As the National Park Service kicks off its centennial celebration, I began thinking about how fortunate we are to have such a wonderful system of parks and how blessed I’ve been for the opportunity to hike and share so many memorable trails in them.

I also feel lucky that long ago I had a chance to meet one of the early founders of the National Park Service—a meeting that surely influenced my own path in life.

Stephen Mather (R), first National Park Service Director with his assistant Horace Albright.
Stephen Mather (R), first National Park Service Director with his assistant Horace Albright.

Nearly 40 years ago, as college student, one of the first big interviews I conducted (and as it turned out one of the most memorable) was of Horace Albright, who assisted Stephen Mather, the first park director, when the National Park Service (NPS) was established in 1916. Albright served as superintendent of Yellowstone National Park and later succeeded Mather as the second director of the NPS.

Fascinated, I listened for hours to Albright’s stories about how the National Park Service was founded and the behind-the-scenes struggles necessary to establish each of the various parks. Each park had a champion—a private citizen or citizens group, or someone in government—pushing for it. “The parks had champions and will always need champions,” Horace Albright declared.

Our task as park champions is different now than it was 100, 50, or even 20 years ago. Yes, current preservation campaigns aim to add to existing parklands and there’s the possibility of creating some exciting new national parks. But our mission now is less about setting aside new parkland and more about the stewardship and wise enjoyment of the 59 national parks and 400 park “units” we already have. And our time-critical mission now is also to re-connect our citizenry to nature and our national parks. This contemporary mission is as important now as creating a broad network of parks was back then.

One of my prized possessions is a historical photo given to me by Horace Albright that shows he and National Park Service Director Stephen Mather standing in front of their staff car. It had a custom license plate: NPS 1.

NPS #1. Exactly. The NPS is the lead conservation agency in America, and therefore the lead conservation agency in the world.

Mariposa Grove, Yosemite. The National Park Service connects visitors from across the nation and around the world to the wonders of nature.
Mariposa Grove, Yosemite. The National Park Service connects visitors from across the nation and around the world to the wonders of nature.

If the National Park Service is not the national voice for nature, who is? If the National Park Service is not taking the lead in addressing our nationwide nature deficit disorder, who is? If the National Park Service is not developing compelling programs to get our nation’s youth into the great outdoors, who is?

Why not start right now?

Fortunately, the National Park Service does not need to start from scratch. The agency does not have to re-do its mission statement or tinker with its core values. It has a grand mission and great values. Park leaders need only pick up their swords and show some leadership, the kind of innovation and leadership shown by early founders of our national park system when they preserved parkland and sold a doubtful nation on the very idea of national parks.

Inadequate funding has been a challenge for the National Park Service for nearly a hundred years. It may be a challenge for the next hundred years, too. However, the National Park Service must not use its centennial birthday celebration in 2016 solely as a front for fund-raising or the agency will be viewed as just another plodding bureaucracy whining about having too much to do with too little money. As we’ve seen, a little money coupled with a lot of vision has resulted in a system of national parks unsurpassed in the world.

While the NPS fixes park plumbing, it needs to re-articulate its park philosophy or risk becoming irrelevant to the everyday lives of Americans. We need to do more than improve park infrastructure or our national parks could become like colleges with declining enrollment that build new classrooms but fail to attract more students.

In a time of widespread public distrust toward government, the National Park Service remains one of the few widely admired and supported agencies and national parks are still regarded as one of the great expressions of our American ideals. The National Park Service has the street cred—or nature cred—to help re-connect us as a people to nature. And that would be a good thing for our planet, our parks, and ourselves.