We just left Theodore Roosevelt National Park (#49 of 59! Wooo!) and the park got us thinking. We had heard many times of Roosevelt’s contribution to the National Parks through his life and presidency and reading even more about his life and love for the wilderness was fascinating. We realized that there are a few important names that keep coming up through our trip, and although we are pretty fluent in these characters and how they shaped the NPS, we realize that not everyone reading may be in the same boat.

After spending a glorious four days in Theodore Roosevelt National Park — hiking, scenic driving, sunset chasing, wildlife viewing, and camping in storms — we want to share these important people with you. Some you may already know, but read on anyway. Do you know who shaped the parks into what they are today?

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John Muir

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(image via Wikipedia)

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity”

Possibly receiving the most recognition (rightfully so) for his efforts in protecting the parks is the great John Muir. Muir fell in love with the Yosemite Valley when we took a job there — as a logger of all things — in 1869. His exploration and writings of the Yosemite area, as well as of Mount Rainier and Glacier Bay, provided one of the first public voices in support of protecting these natural sanctuaries. His famous three-day excursion through Yosemite with Theodore Roosevelt is known as the most important camping trip in conservation history, and later contributed to the development of the National Park Service in 1916.

Captain Charles Young

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(image via Wikipedia)

They occupied one of the lowest rungs of the social ladder; a fact which served to undercut the authority of any black man who served in any position of power. Yosemite and Sequoia’s Buffalo Soldiers had to be simultaneously strong and diplomatic to fulfill the duties of their job but to avoid giving offense.” ~ NPS, on Buffalo Soldiers

To this day, ranchers pose a threat to the wildlife that live inside the protection of nearby national parks. One can only imagine how much of a problem it was when the idea of national parks began. Captain Charles Young was born into slavery, but later became the third African American to graduate from West Point in 1889. He rose in the military ranks, was promoted to captain the famed Buffalo Soldiers, and was stationed in California when the need for military to protect recently-added Sequoia and Grant Grove (now Kings Canyon) National Parks arose. Young was sent to the parks, was named acting superintendent, and thus became the first African American to be placed in charge of a national park. He and his soldiers ensured the parks would be protected from poachers and ranchers, whose sheep destroyed the land.

Theodore Roosevelt

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“Of all the questions which can come before this nation, short of the actual preservation of its existence in a great war, there is none which compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us.”

As a boy, Teddy ran a natural history museum out of his bedroom. He retreated to the wilderness of North Dakota when his wife and mother died just hours apart. He hunted, explored and let the land heal him. When he returned east to work on his political career, he took the wilderness with him. As president, he continuously championed for the protection of national parks, visiting Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, then on a camping trip with John Muir in Yosemite. He designated 5 national parks, 18 national monuments, 51 bird sanctuaries, 4 national game refuges, and more than 100 million acres of national forest land during his presidency.

Stephen Mather

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(image via PBS)

“Who will gainsay that the parks contain the highest potentialities of national pride, national contentment, and national health? A visit inspires love of country; begets contentment; engenders pride of possession; contains the antidote for national restlessness…. He is a better citizen with a keener appreciation of the privilege of living here who has toured the national parks.”

When it came time for the national park service to come to fruition, Stephen Mather stepped up as the service’s first director. He was a self-made millionaire, and used his high political connections and his money to turn the idea of a park service into what it is today. Successful as he was, Mather was prone to depression, and credits the national parks for helping ease the pain. He visited Sequoia and Yosemite in 1914 (where he had met John Muir two years before) and was appalled at the state of the parks, prompting his friend, Secretary of the Interior, to call him up to Washington to do something about it. At the times, the organization of the parks were chaotic; Mather created a logical system and paid his employees out of pocket. His work in weaving the parks into the federal government set the foundation for what we all experience to this day.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt & The CCC

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“Men and nature must work hand in hand. The throwing out of balance of the resources of nature throws out of balance also the lives of men.”

If there is one chain linking the national parks together, it is the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Buildings, trails, roads, and campgrounds that were built by the CCC are still in use by visitors today, and that is a testament to the hard and lasting work of the program. FDR’s New Deal called for the creation of the CCC, and men were sent all over the country to work on projects in the national parks, enhancing the visitor experience. Visitors to the national parks skyrocketed despite the country’s financial hardships. Roosevelt continued to publicize the parks, encouraging citizens to follow in his passion for these natural areas of the country. He expanded the park service to include sites like battlefields and the Lincoln Memorial, and he worked to protect areas that would later become parks, like Olympic, Kings Canyon, Great Smoky Mountains, Grant Teton, Isle Royale, Joshua Tree, Capitol Reef, Dry Tortugas, and Channel Islands. Quite the resume!


There are so many people who shaped the National Park Service, but it took a few standouts to really define what the parks would mean to our country. Thanks to the insight of these hard-working individuals, we now have 411 national park service units — including 59 national parks — to enjoy for generations to come.

Written by Elizabeth

  • Janice LaBoube

    I knew about most of these great men but not all. Thank you for the info. We owe such a debt of gratitude to all of them for their foresight and fortitude in making sure all of us future generations can enjoy!

    • Cole

      Very true. And I believe there are people in the parks now who we will come to see as heroes of American conservation. Shelton Johnson and Betty Soskin come to mind as great influential figures.