Photo: Water cascading down pools

Early expeditions to the American West, such as this one in 1875 to what's now Yellowstone National Park, helped raise awareness of the need to protect U.S. lands.

Photograph by David Arnold

When the National Geographic Society was founded in 1888 the United States had exactly one national park—Yellowstone. In many ways the Society and the parks grew together, each helping the other reach its full potential in a relationship still going strong after nearly a century.

In 1915 wealthy industrialist Stephen Mather gathered a group of influential men to lobby for a federal agency that might oversee America’s national parks—then under a mishmash of often insufficient protection.

Mather organized a Sierra Nevada “mountain party” pack trip for a group of reporters and businessmen, including National Geographic Editor Gilbert H. Grosvenor. Grosvenor, like the others, was so thrilled by what he saw that he threw his efforts—and the Society’s—behind Mather’s National Park Service plan.

Grosvenor devoted the entire April 1916 issue of National Geographic to the “Land of the Best” and encouraged readers to support a Park Service. A copy of the issue was sent to every member of Congress. These efforts worked, and that same year Grosvenor helped to draft the legislation that would eventually establish the National Park Service.

Research and Reporting

Over the years National Geographic explored and spotlighted many of America’s special places for future inclusion in the park system. The magazine produced early special issues like January 1917’s Mount McKinley (Denali) National Park profile. The Society also sent biologists, archaeologists, cartographers, and others into the field to explore and report on sites like the future Katmai National Monument, Carlsbad Caverns, Mesa Verde, Redwoods, and many others.

In 1916, Society members committed $80,000 dollars to the newly established Park Service. Since then, National Geographic has invested heavily in the parks.

In 1916 Grosvenor and the Society’s Board of Managers bought stands of California’s giant sequoias and donated them to Sequoia National Park. The Society also helped purchase private lands for the creation of Shenandoah National Park in 1935 and bought Tennessee’s Russell Cave in 1961, deeding it to the people of the United States.

Today, in the 21st century, this long relationship is as strong as ever. National Geographic’s print, digital, and television outlets continue to inspire the world with the wonder of U.S. parklands. And the Society continues to promote exploration of the parks, currently teaming with the Park Service to hold BioBlitz events annually until the service's centennial in 2016.

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