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Numerous National Parks have a plaque dedicated to Stephen Mather. The inscription reads: "He laid the foundation of the National Park Service, defining and establishing the policies under which its areas shall be developed and conserved unimpaired for future generations. There will never come an end to the good that he has done."

The National Park System traces its roots all the way back to 1864, when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Valley Grant Act, thereby protecting the Northern California landscape as California's first state park and one of the first such parks in the country. Eight years later in 1872, Yellowstone became the first National Park (Yosemite became a National Park in 1890).  By 1915, there were nine parks in the system, but with little oversight and accessibility for the public.  That's where Stephen Mather came in, determined to expand the system and make it accessible for the people. He lobbied for the creation of a National Park Service and became its first director in 1917. Under his direction, the US more than doubled the land in the park system and made the parks accessible to the people. Many consider Mather to be the "father of our modern national park system." 

Today, the National Park service manages 428 individual units covering more than 85 million acres in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and US territories. These include 63 National Parks such as Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Acadia etc., plus 

The Yosemite Valley Grant Act 


In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Valley Grant Act, creating California's first state park and one of the first such parks in the country, “upon the express conditions that the premises shall be held for public use, resort, and recreation.”   Yosemite National Park was designated a National Park by an Act of Congress on October 1, 1890, making it the third national park in the United States, after Yellowstone (1872) and Sequoia (1890). 

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The Early National Park System

est. 1872


The Yellowstone National Park Act, signed by President Ulysses S. Grant on March 1, 1972, established Yellowstone as the world's first true national park. It preserved two million acres of land in Montana and Wyoming to be "dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people." It placed the park under the control of the Secretary of the Interior and gave the Secretary responsibility for preserving all timber, mineral deposits, geologic wonders, and other resources within the park. 


Antiquities Act



The Antiquities Act, signed by President Theodore Roosevelt on June 8, 1906, grew out of a movement to protect the prehistoric cliff dwellings, pueblo ruins and early missions in the Southwest. It authorized Presidents to proclaim and reserve "historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest" on lands owned or controlled by the United States as "national monuments."   

Devil's Tower (Wyoming) was the first National Monument to be created in 1906.  By the end of 1906, Roosevelt had proclaimed three additional National Monuments: El Morro (New Mexico), Montezuma Castle (Arizona), and Petrified Forest (Arizona).


The National Park Service
est. 1916

The Organic Act, signed by Woodrow Wilson on August 25, 1916, created the National Park Service. This new agency's mission:  "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."


Stephen Tyng Mather

The charismatic and energetic Stephen Mather lobbied for the creation of the National Park service and served as its new director. A self-made millionaire with a passion for nature and its conservation, Mather retired early from the Borax business where he coined the slogan "20 Mule Team Borax" and dedicated his life to preserving and protecting America's scenic landscapes. He is responsible for saving some of the best known national wonders such as Grand Canyon, Zion, Acadia, Shenandoah and more. He believed that the parks should be accessible to all Americans and worked to ensure access by building roads, lodging, and then publicizing the parks. 

"He laid the foundation of the National Park Service, defining and establishing the policies under which its areas shall be developed and conserved, unimpaired for future generations."

Inscription on bronze plaques in National Parks



Other important National Parks contributors:  Roosevelt & Muir

John Muir (1838-1914)  


Scottish-born American naturalist, writer, and advocate of U.S. forest conservation, Muir was known as "John of the Mountains," Muir's advocacy helped create several national parks, including Sequoia (1890), Mount Rainier (1899) and Grand Canyon (1908). He wrote “only Uncle Sam” could save our country's land for future generations to enjoy.  He and other conservationists founded the Sierra Club in 1892. Stephen Mather said that meeting John Muir on a hike in Sequoia National Park in 1912 was one of the highlights of his life.  


Teddy Roosevelt  (1858-1919)


Theodore Roosevelt, often called "the conservation president," doubled the number of sites within the National Park system. As President from 1901 to 1909, he signed legislation establishing five new national parks: Crater Lake, Oregon; Wind Cave, South Dakota; Sullys Hill, North Dakota (later re-designated a game preserve); Mesa Verde, Colorado; and Platt, Oklahoma (now part of Chickasaw National Recreation Area).


However another Roosevelt enactment had a broader effect: the Antiquities Act of June 8, 1906. The Antiquities Act enabled President Roosevelt and succeeding Presidents to proclaim historic landmarks, historic or prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest in federal ownership as national monuments.

Roosevelt is pictured right with naturalist and writer John Muir,

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The National Park System Today

Today, the National Park Service oversees 428 park units, more than 150 related areas, and programs that assist in conserving the nation's natural and cultural heritage for the benefit of current and future generations.  The 428 park units include the 63 National Parks plus: 11 National Battlefields, 4 National Battlefield Parks, 1 national Battlefield Sites, 9 National Military Parks, 63 National Historic Parks (e.g., Weir Farm National Historic Park in CT), 74 National Historic Sites, 1 International Historic Site, 3 national Lakeshores, 31 National Memorials, 84 National Monuments, 4 National Parkways, 19 National Preserves, 2 National Reserves, 18 National Recreational Areas, 4 National Rivers, 10 National Wild and Scenic Rivers, 6 National Scenic Trails, 10 National Seashores, and 11 other designations.  More at

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Exhibit at the Mather Homestead:
Stephen Mather & the National Parks

In 2022, the Mather Homestead Foundation opened its first exhibit to explore the life and legacy of Stephen Tyng Mather. The images below were presented in the Elizabeth W. Chilton Center ("the barn") as 8 foot high panels along with many items from the Mather Homestead collection related to Stephen Tyng Mather including Stephen Mather's photo collections, his camera and more.

The National Parks:  America's Best Idea
Dayton Duncan

On September 11, 2022, the Mather Homestead welcomed Dayton Duncan for a lecture The National Parks:  America's Best Idea.  More about Dayton Duncan


View lecture

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Read transcript

Dayton Duncan, who gave a lecture at the Mather Homestead in September 2022
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