This year, during the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, we’re hearing quite a bit about America’s most-loved bureaucracy. What we don’t often hear is that its 1916 founding was a masterstroke in communications strategy — a historical episode where great public relations created lasting societal benefits.

On 14 occasions between 1872 and 1916, Congress had seen an extraordinary landscape and decided to set it aside. But these “National Parks,” commissioned one-by-one, lacked much of a plan. Who would run a park? With what funding? With what goals? Policies varied across parks—and then also across 22 national monuments, which bore many similarities to parks but were created by the President rather than Congress. (See Sidebar: Important Dates)

For example, Yellowstone was the first national park, but the total budgeted for its first five years was zero dollars. Then its early administrators proved both corrupt and ineffective at stopping poachers. So park administration was turned over to the military, which did a great job, but should the military manage all parks? Others, such as Glacier, used other schemes.

After war started in Europe in 1914, military leaders wondered if managing a corner of northwest Wyoming should be among their priorities.

Meanwhile, a movement called See America First was drumming up domestic tourism. Railroads and other tourism promoters suggested that people with the resources to experience cultural wonders should do so on their own continent before traveling to Europe. The movement gained force when the European war closed off many traditional continental sites.

National parks thus faced a potential influx of tourists, including many using the new technology of the automobile. So how could the parks be retrofitted to accommodate new transportation technology?

As one early Park Service leader wrote of a 1917 visit to Yellowstone: “Everywhere you looked, there were piles of outmoded coaches, horse trappings,…abandoned camps, old stables, and disintegrating tent cities.”

It was obvious that the nation’s parks in the 1910s had been neglected for so long that they were going to need some polish to regain the jewel-like status they deserved. But who would supply the vision – much less the money – for the future of these administrative stepchildren?

Steve Mather’s quest

Stephen T. Mather was a tall, lithe man with piercing blue eyes, prematurely white hair and a ruddy complexion. Although deeply driven and inwardly restless, he was outwardly amiable, gracious and charming. His constant enthusiasm earned him the nickname “the Eternal Freshman.” By his mid-40s he earned a fortune in borax, a mineral useful in water softening, eyewash and skin creams. Although today mostly limited to industrial uses, borax 100 years ago was a housewife’s staple.

During a midlife crisis, Mather found that what he truly loved was camping in the wilderness. But on his horse-packing trips in the mountains near Yosemite and Mount Rainier, he got fed up with poor trails and swarms of cattle. In 1914 he complained, and Mather soon found himself invited to improve the parks’ management. It was the height of the Progressive Era, when a growing belief in creating government institutions to improve the lives of everyday people led to the founding of agencies such as the Federal Reserve and Federal Trade Commission. Mather became a leader in the movement to provide national parks with similarly-coordinated, professional management.

Mather took a year in Washington to lobby Congress. He enlisted support from Progressives, conservationists, automobilists and railroad owners. He wined and dined every mover and shaker he could find. In the book Steve Mather of the National Parks, Robert Shankland quoted a contemporary saying that Mather “combined the zeal of an agitator with a charm and graciousness I’ve rarely seen equaled.”

Mather’s mercurial salesmanship was aided by the meticulous efficiency of his young assistant, Horace Albright. Because Albright later succeeded Mather (and wrote memoirs about their time together), the two men’s partnership has been often and justly celebrated. But in 1915–16 a third member of their team was perhaps equally important. His name was Robert Sterling Yard.

Yard had been the best man at Mather’s wedding, after the two worked together as young journalists on the New York Sun. Yard remained in journalism and publishing, as editor of Century magazine and the Sunday New York Herald, and vice-president of the Moffat Yard publishing firm. In addition to a great network, Yard was blessed with an ability to generate lots of words, quickly. Mather lured him to Washington to enlist those skills on behalf of the parks.

A sense of purpose

Mather’s genius in the borax business had been to focus on marketing. Other borax producers saw themselves as mining companies, dragging the mineral out from the ground at inhospitable locations such as California’s Death Valley. Mather focused instead on customer relationships with the product. He capitalized on publicity stunts such as letters that he would ghostwrite from housewives to women’s magazines, and contests in which he asked homemakers to invent new uses for his product.

Playing up the romance of mining, he changed his product’s brand name to “Twenty-Mule-Team Borax,” giving him an excuse to tell the story of its first Death Valley mine, where wagons weighing 35 tons were pulled by a team of 18 mules and two horses a total of 165 miles to the nearest railhead. (Part of the problem was that in the desert, they had to carry enough water to survive the trip.)

People loved and remembered the story, and when they went to the store they bought the package illustrated with a 20-mule-team wagon.

Mather saw his job with the parks as similar to his job with borax: the most important function was marketing – using stories to demonstrate to people that their lives really needed the experience of visiting one or more national parks. Mather hoped that they would get out in the backcountry on lavishly catered two-week adventures like his own.

But he appreciated that even those who saw Glacier, Mount Rainier or Yosemite in smaller doses found the experience worthwhile – certainly worth having the government assign some funds for the parks’ upkeep.

To shape the parks’ public image this way, Bob Yard pitched, placed and frequently wrote himself more than 1,000 newspaper and magazine articles about the parks’ scenic beauty. Publications as diverse as Nation’s Business, American Motorist and several women’s magazines were suddenly celebrating the benefits of visiting a park. Some of Yard’s articles promoted a celebrity who personified the parks – the handsome, manly Mather.

Yard’s strategy, which has since become far more common, was to make the parks’ case to the middle classes so that they would tell Congress to create –and fund – a National Park Service.

Yard and Mather also made their case directly to policymakers. In April of 1916, National Geographic magazine did a special issue on America – mostly on the national parks – and Mather gave a copy to every member of Congress. He took several influential Congressmen on pack trips in the Sierras to see magnificent country firsthand. Mather even paid for those trips himself.

Scenery as culture

Yard’s most memorable venture was the National Parks Portfolio, a collection of nine photograph-heavy pamphlets. Mather donated $5,000 for production costs and leveraged 17 railroad companies to contribute $43,000 for printing. Mather and Yard then sent the portfolio to 275,000 hand-selected recipients including, of course, all members of Congress.

The portfolio’s text connected the parks with a sense of national identity. America in the 19th century had often felt inferior to Europe, which boasted grand old cathedrals and a vast history of art and civilization.

But the cathedral-like spaces of Yosemite Valley and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone were just as ancient and inspirational. Nature had blessed America with a culture just as rich and valid as Europe’s. Preserving that natural culture, Mather and Yard argued, should be the purpose of the national parks.

As marketers, Mather and Yard downplayed any problems in the parks, which were often understaffed, underfunded and riddled with political patronage. (At Glacier, the story went, one of the politically-connected rangers had to be assigned to patrol along the railroad track so he wouldn’t get lost in the woods – and then had to be given a partner to shout at him when a train was coming.)

Instead they created a vision for the parks, as symbols of America in the spirit of the flag or the Statue of Liberty. With bold scenic photographs and stories of frontier heroism, they sold that vision to Congress.

On August 25, 1916, when President Woodrow Wilson signed the bill into law, Mather learned the news from a telegram, because he was off in the Sierra Nevada on another pack trip.

Enacting the vision

Of course the story of the National Park Service is more than a story of marketing a bold and patriotic vision. Mather and his team also created an organization that could live up to that vision – which was arguably the more difficult task. Although it hadn’t been in his original plan, Mather was persuaded to become the Park Service’s first administrator. Despite a couple of breaks when he was hospitalized for bipolar disorder, he kept the job until felled by a stroke in 1929, just a year before his death.

Yard was a better advocate than administrator, so Mather set him up in a separate nonprofit called the National Parks Association (now the National Parks Conservation Association) where he could continue to campaign. Mather and the able Albright turned their attention to management. Here was where Albright’s organizational skills proved so valuable – as Mather’s assistant and then as superintendent at Yellowstone, Albright enacted Mather’s vision on the ground.

For example, ending the tradition of patronage jobs, Mather and Albright turned the park ranger into a symbol of integrity, physical prowess and hard work. In another innovation, Mather insisted on selecting a single concessioner to run all the hotels or restaurants in a park. Competition might work in the general economy, but in parks Mather preferred total control to ensure consistently positive visitor experiences.

Mather also tightly controlled the selection of new parks, demanding that they meet the highest standards of scenery. To relieve the pressure of enshrining substandard parks, he jump-started a movement to create state parks. Mather continually used his fortune to benefit parks and scenic beauty – for example, by helping to start the Save the Redwoods League; by privately funding the national parks’ first naturalist programs; and by purchasing, fixing and then donating the Tioga Road to Yosemite.

Although he lived in Washington and Chicago, Mather kept a chauffeur and Packard automobile, with license plate USNPS-1, in Los Angeles for park tours. He circumvented low Congressional appropriations by privately supplementing the salaries of Albright, Yard and others. Some of his wealthy friends were puzzled that Mather would donate so much time and money to the federal government, rather than a legitimate charity. But Mather believed in national parks.

Mather’s greatest accomplishments might today be summarized as “creating the National Park Service brand” even though that language trend didn’t exist back then. But one measure of Steve Mather’s success was that after his and Yard’s initial blitz, everyone knew and valued what the national parks stood for. Mather not only created an organization that has thrived for a century, but also created for it a public image that has remains strong 100 years later.