10 Small Moments That Made Our National Parks


Ken Burns called the Nation­al Parks “America’s Best Idea.” They’re cer­tain­ly on the short list of Amer­i­can inno­va­tions. But the suc­cess sto­ry that’s been the Nation­al Park sys­tem owes it suc­cess to a series of small coin­ci­dences, acts of rebel­lion and things that seemed minor at the time. These ten moments have shaped the Nation­al Park sys­tem and will influ­ence our Parks in the next 100 years.

The Pho­tog­ra­ph­er and the President
In 1864, the Civ­il War was rag­ing. With the nation drown­ing in the blood of the bat­tles of Cold Har­bor, Spot­syl­va­nia and Wilder­ness, the beau­ty of a small moun­tain val­ley 3,000 miles away must have seemed insignif­i­cant to Abra­ham Lin­coln, who was expect­ed to lose the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in 1864. But when an obscure, failed gold min­er-turned pho­tog­ra­ph­er showed up with a set of giant pho­tographs, the Pres­i­dent listened.

His name was Car­leton Watkins, and his 130 mam­moth plates were the first images east­ern­ers saw of Yosemite Val­ley. In the midst of a war, Lin­coln pro­posed mak­ing Yosemite invi­o­late. To build sup­port, Cal­i­for­nia Sen­a­tor John Con­ness (one of Yosemite’s high­est peaks now bears his name) walked the pho­tos around Con­gress per­son­al­ly. Twelve years before Yel­low­stone was declared an actu­al Nation­al Park, the con­cept was born.

“I So Declare It”
In 1903 Ted­dy Roo­sevelt asked an aide if there was any law that pre­vent­ed him from issu­ing an exec­u­tive order pro­tect­ing the birds of Pel­i­can Island from hunters. When the aide said he did­n’t think so, Roo­sevelt said sim­ply, “Very well. I so declare it.” The Nation­al Wildlife refuge sys­tem was born. Three years lat­er, a nation fret­ting about the “end of the fron­tier” passed the Antiq­ui­ties Act, which allowed the pres­i­dent to cre­ate nation­al mon­u­ments with the stroke of a pen.

TR need­ed no encour­age­ment. He imme­di­ate­ly declared Dev­ils’ Tow­er a nation­al mon­u­ment. Ever since, the Antiq­ui­ties Act has offered a con­ser­va­tion anti­dote to Con­gres­sion­al grid­lock. All but four sub­se­quent pres­i­dents have used it to pre­serve wild places. The her­itage of the Antiq­ui­ties Act includes Mount St. Helens, John Day Fos­sil Beds, New­ber­ry Crater, Paria-Ver­mil­lion Cliffs, Grand Stair­case-Escalante, Cas­cade-Siskiy­ou Nation­al Mon­u­ment and the San Juan Islands.

A Borax Baron Runs The Parks
By the ear­ly 1900s, the U.S. gov­ern­ment had acquired a chunk of nation­al parks, includ­ing icons like Yel­low­stone, Yosemite and Crater Lake, and a ran­dom smat­ter­ing of nation­al mon­u­ments and civ­il war bat­tle­fields. Most were man­aged by the army until the Nation­al Park Ser­vice was cre­at­ed in 1916. Woodrow Wilson’s choice to run the agency was a head-scratch­er: an inde­pen­dent­ly wealthy New York borax mag­nate named Stephen Math­er. But what a choice it was.

Math­er uni­fied the lands into a coher­ent agency, pro­fes­sion­al­ized the staff, aggres­sive­ly added new parks and made the Park Ser­vice once of the most respect­ed fed­er­al agen­cies. When Con­gress balked at the cost of adding the Mari­posa Grove of giant sequoias to Yosemite, Math­er bought it with his own cash on the spot. He wel­comed cars to the parks, a move that extend­ed their mass appeal beyond wealthy rail­road tourists and cre­at­ed a nation of sup­port­ers, but which also opened the parks to the risks of being “loved to death” decades lat­er. He led the Park Ser­vice until the stroke that led to his death 14 years later.


John D. Rock­e­feller Jr. Gets Impatient
One of Mather’s deputy Horace Albright’s first pri­or­i­ties was to add the area around Jack­son Hole and the Grand Tetons to Yel­low­stone. When the bill died in the Sen­ate after ranch­ers fought back, Albright enlist­ed John D. Rock­e­feller Jr., who vis­it­ed the area incog­ni­to, to the cause. Rock­e­feller qui­et­ly bought up land with the inten­tion of donat­ing it to the park. But the con­flict over the Tetons raged bit­ter­ly for two decades and Math­er died in 1930. Rock­e­feller lost patience and broke the stale­mate. He wrote a let­ter to FDR say­ing that if the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment wouldn’t accept his land gift, he’d sim­ply sell it on the open mar­ket to any­one. He was almost cer­tain­ly bluff­ing, but his threat forced FDR’s hand. Also in the midst of a war, FDR des­ig­nat­ed Jack­son Hole Nation­al Mon­u­ment in 1943, and Grand Teton Nation­al Park took on the form it holds today sev­en years later.

War­ren Hard­ing Climbs the Nose
In 1958, War­ren Harding—the climber, not the President—spent an unheard-of 45 days cling­ing to the ver­ti­cal wall of El Cap­i­tan. He and Mark Pow­ell endured three storms 2,500 feet above ground on the first ascent of El Cap­i­tan by what is now known as “The Nose” route. Hard­ing, one of the most noto­ri­ous, hard-drink­ing, rebel­lious char­ac­ters of the Yosemite climb­ing scene, used Himalayan ideas to basi­cal­ly invent big-wall climb­ing, with por­taledges that allowed climbers to live on the wall for extend­ed peri­ods of time. In the 15 hours he and Pow­ell spent on the final por­tion, Yosemite gran­ite and Camp 4 became house­hold names. On his first ascent of The Wall of Ear­ly Morn­ing Light 12 years lat­er, a news crew would be wait­ing at the top.

A New Jer­sey Wait­er goes to Utah
In 1956, a wait­er from New Jer­sey got a job as a sum­mer ranger in Arch­es Nation­al Mon­u­ment. His name was Edward Abbey. He spent sum­mers on the slick­rock and returned to wait­ing tables in Hobo­ken in the win­ter. His notes even­tu­al­ly became Desert Soli­taire, a lyri­cal reflec­tion on the Utah desert that lured two gen­er­a­tions of explor­ers to explore the slick­rock canyon coun­try of the South­west (this writer was one of them). His fierce cri­tique of “indus­tri­al tourism,” led the Park Ser­vice to w rel­e­gat­ed him to a fire look­out. If they want­ed to silence Abbey, it was the worst move pos­si­ble: it gave him plen­ty of time to write. The Mon­key Wrench Gang, his most famous work, was writ­ten at Numa Look­out in Glac­i­er Nation­al Park.


Between Dec. 4 and 6, 1966, 14 inch­es of rain fell on the Grand Canyon’s North Rim. The water came down the slick­rock in tor­rents. A flash flood roared down Crys­tal Creek, dump­ing boul­ders into the Col­orado at mile 98, in the heart of the Upper Gran­ite Gorge. The debris fan con­strict­ed the riv­er to a quar­ter of its pre­vi­ous width, instant­ly cre­at­ing a new rapid. A mas­sive boul­der mid­stream cre­at­ed an enor­mous recir­cu­lat­ing hydraulic, now known as “the eater” and “the maw,” or just “the hole.” Crys­tal became the most feared rapid on the Col­orado overnight. Sim­ply nam­ing the sequence of rapids in the heart of the Grand Canyon—Horn Creek, Gran­ite, Her­mit and Crystal—will cause any boater to take a deep breath.

If some­one told you that a sin­gle bill could for­ev­er pre­serve nation­al parks, mon­u­ments and pre­serves equal to the entire state of Cal­i­for­nia, most peo­ple would say “it will nev­er hap­pen.” But it already has hap­pened. In 1980, Con­gress passed the Alas­ka Nation­al Inter­est Lands Con­ser­va­tion Act, the sin­gle bold­est stroke of con­ser­va­tion ever. It was bold­er still con­sid­er­ing the U.S. was only a few years removed from the OPEC oil embar­goes and Alaskan oil was in demand. ANILCA gave us house­hold names like Glac­i­er Bay, Kat­mai and Kenai Fjords, and an expand­ed Denali Park. We also got park­lands you might nev­er have heard of: Cape Kursen­stern, Ani­akchak, Kobuk Val­ley and Yukon-Charley. In oth­er words, with­out ANILCA, Alas­ka wouldn’t be Alaska.

Denali is Denali Again
On August 15, 2015, Barack Oba­ma ordered the Sec­re­tary of the Inte­ri­or to make a sub­tle but telling sym­bol­ic move: renam­ing the high­est peak in North Amer­i­ca Denali instead of Mt. McKin­ley. The park itself was re-named Denali as park of ANILCA in 1980. Human habi­ta­tion in the region goes back 11,000 years before Pres­i­dent McKin­ley took office. One of the less savory aspects of the Nation­al Parks’ lega­cy is dis­place­ment of native peo­ples. When parks were estab­lished, most were already inhab­it­ed by Native Amer­i­cans who lost their homes in the process. Obama’s ges­ture is a step toward acknowl­edg­ing this his­to­ry. And Denali (“High One” in Athabaskan) is also a more fit­ting name for the continent’s high­est peak.

The Dawn Wall Goes Free
At 3:30 p.m. on Jan. 14, 2015, Tom­my Cald­well and Kevin Jorge­son topped out at the top of El Capitan’s Dawn Wall. They were the first to free-climb the entire 3,000-foot face, rat­ed 5.14+, an endeav­or close­ly fol­lowed by social media. The free-climb­ing of the route first aid-climbed by Hard­ing and Dean Cald­well (no rela­tion) in 1970 brought big walls back to the climb­ing fore­front after three decade of focus­ing on short sport climbs and rock gyms.

Those are some moments that drove the first hun­dred years of our Nation­al Parks. What will the next cen­tu­ry bring?