National Geographic’s Influence on National Parks

In 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed a bill that designated Yellowstone as the first National Park in the United States. However, it wasn’t until much later that the National Parks Service as we know it came into existence. Without the help of National Geographic, the National Parks Service, as we know it, may have never existed.


National Geographic was established in 1888 as a society focusing on the more scientific elements of nature. When Alexander Graham Bell took over as President, Nat Geo as we know it began to coalesce into a paradigm-shifting publication. Graham Bell wanted to National Geographic to focus on what he called “dynamical pictures,” or images that put a heightened emphasis on capturing or depicting a sense of motion.

At the time, photos in magazines were considered taboo. People preferred illustrations, or simply text, but Graham Bell believed that photos that highlighted the beauty of the natural would get readers to focus even more on the text. Advertisers were skeptical. But by 1910, the publics appetite for photojournalism had ensconced the publishing industry, and National Geographic was leading the charge.

This shift was largely due to the efforts of Gilbert H. Grosvenor — the first full time employee at the National Geographic Society and the magazine’s Editor in Chief from 1899 until 1954. Considered the father of photojournalism, Grosvenor doubled down on capturing nature’s wonders on film.

While his motivation was always to get citizens to explore the vast natural wonders of the United States, fifteen years into his tenure, Grosvenor began to practice what he preached. He took some time off to hike with Stephen Mather, an influential California industrialist and conservationist. They headed to the Sierra Nevadas. Grosvenor was blown away by the natural beauty, the sheer cliffs, and the wild state of the Sierra Nevadas. While hiking and camping in the park, Grosvenor and Mather discussed the need for a unified system of parks that would ensure that the pristine natural landscapes of the United States would be preserved, protected and promoted so that people everywhere could enjoy them.

When Grosvenor returned home, he devoted his time to creating what we now refer to as the National Parks Service. His first directive occurred in spring of 1916 when he dedicated an entire edition of National Geographic to the wild, wild country of the United States. Titled “The Land of the Best,” the volume highlighted the most wondrous, insane, overwhelming, and enchanting landscapes in the US. The goal was clear — to show the public how incredible, and incredibly valuable this land was. GHG distributed a copy to every member of congress. One year later, the “The Organic Act,” as it is known by conservationists and environmentalists was enacted, and the National Parks Service was born.

Looking for outdoors inspiration? Interested in further exploring the archives of National Geographic? We highly recommend Vintage Nat Geo and Nat Geo Found as great places to start.

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