A Brief History of Interpretation in National Parks



by Barry Mackintosh


Interpretation Institutionalized


Other national parks were not long in emulating the interpretive lectures, guided hikes, publications, and exhibits pioneered at Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Mesa Verde. In 1921 Rocky Mountain National Park established an information office. Mount Rainier National Park hired Charles Landes, a Seattle biology teacher, as seasonal ranger-naturalist; he would return for nearly 20 summers. At Glacier National Park a local naturalist began a nature guide service that year under National Park Service permit, charging a fee. He was placed in 1922 by a free program staffed by professors from Montana State College. At Sequoia National Park U.S. Commissioner Walter Fry, formerly park superintendent, began issuing nature bulletins in 1922. A year later he formed the Sequoia Nature Guide Service, established a tent museum, and began nature walks. Grand Canyon National Park opened an information room in 1922, and during the next two years Chief Clerk Michael J. Harrison gave nature talks at El Tovar Hotel. In 1925 Angus H. Woodbury started as seasonal naturalist at Zion National Park and Fred H. Kiser, park photographer at Crater Lake, gave the first interpretive lectures there.

To support and encourage these park programs, Director Mather made Ansel Hall chief naturalist of the National Park Service in 1923. Organizationally, Hall became chief of the Service’s Education Division, headquartered at the University of California at Berkeley with the forestry school there. At the Eighth National Park Conference, held at Mesa Verde in October 1925, Mather voiced strong support for interpretation and made the Education Division one of three equal units–with Landscape Architecture and Engineering–in the Service organization.

The functions of the Education Division included overseeing and setting standards for the hiring of park naturalists. In 1926 Hall prepared an information sheet and application blank to send the numerous aspirants for naturalist positions. The information sheet stressed the difficult requirements of the job:

The duties of Ranger Naturalist require a full day’s work each day–work entailing continual contact with the public. If you are not absolutely certain that you can maintain an attitude of enthusiasm and courtesy, please do not apply for work of this sort ….
A Ranger Naturalist may have to talk to 1500 to 2000 persons; his lectures may be a part of a general entertainment program where his competitors will be Jazz music, comedy skits, or other such forms of amusement….

“This should automatically weed out fully 95% of the unfit applicants, most of whom are absolutely ignorant of the duties of the ranger naturalists and are merely looking for a pleasant vacation in one of the parks,” Hall wrote Horace Albright.

To better train naturalists for positions in and outside the parks, Harold Bryant–still with the California Fish and Game Commission–cooperated with the National Park Service to found the Yosemite School of Field Natural History in 1925. The seven-week summer course was limited to 20 students who had spent at least two years in college. Sixty percent of the program was devoted to field observation and identification, distinguishing it from typical academic courses in the natural sciences. Graduates, who were awarded certificates, went to parks and summer camps throughout the country. Bryant and Yosemite naturalists regularly taught the popular course. Many seasonal and permanent Service naturalists were trained at the school, which operated each summer (the war years excepted)until 1953.

At Mather’s instigation, Secretary of the Interior Roy O. West appointed the Committee on Study of Educational Problems in the National Parks in 1928. Chaired by John C. Merriam, it included Hermon C. Bumpus, Frank Oastler, Vernon Kellogg, and Harold Bryant. The committee recommended a permanent educational advisory board, established the next year with Merriam, Bumpus, Oastler, Wallace W. Atwood, Clark Wissler, and Isaiah Bomnan as members. It also urged appointment of a Park Service education chief headquartered in Washington. This recommendation was carried out in 1930, when Harold Bryant was made assistant director of the Service in charge of the new Branch of Research and Education. Ansel Hall remained in Berkeley, under Bryant, as head of the retitled Field Division of Education and Forestry for several years.

Although education/interpretation thus attained high status in the Park Service organization and benefited from the Service’s first formal training program, the function and its practitioners were still not universally accepted by park superintendents and rangers. Some of the early naturalist appointees were academically trained scientists who could not adapt to field work with park visitors; such misfits at Yellowstone and Lassen had to be dismissed. Despite the Yosemite school, persons with solid qualifications and training for interpretive duties were not plentiful, and programs were sometimes amateurish. In 1978 C. Frank Brockman, hired as a Mount Rainier naturalist 50 years before, recalled that among rangers, “interest in natural history was often associated with qualities lacking in ‘he-men.'” Nor were park naturalists widely appreciated by academics. As Brockman remembered it:

Science had not gained the status typical of recent years, and early Park Service naturalists were often considered to be impractical “scientists.” Conversely, true scientists of that time, though respecting the zeal and dedication of park naturalists, were well aware of their limited scientific backgrounds. So, in a sense, early National Park Service naturalists were neither fish nor fowl. They often lacked the respect of their coworkers and had limited status in the true scientific community. Not uncommonly they were referred to by their associates as “nature fakers,” “posy pickers,” or “Sunday supplement scientists.”

Given these attitudes, naturalists were slow to be fully integrated into park management. Following an inspection trip to the parks in the summer of 1935, Harold Bryant reported to Director Arno B. Cammerer, “apparently the emphatic requests made of superintendents to place naturalists in key positions have not been complied with.” He saw “little gain in the effort to make the naturalist an expert consultant on all matters pertaining to education and natural history.” He found “the chief criticism of the naturalist service…still that of shallowness of background of some naturalists,” although this was being improved. He also noted improvement in the relations between rangers and naturalists: “Yellowstone, which once developed a difficult situation, seemed this summer to be absolutely free from any antagonisms.”

Contention and controversy over the status of interpretation and its practitioners would continue. A quarter-century after Bryant’s report the Service’s Chief of Interpretation would again complain that park interpreters were out of the organization’s mainstream, enjoying little consideration for advancement into management. But from the 1930s few doubted the importance of interpretation to the Service mission, as a significant part of what the bureau was about.