Robert Sterling Yard (February 1, 1861 – May 17, 1945) was an American writer, journalist, and wilderness activist. Born in Haverstraw, New York, Yard graduated from Princeton University and spent the first twenty years of his career in the editing and publishing business. In 1915, he was recruited by his friend Stephen Mather to help publicize the need for an independent national park agency. Their numerous publications were part of a movement that resulted in legislative support for a National Park Service (NPS) in 1916. Yard served as head of the National Parks Educational Committee for several years after its conception, but tension within the NPS led him to concentrate on non-government initiatives. He became executive secretary of the National Parks Association in 1919.
Robert Yard worked to promote the national parks as well as educate Americans about their use. Creating high standards based on aesthetic ideals for park selection, he also opposed commercialism and industrialization of what he called "America's masterpieces". These standards subsequently caused discord with his peers. After helping to establish a relationship between the NPA and the United States Forest Service, Yard later became involved in the protection of wilderness areas. In 1935, he became one of the eight founding members of The Wilderness Society and acted as its first president from 1937 until his death eight years later. Yard is now considered an important figure in the modern wilderness movement.
Born in 1861 in Haverstraw, New York to Robert Boyd and Sarah (Purdue) Yard, Robert Sterling Yard graduated from Princeton University in 1883. Known throughout his life as "Bob", he became a prominent member of Princeton's Alumni Association and also founded the Montclair Princeton Alumni Association. In 1895, he married Mary Belle Moffat and they had one daughter, Margaret.
During the 1880s and 1890s, Yard worked as a journalist for the New York Sun and the New York Herald. He then served in the publishing business from 1900 to 1915, variously as editor-in-chief of The Century Magazine and Sunday editor of the New York Herald. After serving as editor of Charles Scribner's Sons' the Book Buyer, Yard helped launch the publishing firm of Moffat, Yard and Company, for which he served as vice president and editor-in-chief.
In 1915, Yard moved to Washington, D.C. at the request of a friend, Stephen Mather. Yard and Mather had met while working for the New York Sun and became friends; Yard was even the best man at Mather's wedding in 1893. Mather, who wanted someone to help publicize the need for an independent agency to oversee the national parks movement, personally paid Yard's salary. The United States had authorized three dozen parks and monuments over the past forty years (1872–1915), but there was no single agency to provide unified management. Together Mather and Yard ran a national parks publicity campaign for the Department of the Interior, writing numerous articles that praised the scenic qualities of the parks and their possibilities for educational, inspirational and recreational benefits. The unprecedented press coverage persuaded influential Americans about the importance of national parks, putting pressure on Congress to create an independent parks agency.
Although Yard was not an outdoorsman like most advocates of a national park service, he nevertheless felt a connection to the cause and eventually became personally invested in its success. At the National Park Conference in March 1915, he stated, "I, the treader of dusty city streets, boldly claim common kinship with you of the plains, the mountains, and the glaciers." Yard's assignments entailed gathering facts and figures regarding popular American tourist destinations such as Switzerland, France, Germany Italy, and Canada; he also collected photographs and compiled lists of those who might enlist in the conservation cause. One of his most recognized and passionate articles of the time, entitled "Making a Business of Scenery", appeared in The Nation's Business in June 1916:
We want our national parks developed. We want roads and trails like Switzerland's. We want hotels of all prices from lowest to highest. We want comfortable public camps in sufficient abundance to meet all demands. We want lodges and chalets at convenient intervals commanding the scenic possibilities of all our parks. We want the best and cheapest accommodations for pedestrians and motorists. We want sufficient and convenient transportation at reasonable rates. We want adequate facilities and supplies for camping out at lowest prices. We want good fishing. We want our wild animal life conserved and developed. We want special facilities for nature study.
Yard's most successful publicity initiative during this time was the National Parks Portfolio (1916), which—through photographs interspersed with text lauding the scenic grandeur of the nation's major parks—connected the parks with a sense of national identity to make visitation an imperative of American citizenship. Yard and Mather distributed this publication to a carefully selected list of prominent Americans, including every member of Congress.
The onslaught of publicity spearheaded by Yard and Mather resulted in the creation of the National Park Service; on August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed a bill allowing the agency "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wild life therein, and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations." Mather served as its first director, and while he appointed Horace Albright as assistant director, he put Yard in charge of the National Parks Educational Committee. Consisting only of Yard and a secretary, this division of the NPS aimed to create informative publicity in order to draw visitors to parks and develop programs to enhance the educational value of their experience.
When Mather suffered a mental breakdown in January 1917 and had to take an extended leave, Yard believed himself next in line for interim director at the NPS. Disagreements within the organization, however, kept him from the position. Yard, who has been described as "intense, urbane and opinionated", was disappointed when the position was given to Albright, who was only 27 years old at the time. After more than a year of working in the Educational Division, Yard began to look outside the NPS for support.
Robert believed that while the National Park Service was effective as a government agency, it was not capable of promoting the wishes of the common American. He wrote in June 1918 that the national park movement must "be cultivated only by an organization of the people outside the government, and unhampered by politics and routine". On May 29, 1919, the National Parks Association (NPA) was officially created to fill this role. Yard, who became a pivotal figure in the new society, was elected its executive secretary. His duties as the only full-time employee of the NPA were practically the same as they had been with the NPS—to promote the national parks and to educate Americans about their use. In its early years, the NPA was Yard's livelihood and passion: he recruited the key founding members, raised money and wrote various press releases. Yard also served as editor of the NPA's National Parks Bulletin from 1919 to 1936. In the first issue, Yard outlined the organization's objectives in order to craft a broad educational program: not only would they attract students, artists and writers to the parks, but a "complete and rational system" would be created and adhered to by Congress and the Park Service.
Yard believed that eligible national parks had to be scenically stunning. He noted in his 1919 volume The Book of the National Parks that the major characteristic of almost all national parks was that their scenery had been forged by geological or biological processes. He wrote, "[W]e shall not really enjoy our possession of the grandest scenery in the world until we realize that scenery is the written page of the History of Creation, and until we learn to read that page." Yard's standards also insisted upon "complete conservation", meaning avoidance of commercialism and industrialization. Often referring to parks as "American masterpieces", he sought to protect them from economic activities such as timber cutting and mineral extracting. In such, Yard often advocated the preservation of "wilderness" conditions in America's national parks.
In 1920, Congress passed the Water Power Act, which granted licenses to develop hydroelectric projects on federal lands, including national parks. Yard and the NPA joined again with Mather and the National Park Service to oppose the intrusion on Park Service control. In 1921, Congress passed the Jones-Esch Bill, amending the Water Power Act to exclude existing national parks from hydroelectric development.
Despite agreeing on most issues regarding the protection of national parks, friction between the NPA and NPS was seemingly unavoidable. Mather and Yard disagreed on many issues; whereas Mather was not interested in the protection of wildlife and accepted the Biological Survey's efforts to exterminate predators within parks, Yard vehemently criticized the program as early as 1924. Yard was also highly critical of Mather's administration of the parks. Mather advocated plush accommodations, city comforts and various entertainments to encourage park visitation. These plans clashed with Yard's ideals, and he considered such urbanization of the nation's parks misguided. While visiting Yosemite National Park in 1926, he stated that the valley was "lost" after finding crowds, automobiles, jazz music and even a bear show.
In 1924, the United States Forest Service initiated a program to set aside "primitive areas" in the national forests that protected wilderness while opening it to use. Yard, who preferred to give the land that did not meet his standards to the Forest Service rather than the NPS, began to work closely with the USFS. The NPA and Yard, however, both received criticism from activists who feared that the association would be eclipsed by the Forest Service's separate goals. Such criticism disheartened Yard, who at times felt isolated and under-appreciated by his peers. He wrote in 1926, "I wonder whether I'm justified in forcing this work upon people who seem to care so little about it."
In the late 1920s, Yard came to see wilderness as a solution to commercially motivated park making. As a result, he continued to clash with others regarding legislation on park proposals. These included the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, which Yard thought was too recreational and not of the caliber of a national park. He also hesitated at the nomination of the Everglades National Park in Florida. When the Tropic Everglades National Park Association was founded in 1928 to promote the idea of a national park in south Florida, Yard was initially skeptical that it was necessary. Although he recognized the need for preservation, he was not ready to accept the proposal for a national park until the area met his high scenic standards. He slowly warmed to the idea, however, and in 1931 he supported the proposal under conditions that the area remain pristine, with limited tourist development. The Everglades National Park was authorized by Congress in 1934.
Robert Yard's preservationist goals began to stretch beyond the Park Service in the 1930s. Drifting away from the national parks lobby, he began pushing for the preservation of what he called "primitive" land; he and John C. Merriam had discussed forming a group called "Save the Primitive League" for this reason. Although the group did not materialize, Yard was soon invited to become a founding member of the The Wilderness Society. Although at the time he was 74 years old, he was known for his tireless work ethic and youthfulness; for decades he had jokingly insisted to colleagues that he was a mere 47.
The society was officially formed in January 1935 to spearhead wilderness preservation in the United States. Other founding members included notable conservationists Bob Marshall, Benton MacKaye, Bernard Frank and Aldo Leopold. In September, Yard published the first issue of the society's magazine, The Living Wilderness. He wrote of the society's genesis, "The Wilderness Society is born of an emergency in conservation which admits of no delay. The craze is to build all the highways possible everywhere while billions may yet be borrowed from the unlucky future. The fashion is to barber and manicure wild America as smartly as the modern girl. Our mission is clear."
Although Marshall initially proposed that Leopold act as the society's first president, Yard eventually accepted the role—as well as that of permanent secretary—in 1937. He ran the society from his home in Washington, D.C. and single-handedly produced The Living Wilderness during its early years, although there was only one annual issue until 1945.
Described as a cautious and non-confrontational leader, Yard directed the society's activities while continuing to push for national park standards. While ill from pneumonia at the end of his life, he ran the society's affairs from his bed. He died on May 17, 1945, at the age of 84.
The National Park Service and what is now called the National Parks Conservation Association remain successful organizations. The National Park System of the United States comprises 390 areas covering more than 84 million acres (340,000 km2) in 49 states, Washington, D.C., American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, Saipan, and the Virgin Islands. His work to preserve wilderness in the United States has also endured. After his death, three members of The Wilderness Society shouldered his various duties; Benton MacKaye officially replaced him as president, but executive secretary Howard Zahniser and director Olaus Murie ran the society for the next two decades. Zahniser also took over the society's magazine, making The Living Wilderness into a successful quarterly publication.
The December 1945 issue of The Living Wilderness was dedicated to Yard's life and work; in one article, fellow co-founder Ernest Oberholtzer wrote that "the form he [Yard] gave The Wilderness Society was the crowning of a life-long vision. He undertook it with a freshness that belied his years and revealed, as nothing else could, the vitality of his inspiration. Few men in America have ever had such understanding of the spiritual quality of the American scene, and fewer still the voice to go with it."
Robert Yard's effect on the Wilderness Society proved long-lasting; he was responsible for initiating cooperation with other major preservationist groups, including the National Park Association. He also established a durable alliance with the Sierra Club, founded in 1892 by noted preservationist John Muir. This alliance proved crucial during the proposal and eventual passage of the Wilderness Act. The act, which was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on September 3, 1964, was the first major victory for The Wilderness Society. Written by Zahniser, it enabled Congress to set aside selected areas in the national forests, national parks, national wildlife refuges and other federal lands, as units to be kept permanently unchanged by humans. Since its conception, The Wilderness Society has contributed a total of 104 million acres (421,000 km²) to the National Wilderness Preservation System.
Robert Sterling Yard, former editor of the century Magazine and of the Sunday edition of The New York Herald, died here yesterday after a long illness. His age was 84. He was widely known as a conservationist.