Two executive orders during the summer of 1933 achieved that transfer adding to the National Park System twelve natural areas and forty-four historic ones. [16] With the stroke of a pen, Franklin Roosevelt transformed the National Park Service from an agency that managed mostly natural areas on the west to a national system of parks including both natural and historic areas. As Albright and the president were discussing the nature of this reorganization, Albright was also working on an article for The Scientific Monthly titled "Research in the National Parks." Following a recitation of the history of the national park movement and the early development of the National Park Service, Albright observed that once the parks were protected and provided with minimal visitor amenities, the Service turned to the "aesthetic, or 'higher educational' side of the parks." "Why geysers 'gyze,'" he wrote, "is perhaps the question asked most in the Yellowstone." To answer that and similar questions the Service developed educational lectures, field trips, and museums all supported by a program of research.

"Research is necessary not only to the preparation of interesting material to serve as a basis of the naturalist and historical service, but it also is fundamental to the actual protection of the natural features of the parks....Aside from the educational standpoint-the incalculable value of the national parks and national monuments as research laboratories has been recognized by a number of schools, including important universities, and many field classes are held therein, particularly in ecology, geology, and archeology....There is no doubt but that this use of the parks as field schools will increase in the future, side by side with the growth in tourist travel. Thus the parks have an important destiny in the future of our national life, from the standpoints of educational, spiritual and recreational values." [17]

If there were any doubt about what Congress thought about the Service's educational program, it was put to rest by the Historic Sites Act of 1935. While the act placed the National Park Service squarely in the middle of the maturing historic preservation movement in the country, it also charged the Service with developing an education program for its newly acquired cultural parks. The Secretary of the Interior shall develop, it declared, "an educational program and service for the purpose of making available to the public facts and information pertaining to American historic and archeological sites, buildings, properties of national significance." [18] (The act also formalized the National Park System Advisory Board to advise the Secretary on the administration of the parks. This board which over the years contained many prominent educators, scientists, historians, writers, and anthropologists--writer Wallace Stegner and publisher Alfred Knopf among the most notable--continues to advise the Secretary and the Director on matters relating to management and educational programs in the parks.)

Volunteer helps students collect samples from Cub Creek, Homestead National Monument of America. (NPS)

To mark the twentieth anniversary of the National Park Service, the Department of the Interior published Research and Education in the National Parks. Divided into two parts, "The Educational Program in the National Parks," and "History of Educational Movement," this publication was clearly designed to extol the accomplishments of the Service's educational program. It itemized the various ways the Service delivered educational information to the public from auto caravans, nature and historic trails, exhibits, lectures and camp-fire talks, to museums, libraries, college and university field classes, and the Yosemite School of Field Natural History, all built upon a foundation of solid research. "The intention of the Park Service in launching a research program is not duplicate work done elsewhere nor to trespass upon fields amply covered by other Government bureaus, but solely to gather scientific information necessary to the development of the museum, educational, and wild-life administration programs of the national parks." [19]

More important, perhaps, was the recognition that "parks as classrooms" had a long and illustrious tradition in the national parks. Citing the work of Professor Rollin Salisbury of the Department of Geology, University Chicago and his 1899 field trips into what would become Glacier National Park and the pioneering educational work of John Muir and Enos Mills, the booklet provided an extensive recounting of the growth and expansion of the Service's educational program. Research and Education in the National Parks placed special emphasis on the Secretary of the Interior's interest in the educational responsibilities of the Service and the National Park Service Educational Advisory Board and its achievements and recommendations. [20]

Within two decades following its establishment, the National Park Service, with the assistance of Congress and the Secretary of the Interior, had developed a refined philosophy of education that involved the presentation of scientific and cultural information through a variety of methods and venues, professional relationships with major universities and research institutions, and the conviction that learning in the parks must be based on ongoing and comprehensive research in the sciences and humanities. The early direction of Franklin K. Lane, Stephen T. Mather, and Robert Sterling Yard and those that succeeded them, clearly and firmly anchored education at the center of the management of the national parks.


[1] Minutes of the Board of Trustees, National Parks Association, National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) Papers, 1918-1919.

[2] John C. Miles, Guardians of the Parks: A History of the National Parks and Conservation Association (Washington, D.C.: Taylor & Francis, 1995), pp.13-15.

[3] Guardians of the Parks, pp. 16-18.

[4] Secretary Franklin K. Lane to Stephen T. Mather, May 13, 1918, as quoted in Lary M. Dilsaver, ed., America's National Park System: The Critical Documents, (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1994), pp. 48-52.

[5] Quoted in Guardians of the Parks, p. 19.

[6] Guardians of the Parks, p. 25.

[7] National Park Service, Report of the Director of the National Park Service to the Secretary of the Interior for the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1917 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1917), p. 2

[8] "Superintendents' Resolution on Overdevelopment: Prepared at the National Park Service Conference Nov. 13-17, 1922; Yosemite Park, Calif. With Explanatory Letter," (December 1, 1922) as quoted in The Critical Documents, pp. 57-61.

[9] Secretary Hubert Work to Stephen T. Mather, March 11, 1925, as quoted in The Critical Documents, pp. 62-65.

[10] Russ Olsen, Administrative History: Organizational Structures of the National Park Service, 1917 to 1985. Np, (1985), p. 37.

[11] Harold C. Bryant and Wallace W. Atwood, Jr., Research and Education in the National Parks (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1936), pp. 48-49.

[12] Research and Education in the National Parks, p. 50.

[13] Research and Education in the National Parks, p. 51.

[14] Research and Education in the National Parks, p. 54.

[15] Horace M. Albright, The Birth of the National Park Service: The Founding Years, 1913-33 (Salt Lake City: Howe Brothers, 1985), p. 270.

[16] Barry Mackintosh, The National Parks: Shaping the System, (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, 1991), p. 24. See also Albright, The Birth of the National Park Service, pp. 226, 285-297.

[17] Horace M. Albright, "Research in the National Parks," The Scientific Monthly, 36 (1933), pp. 483-501; as quoted in The Critical Documents, pp. 122-131.

[18] "An Act to Provide for the Preservation of Historic American Sites, Buildings, Objects, and Antiquities of National Significance, and for Other Purposes," (49 Stat. 666), August 21, 1935, as quoted in The Critical Documents, pp. 132-134.

[19] Research and Education in the National Parks, p. 40.

[20] Research and Education in the National Parks, pp. 51-54.

Date: 30-Oct-2015