Love National Parks? Thank UC Berkeley, And What Transpired Here 100 Years Ago

By Glen Martin

Do the majestic vistas of Yosemite National Park make you swoon? Are you besotted with the equally splendid landscapes of Yellowstone, Zion, the Smokey Mountains, the North Cascades and Rocky Mountain National Parks?

Thank UC Berkeley.

“Cal alumni had a major influence on both launching and maintaining the National Park system,” says Steven Beissinger, professor of wildlife ecology at Cal. “It’s no coincidence that three of the first four directors of the National Park Service were university alumni.”

Some national parks had been established in a hodgepodge fashion by the second decade of the 20th Century: most notably Yosemite, Yellowstone, Mt. Rainier and Rocky Mountain, along with a couple of national monuments. “But there was no broad supervisory service responsible for protecting resources and establishing standard policy,” says Beissinger, who’s in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management.

Then along came Berkeley alums Stephen Mather, class of 1887, and Horace Albright, class of 1912. A successful businessman who had developed and promoted the 20 Mule Team Borax brand, Mather was also a Teddy Roosevelt-style conservationist and outdoor enthusiast.

“Mather complained to then-Secretary of the Interior Franklin Lane (a Berkeley drop-out) about the condition of the national parks,” Beissinger says, “and Lane told him, ‘Well, come to Washington and do something about it.’ So Mather ended up as Assistant Secretary of the Interior.”

There he was joined by his mentee, Albright. Hoping to generate some momentum for a full-fledged national park system, the two men convened a conference at UC Berkeley on March 15, 1915, attended by 75 scientists, conservationists, politicians, park administrators and resource managers. Berkeley alum Mark Daniels, class of 1908—later the first general superintendent and landscape engineer for the National Park Service—moderated the event. Some months later, Mather squired 15 national power brokers, including National Geographic Society publisher Gilbert Grosvenor, on a two-week horseback trip through the Sierra Nevada.

The “Mather Mountain Party,” as the lavish show-me junket was dubbed, apparently did the trick. Influence was applied, Washington lawmakers were charmed or otherwise convinced, and the National Park Service Organic Act won passage in 1916. The text of the bill elucidated the new agency’s mandate:

“To conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife (of the parks) and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by what means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations…”

The Berkeleyites then moved on to forging a broad ethos for the newly-minted agency. Resource protection was a given, but accommodations also had to be made for visitors. Daniels came up with the idea of national park “villages”—small, clustered camping and lodging developments that would have  been dubbed “eco-friendly” had anyone been using that term back then.

Mather, Beissinger says, focused on transportation: “He knew there had to be decent access to the parks to build a sustained constituency, so he was instrumental in getting railroads and roads authorized and funded.”

Meanwhile Joseph Grinnell, the first director of UC Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, conferred scientific legitimacy on the national park mission. Most noted today for his surveys of California fauna, Grinnell had “an early vision of the parks as scientific laboratories,” says Beissinger. “He had seen the rapid changes that were occurring in California’s wildlands, including the disappearance of charismatic species such as the grizzly and the fisher. He recognized that an essential mission of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology had to be meticulous surveys of (wildlife) of the state and the West, and that the national parks were critical to that research.”

At the time of his work, Grinnell was highly praised for the quality and quantity of the specimens he brought back to the museum—specimens still widely used by international conservation biologists. But of equal significance, says Beissinger, was the rigorous process of field notation Grinnell developed—a method that remains the standard for field biologists today.

“Using the Grinnell method, specimens and notes complement each other incredibly well,” says Beissinger. “Grinnell had tremendous influence over science policy in the parks. He was one of the earliest advocates of ecologically-based park management, and that’s still the standard today. Further, he trained many of the first National Park Service biologists. They shared his vision and his methods.” 

Mather and Albright became the first and second directors of the National Park Service. Berkeley alum Newton Drury was the fourth director, overseeing the service from 1940 to 1951. Other Berkeley alumni and academicians also contributed, directly or obliquely, to the agency.  They include:

  • Joseph LeConte, a professor of botany, natural history and geology, a co-founder of the Sierra Club, and one of Yosemite’s seminal researchers
  • George Melendez Wright, who started the National Park Service’s wildlife division with his own funds and ran it for several years out of Hilgard Hall
  • Ben Thompson, who conducted Fauna No. 1, the first comprehensive survey of wildlife in the national parks
  • A. Starker Leopold, long-time Berkeley zoology professor and an advisor to the service on wildlife issues
  • Ansel Hall, the first park ranger in Sequoia National Park, the founder of the Yosemite Museum, and the service’s first chief naturalist and chief forester
  • Harold Bryant, who established the service’s interpretive program

“The University of California and the National Park Service had more than a relationship,” says Beissinger. “Really, the university was the engine that drove the Park Service forward.”

The university commemorated the centennial of the 1915 Berkeley conference on national parks with two events. A two-and-one-half day conference, Parks for Science: Science for Parks: The Next Century, was held March 25-27 to examine the role and mission of the National Park Service in the 21st Century. The spring 2015 Horace M. Albright Lecture in Conservation, America’s Two Best Ideas – Public Education and Public Lands, was held on March 26, featuring a conversation with US. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, University of California President Janet Napolitano, historian and author Douglas Brinkley, and UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks. All conference plenary sessions, including the Albright public lecture, can be viewed on the Berkeley You Tube station. 

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I’m a Cal grad from the ’90s and I’m always tremendously proud to share with people that my grandfather, the late Congressman Philip Burton, as chairman of the Subcommittee on National Parks, set an unprecedented record for establishing and protecting parks and wilderness areas, trails, etc. His National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978, signed into law by Jimmy Carter in November 1978, was one of the most important pieces of environmental legislation ever to pass Congress.
Thanks, UC Berkeley.
I was a great admirer of your grandfather, Laura, and I agree with your assessment of the 1978 Parks and Recreation Act. I will refrain from comparing your grandfather’s priorities to those of the current Congress.
Phil Burton was my congressman back in the day. I once sent him a Christmas card saying that he never heard from me because he always voted right. When I met him a year or so later with a delegation from Women for Peace he said, “Nancy Schimmel! You sent me a Christmas card.” I realized then that to succeed in politics one must have a fantastic memory for names.
Thank you for your kind words, Mr. Martin. From my perspective, I see few — very few — politicians in today’s Congress with the passion for social justice issues that my grandfather exhibited. And I agree wholeheartedly with what I intuit is your take on the current Congress re: environmental legislation.
I didn’t realize that Berkeley was so involved with our National Parks. I was graduated from Berkeley in 1959 as a civil engineer. After serving in the U.S. Army for three years and returning home, I was hired by Mr. Whitworth of the Regional Office as a civil engineer trainee with my first assignment in Yosemite. After a year in Yosemite I was transferred to Mt. Rainier and later to the National Capitol Design Center. Though I only spent a little over four years with the park service I still think those were the best years of my life. I considered myself really lucky to have lived in both parks which I love so much. I later hired on as a civil engineer with the National Forest Service in California. I was assigned to the Angeles NF, then the Six Rivers NF in Eureka shortly after the Redwood National Park was set up. I love the Redwoods. My final assignment was on the Stanislaus NF just down the road from Yosemite. In fact on a clear day, I could see Half Dome from my house on Table Mountain south of Jamestown. I have really been blessed to have worked in and near these national parks. Laura, I too remember your grandfather and consider him a great man.
In the early 90’s, I developed and offered a series of workshops for the National Park Service/GGNRA/Ocean District about this important connection between UC and the NPS. We were very fortunate to have Stephen Mather McPherson II as one of our presenters - he’s the great-grandson of Stephen T. Mather. Steve also invited Albright’s granddaughter to participate. The Bancroft and the College of Forestry also supported us; Bob Cockrell, Emeritus, who had worked with Hall shared some of his stories about the First Chief Naturalist. Here are some other interesting facts: There are only two places outside the national parks which have Mather Plaques. One is the Mather Grove in the Botanical Garden. Ansel Hall helped found the East Bay Regional Park system after he left the NPS. The Stephen T. Mather Papers are in the Bancroft. I’d assume they’ll be used in some kind of a Centennial exhibit about the UC connection. (Or they could be used!) One of the items is Mather’s commission as first NPS Director. Starker Leopold (Aldo’s son, by the way) also worked closely with George R. Stewart, Berkeley professor who wrote the first ecological novels including the classic Earth Abides. You can learn more about Stewart on my weblog : or by reading my biography of him. The biography includes a chapter about the UC/NPS connections. I see Stewart’s work as a natural extension of what I’ve named “The California Enlightenment” - the idea, largely from Cal, that wilderness must be a classroom; and thus must be preserved and interpreted. Both the NPS and Stewart’s work reflect that. Wonderful article. I look forward to a major UC Exhibit about this important connection. “Parkitechture” - rustic NPS architecture has some of its roots on the Berkeley campus - see the old faculty club, the one that looks like a log cabin, and the Great Hall of the current Faculty Club. Some
Here’s a PS - The National Park Service offices for education and research were located on the campus, and stayed there for many years. Would it not be appropriate to place a plaque on those rooms?
Another Cal student of my era who had impacts on Yosemite and other National Parks was Glenn Gallison who was enrolled in the 1940’s. He grew up in the park where his father was employed, had wartime service in Navy air, then joined the Park Service himself, from ranger at Badger Pass (longtime flying ’50 record holder, to park naturalist, to “project ’66, to service at Olympic National Park. You might check Glenn’s career.
Only one of many things for which we owe gratitude to Philip Burton.
A. Starker Leopold was perhaps the best professor I ever had in my 17 years at Cal (yes, far too many). I took his course as a senior in Spring 1965 as I was about to go big-time into Yosemite Valley climbing, and on to mountaineering natural history and mountaineering geology and geomorphology. Although we can be grateful for Cal’s role in establishing the National Park system, there is also a dark side. In 1865, Prof. Josiah D. Whitney of Harvard University had published a geologic cross section that became the type locality (best place to view the evidence) for Sierra Nevada uplift. Unfortunately, it is imaginary. If it existed, dozens of miracles would be required to transform his landscape to what we see today. Perhaps more than any other, Prof. Le Conte spread this myth, and geology and geography professors at Cal have taught this creation science up to today. This was in large part the basis for biasing American geomorphology, making it too largely creation science (miracles required). I’m about half way through a 52-chapter book on this subject, and hopefully will keep the final product to no more than 800 pages (at the current rate, I could easily exceed 1000). In short, it is about a modern-day myth; how it originated and how it evolved over time to what we have today, much like Jesus as an itinerate preacher and the religion that others created to elevate him to a god. Humans, indeed, are creatures of belief, atheists included.
Bad geology or not, LeConte was a major force in the Sierra Club and the Preservation Movement. How sad that the new so-called “Yosemite Conservancy,” created apparently so members had no vote in policy (unlike the old YNHA or YA), took LeConte’s name off LeConte Memorial Lodge because he was from the Confederacy and so may have had racist ideas. Of course, so did Muir and TR, so I suppose those names should also be removed. I propose action against that “Conservancy” to make them conserve the historic names in Yosemite rather than implementing a version of 1984’s constantly-revised history.
Well - that earlier comment was a bit of a rant, wasn’t it? I want to correct an error and apologize to the Y Conservancy: It was apparently the Sierra Club that asked permission of the NPS to change the name of LeConte Memorial Lodge…a strange example of biting the ancestral hand that fed it?

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