This article was adapted from an essay by Timothy R. Elder about National Parks and the BSA.
In 1907, Lord Baden Powell established the Scouting Movement in Great Britain. Three years later, in 1910, Scouting came to the United States. Shortly after, The National Parks Service was founded, on August 25, 1916. The two organizations grew quickly throughout the next decade, both with the help of each other and the economic success of the roaring 20’s.
A Common Goal
The unspoken partnership between these two organizations stems from a common goal – people could explore nature under the guidance of a structured organization. Because of this commonality, the two organizations worked closely together and grew with the help of the other. Activities like tree planting and trail building, along with shared ideals of conservation and preservation kept the two groups closely intertwined during the early 20th century.
The Boy Scouts of America has a storied history, much of which would not have been possible without the help of the National Parks. The National Parks Service “aimed to protect wilderness areas across the nation for future generation to experience and enjoy.” The NPS is often seen as the organization that protects the last of our country’s untamed frontier, preserving the parks against modernization, industrialization and deforestation.
Trail Building Across the Nation
Another major link between the BSA and the NPS that many don’t know about is the trails that were built through National Parks across the nation. During the 1920’s, the first trails through the parks were built by Boy Scout troops in dozens of parks across the entire nation! This joint effort led to a huge period of growth and development for both organizations as more people heard about the amazing trail-building projects.
The inspiring part of this story is that trail building projects were completed at the local level – local Scouts took the projects upon themselves and were often completed as Eagle Scout Projects.
the BSA Fieldbook, which started in 1944, outlined the care and detail that went into constructing the trails. Many hard tasks were required, like surveying the land, planning for scenic overlooks, marking trails and measuring switchbacks. Scouts took all of this on for the benefit of the NPS, their generation and future generations so that everyone could enjoy these important natural places.
These projects were happening across the nation – Scouts even helped build the sprawling Appalachian trail, which spans over multiple states and National Parks.
In 1925, a group of Eagle Scouts built over six miles of trail in Yellowstone. Six miles may not seem like a lot, but these new trails were constructed in some of the parks most spectacular and most natural landscapes – it included constructing bridges and boardwalks to cross streams, creeks and other water features. This work inspired more groups of Scouts to form together over the next few years and build trails in Mount Rainier and Glacier National Park. The new trails allowed visitors to get out and better explore the parks. They were a big influence on the growing number of annual visitors. By the end of the 1920’s, the visitor rate grew from 683,000 to 2,179,983.
The new trails allowed visitors to get out and better explore the parks. They were a big influence on the growing number of annual visitors. By the end of the 1920’s, the visitor rate grew from 683,000 to 2,179,983.
BSA also saw an increase in membership during the roaring 20’s. In 1925 membership reached one million youth. The program continued to grow and eventually expanded and introduced Cub Scouting in the 1930’s.
Champions for National Parks
In the 1910’s, both organizations were in their infancy and had their own struggles. The NPS had a hard time nailing down standards for what defined a park. This became an issue when public outcries came demanding more parks, as Scouts and non-Scouts alike looked for new regions to explore.
There were many champions for the National Parks throughout history. Individuals like William T. Hornaday, John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt and John D. Rockefeller fought to protect and conserve natural spaces for the NPS.
William T. Hornaday was a zoologist and leader in outdoor conservation efforts in the early 1900s. His work led to a series of awards in the BSA, celebrating various levels of conservation. The BSA website states the purpose of the William T. Hornaday Award, saying that “understanding and practicing sound stewardship of natural resources and environmental protection strengthens Scouting’s emphasis on respecting the outdoors.”
John Muir was a naturalist and championed the National Parks program. He spent a lot of his life visiting natural areas and writing books about their wonders, especially in Yosemite National Park. He was also had strong support in the political sphere and spent time with Teddy Roosevelt talking about the needs of the American wilderness. Eventually, Muir Woods National Monument, in Northern California, would be named after him.
Roosevelt took his conservations with Muir to heart and pushed legislation through to better protect the NPS, becoming a strong supporter of the National Parks.
John D. Rockefeller also supported the National Parks and gave significant donations to both the BSA and the NPS to help build their infrastructure. These donations provided the funding to build numerous Boy Scout Summer Camps. One donation of $100,000 from the Rockefeller Foundation even went to initiating the Boy’s Life magazine.
Many presidents have supported the national parks as well, like Woodrow Wilson who signed the National Parks Service Bill into law. Many government agencies also joined under Franklin D. Roosevelt and established the National Parks System to set aside land in its natural state to preserve for all generations.
Outdoor Conservation and BSA Awards
The ideology of the BSA as a whole stays deeply connected with the experience of being outdoors. Every rank in the program has a badge or award to address nature and conservation.
For example, the Nature Badge for a Wolf Scout involves identifying different types of trees, flowers and wildlife. The Bear Scout has two badges that deal with the outdoors and conservation – the Florist badge and the Wildlife Conservation Badge. Webelos have a variety of different badges and pins, like the Naturalist, Geologist, Forester and Outdoorsman recognitions.
Once a Scout moves into the Boy Scout Program, they start earning merit badges for these topics. The Camping Merit Badge is one of the hardest ones – a Scout must camp outside for 50 nights and make a shelter out of natural materials. The Conservation Merit Badge deals with deforestation and reducing dependency on nonrenewable natural resources. The Forestry Merit Badge deals with identifying trees and other flora.
These badges, pins and awards show an emphasis on the outdoors and a Scout’s relationship with nature. This shows an unseen connection to the NPS, one that consists of the organizations’ shared ideals – conservation, protecting natural areas and experiencing the benefits and wonders of the outdoors.
A Continuing Relationship
The BSA and the NPS both grew up together in the early 1900’s. This decade served an important role in both organizations as it provided the NPS with a system of trails throughout their parks and provided the Scouts with areas to practice conservation and service projects. In addition to this physical connection between the BSA and NPS, written and spoken connections between the two now exist. The efforts taken by both organizations for conservation and preservation are clearly identified in the BSA Outdoor Code and the Leave No Trace Program developed by the NPS.
The BSA Outdoor Code exemplifies these ideas of conservation and Leave No Trace. It states: “As an American, I will do my best to, be clean in my outdoor manners. Be careful with fire. Be considerate in the outdoors. Be conservation minded.” It tells Scouts to treat the outdoors as a national heritage, something that needs to be protected for future generations. It helps Scouts remember to “take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints and kill nothing but time.”