Hats Off to the National Park Service on Its 100th Birthday

By Lyman Hafen, Executive Director

For nearly 20 years I’ve had a unique vantage of the National Park Service and how it operates in Zion National Park. I do not work for the Park Service, or for the Federal Government. As executive director of Zion Natural History Association, I work for a private, non-profit corporation and answer to a duly elected board of directors who volunteer their time to oversee the operation of ZNHA as Zion National Park’s official partner. Because my office is in the park administration building, and because I interact with the park superintendent and several division chiefs on a nearly daily basis, I’ve been given a perspective on the Park Service that few others have.

Over the past two decades I’ve grown to admire, respect and appreciate these federal employees in ways I would have never imagined. I’ve worked with five different superintendents of the park and more than a dozen different division chiefs. I’ve sat in countless park squad meetings and scores of planning and organizational meetings. And I’ve learned, first-hand, how even within the often constraining and confounding culture of a federal agency, these individuals find ways to translate their love for the national parks, and specifically their passion for Zion National Park, into a better experience for millions of visitors each year. As we celebrate the Centennial of the National Park Service this year, my hat is off to all the amazing Park Service personnel in Zion National Park, Cedar Breaks National Monument, and Pipe Spring National Monument with whom I’ve worked in partnership over the years, and to the thousands of Park Service employees across the country who administer the more than 400 sites in the National Park System.

Back in 1914, when there were just a handful of national parks and monuments in the United States, there was no official agency to administer them. At the time, Zion Canyon had already been declared Mukuntuweap National Monument by signature of President William Howard Taft in 1909. Competent local people had been hired by the federal government to supervise the park, but there was no formal system in place to administer Zion or any of the other early parks in America.

A wealthy industrialist who also had a passion for the nature and grand landscapes of America, began visiting the existing national parks and monuments. His name was Stephen Mather and what he discovered in places like Yosemite, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, was the need for a well-organized federal agency to administer the parks. In 1914, he wrote a letter to the Secretary of the Interior expressing his disappointment at the deteriorating conditions in some of the national parks. The response Mather received truly changed America. In effect, the Secretary told Mather if he didn’t like the way the parks were being run, he should come to Washington and run them himself. Mather did just that. Along with his assistant Horace Albright, who succeeded him as the first director of the National Park Service, he conceived of, planned, lobbied for and organized the agency that has administered our beloved national parks ever since.

Every day I witness the hard work and sacrifice of the employees of the National Park Service as they maintain the roads and facilities in the park, interact with the public and impart interpretive information with a smile, work in innovative ways to protect the natural and cultural resources of the park, provide security in the campgrounds and patrol the roads and trails of the park, and, on an almost daily basis, rescue or give aid to park visitors who’ve been lost, injured or suffered a medical emergency. They are among the most competent and passionate people I have ever met, and day after day they continue to serve park visitors in amazing ways, even on days such as this spring when more than 20,000 people have congregated in Zion Canyon at one time.

I am a witness to how much Park Service employees love the places where they work, even as they strive to help all of us who also love them – and in the process try to help us not love them to death. It’s a continual balancing act and we are blessed that such an agency exists and that such excellent people work for it, and for us.