Born in Haverstraw, New York, Robert “Bob” Sterling Yard became one of the most important figures not only in the establishment of the National Park Service (NPS), but also in the national conservation movement. After graduating from Princeton in 1883, he worked as a reporter for the New York Sun and later as editor at the New York Herald. He served in the publishing business from 1900 to 1915 when his close friend of many years, Stephen Mather, recruited him to come to Washington, D.C., to help publicize the need for an independent agency to manage the national parks. From 1915 to 1919, Yard served in the Department of the Interior as national parks publicity chief and later as chief of the new Park Service’s Educational Division.
Yard assembled The National Parks Portfolio, a collection of pamphlets published in 2016, with stunning photographs and accompanying text highlighting the scenic grandeur of the parks to promote them as tourist destinations. The publication was distributed to thousands of influential Americans including members of Congress, in what proved to be a very effective publicity campaign. He also helped generate many articles on national parks in publications around the country and wrote a number of pamphlets and articles to spark public interest in the parks. His efforts and connections with the publishing world resulted in more than a thousand articles related to national parks between 1917 and 1919. This unprecedented coverage helped educate Americans about the importance of national parks and ultimately helped prompt Congress to create the National Park Service.
For a time, Mather used his personal funds to augment Yard’s modest government salary, but the law prohibited supplementing the pay of federal employees. With tension growing in the department, in 1919 Yard left the NPS to become executive secretary of the new National Parks Association (now the National Parks and Conservation Association). He also edited the association’s National Parks Bulletin from 1919 to 1936.
In 1935, he joined seven others in founding members of The Wilderness Society and directed its activities as its first president from 1937 until his death died in 1945. He remains an important figure in the wilderness movement.
Robert Sterling Yard’s commitment to the creation of a bureau to protect the national parks and his zeal in pursuing that goal had a major impact and his important role in the establishment of the NPS deserve recognition. Throughout his career, he worked tirelessly to promote the national parks and to educate the American public about their value and use.