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Were National Parks the 'One Good Thing?” Think again.

Written by Subject: American History
Today we think of government and corporations as big and impersonal. But then, and now, the people who run things are relatively small in number, a club. The Club follows its own rules, rules from a book nearly a century old, which mandate two standards of behavior, kindness, honesty and concern for Club members, real people, and an entirely different set of rules for ordinary Americans. Normally members of the Club do not discuss the difference in standards. But one member of their club did so, with stunning candor.

Edward L. Bernayssaid this about his use of propaganda, which he had deftly repackaged as public relations. “(The) American business community was also very impressed with the propaganda effort. They had a problem at that time. The country was becoming formally more democratic. A lot more people were able to vote and that sort of thing. The country was becoming wealthier and more people could participate and a lot of new immigrants were coming in, and so on.
o what do you do? It's going to be harder to run things as a private club. Therefore, obviously, you have to control what people think.”
Bernays clients were, for the most part, the large industrialists who wanted to sell product which Americans were resistant to buying. Using this simple plan of execution Bernays changed our diet, introducing a hearty breakfast with bacon as a nutritional improvement, persuaded women to smoke, and accustomed us to accepting his carefully selected 'experts' instead of thinking for ourselves. He viewed manipulation of opinion as both the road to riches and a fascinating intellectual challenge.
Edward Bernays, the brother-in-law of Sigmund Freud, viewed ordinary Americans as 'a herd,' needing guidance from an enlightened elite. Such guidance was provided by appealing to what he identified as 'need for security,' 'self-preservation', 'aggression,' or ' sex.'
Bernays can be viewed as an early Leo Strauss, who instead of creating a 'philosophy,' cherry picked 'expert' opinions without associating himself with any specific institution. The outcome is the same, in either case.
Mark Crispin Miller, a respected writer, sent out this video by Glenn Beck on Bernays recently. Ordinarily, this is not a film this writer would have encountered.
Edward Benarys and Robert Sterling Yard operated using the same standards. Robert Sterling Yard designed the PR campaign which sold Americans on National Parks as resorts.
Beginning in 1915, the campaign persuaded Americans lands held in perpetuity for them should be used to build high end hotels, following the elite model of Europe. A practiced public relations expert, Yard, paid partially by government and partially by the new Park Director, Stephen T. Mather, produced a book, also issued as a series of small booklets, on the National Parks. Other members of the Club, for instance the head of the National Geographic, also assisted.
As you leaf through the The National Parks Portfolio, all six editions, photographs of resort hotels resembling those found in Europe far outnumber photos of camp grounds. The building of roads and travel by automobile are strongly encouraged. Feeding the wildlife made the Parks seem like an outdoor zoo without bars.
The materials read like promotion for a time-share. They were aimed at ordinary Americans who knew little or nothing about the raging debate, only recently stilled by the death of John Muir in 1914, on conservation (orderly use of natural resources) and preservation (wilderness kept in its natural state).
The appointed head of Parks, Stephen Mather sold the plan using rhetoric glowing with superlatives, asserting the idea the public should view these wilderness areas as their personal 'resorts,' where they could encounter the world of nature while expecting the comforts of home. It was Mather's proven ability as an adman along with his wealth, which moved Franklin K. Lane to appoint him.
The original notion for National holdings of land was to reserve some limited land in perpetuity, as it was before Europeans arrived and such practices as hydrological mining and clear cutting of forests had remade the landscape of much of California, and North America. Not Conservation, but Preservation.
If the America had been a nation of people managing their own destiny and making their own decisions the issue would have been presented to the American people directly. Instead, Americans were presented with a public relations campaign, resulting in passage of the Organic Act in 1916, establishing a separate body to manage the Parks. Previously management was shared between three agencies.
The Club
The Club was not large, then or now. When you dig into the details, personal relationships pop up like mushrooms. It was a small, exclusive, club, very much as Bernays' quote indicates. The policy on Parks originated with Stephen Mather, who, with the help of his friends molded opinion and controlled what Americans believed.
Who Was Stephen T. Mather?
Stephen Tyng Mather was a descendant of Cotton Mather, the Puritan minister involved in the 1692 Salem Witchcraft Trials. The Mather family later relocated to Connecticut. Stephen's father, Joseph W. Mather, suggested his son for a job with Pacific Coast Borax Company, for whom Joseph ran the New York office, in 1893. Stephen Mather had been working as a reporter for the New York Sun since soon after his graduation from UC Berkeley in 1887.
Robert Sterling Yard stood up as Best Man for Stephen T. Mather's wedding on October 12, 1893. The two were friends of long standing.
Mather was hired as advertising manager for Pacific Coast Borax Company, first in New York, and then at the main branch in Chicago. Mather, a talented writer and adept at enticing public interest by positioning products, proposed adoption of the theme, “20-Mule Team,” which dramatically increased company sales, and ran the ad campaign. In Chicago he met the man who would be his partner in Sterling Borax, Thomas Thorkildsen.
Thorkildsen, younger slightly than Mather, was a first generation American, the son of a Norwegian lumberjack from Wisconsin. Both Mather and Thorkildsen were skilled with sales. Thorkildsen reported to Mather as his superior. It was reported Thorkildsen suggested the two men share funds skimmed from their employer. These is no evidence Mather mentioned this proposal to Smith. Smith discovered Thorkildsen backdating orders in 1898 and fired him.
Mather and Thorkildsen then joined in a covert partnership. Mather continued working for Smith and so had access to his employer's customer base while the two established a company, Thorkildsen-Mather Borax Company, of which Mather was president, in California. Mather, using his salary, provided funding, as Thorkildsen worked to establish Borax holdings in Ventura County, CA.
In 1902 Mather suffered an psychological break-down and was institutionalized for a period of time. Smith refused to continue his salary, of which, Mather complained. Soon Mather ended his employment and began publicly working with Thorkildsen in California, their company became profitable around 1905 and its name changed to Sterling Borax. In 1911 Sterling Borax was sold to Pacific Coast Borax for what today would be $500,000,000. Mather and Thorkildsen shared the profits and also received salaries from Smith for ten years.
No mention of the impact this scheme had on Smith's company was found but Smith's company was bankrupted soon afterward. Francis Marion Smith started again and recovered his wealth, spending much of it on charities.
Later, the Mather and Thorkildsen justify their behavior toward Smith for various reasons.
For the purpose of writing this article I contacted three long time, respected businessmen, their careers in stock brokering, sales, and mining, and outlined the actions of Mather and his partner without using their names. Each man condemned their actions as unethical and possibly legally actionable.
According to an article, 'Borax King' Cleaned Up, but Died Washed Up,"  published in the Los Angeles Times, March 12, 2000, written by Cecilia Rasmussen, Thorkildsen used physical threats to discourage competition and engaged in outrageous personal behavior which scandalized Hollywood. The two men remained friends and Thorkildsen was introduced to Mather's other friends and associates as he became involved in government.
The Park Service Public Relations Campaign
The National Park Campaign began in 1915 but the forces which determined its form were in motion much earlier. The appointment of Franklin K. Lane, as Secretary of the Interior, was a political pay-off by incoming President Woodrow Wilson, made to ensure Wilson's election. The Hetch-Hetchy would become the water supply for San Francisco, spending its crystal waters to start the flow of profits from lands awaiting subdivision around the city, according to Gray Brechin in his book, “Imperial San Francisco,” page 110.
Mather was offered the position of Director for the National Parks by Lane in early 1914. Despite traditions to the contrary, Lane was not previously acquainted with Mather personally and no letter was written by Mather resulting in the appointment. The recommendation came through a mutual friend, Adolph Miller, formerly a professor at UC Berkeley who accepted an appointment suggested by Lane in the Wilson Administration.
Horace Albright is admitted to the Club
Horace Albright, then newly graduated from UC Berkeley, had been working for Miller at the time Miller accepted the position as Assistant Secretary of the Interior. Miller invited Albright to come with him to DC as his assistant. When Miller moved on to a position as Governor for the Federal Reserve System the next year Albright remained at the Department of the Interior. Lane suggested Albright to Mather as an able assistant, in his position as Director for the Parks.
Initially, Albright hesitated. He was engaged to be married to woman living in San Francisco and planned to return and start a law practice.. Mather's proposal to him changed this. Albright reported in “Creating the National Park System – The Missing Years,” feeling elated at being part of the vision Mather enunciated while reluctant to delay his marriage. He agreed to stay on for a year, the term Mather set as his own time limit for the work.
Albright had been raised in Bishop, California and had hardly left there until beginning college at UC Berkeley in 1908. His parents were hard working and used every opportunity to enlarge the opportunities for education available to their children, but lacked the resources to support Horace in college. Albright worked to pay his living expenses and educational costs himself and luxuries were few. His relationship with Mather, who was always prepared to pay for incidental luxuries, enlarged his experience, showing him a very different world. Mather augmented Albright's government pay, a practice legal until 1919.
Mather could be the soul of generosity, awakening in those who knew him strong feelings of obligation and loyalty. His expenditures included a club house for the Park Rangers in Yosemite in 1924, which advanced his popularity enormously with a group not usually provided with such perks.
The first time Mather met Grace, Albright's fiancee, she and Albright were his guests for dinner at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. Albright reported, “In one hand he (Mather) had a corsage of roses and, in the other, a small box. He handed both to Grace and laughingly said, "I don't know how Horace could ever have been lucky enough to get you. I wasn't around at that time, but I wish you all the happiness in the world." Inside the little velvet box was a small Tiffany brooch, silver with a diamond in the center.”
Mather said, when accepting the job, he wanted Albright as his assistant to, “keep him out of jail.” Mather, it turned out, was not entirely joking.
Mather brought the same values and ethics to government he had demonstrated in business. His style was autocratic and impulsive. He personally decided on a corporate monopoly to run each Park. This approach was adopted in opposition of advice from such men as Fred Harvey of Fred Harvey Company, whose experience with serving the public began in 1875 with service run in conjunction with railroads across America. Harvey advised against absolute monopolies.
Mather persisted, causing a series of disasters within the Parks, starting with Yosemite.
Mather ignored the causes of problems existing in the National Parks. Many of these were the result of government mis-management. For instance, in Yosemite Mather complained concessionaires, such as David Curry of Camp Curry, had inadequate septic systems. But concessionaires could not finance expensive capital improvements without an assurance their loans could be repaid and these had been withheld for decades. Those in charge, including Mather, ignored repeated requests for licenses to do business longer than one year, granted only at the beginning of the year.
Mather consistently abused the power entrusted to him, causing harm to people engaged in doing business within the Parks. He evidenced strong likes and dislikes, which appear to have driven his actions.
In 1915 Mather unilaterally gave the concession in Yosemite to J. Desmond, who started a corporation in which Mather and his friends covertly invested. Mather granted a twenty-year exclusive concession and also allowed the sale of liquor, forbidden to all other concessionaires, to ensure Desmond every possible avenue for success.
Desmond had no experience in running hotels or providing food services to the public. The corporation went bankrupt and Desmond departed to be replaced by A. B. C. Dahrmann, who as president of the next incarnation of the original Desmond interests, was quoted by the Stockton Record in 1924 as saying, ”The California Sierra is one of greatest undeveloped resources in the golden state.”
At the beginning of 1917 complaints and problems were increasing. At the close of a conference in January Mather suffered an 'emotional break-down' and was institutionalized for a year and a half in a posh facility, described by Albright, “It was a lovely large home, tucked into green lawns and lush forested land.” The next chapters describe Albright's efforts to ensure Mather is not subject to any pressure or problems.
Mather was not fired. Instead, his assistant, Horace Albright and others covered for him. The breakdown and his financial involvement with Desmond was admitted in Albright's book, “Creating the National Park Service – The Missing Years,” available for reading online. Albright knew what had happened and suppressed the facts. See Chapter 17.
Mather suffered another break-down in 1922, according to Park correspondence. Again, Albright and others cover for him.
Mather's business background and emotional instability should have raised questions on his suitability for any position within government. Mather was, however, a member of the Club, wealthy and connected. Therefore his interests and well being were a priority in the bifurcated system then being established.
While rhetoric was used routinely to deceive, as proven so thoroughly by Edward Bernays, examining the actions of individuals reliably reveals the truth.
How did the Club view ordinary Americans?
The Club operated on the view Americans, 'the 'herd,' were to be managed with lies. These events illustrate the world view, reflected in the propaganda used by Yard and later by Benarys, on behalf of both government and corporations, reinforcing the ugly truth of the quote from Bernays cited earlier, “So what do you do? It's going to be harder to run things as a private club. Therefore, obviously, you have to control what people think.”
The subtext is this: The only people whose property and well being matter are members of the Club. Albright's behavior illustrates the degree to which he had adopted Club attitudes and beliefs.
As these events unfolded Mather received enormous attention and concern as his emotional condition becomes impossible to ignore. This reflected in Albright's book and in correspondence within the Park Service. At the same time, the well being of those viewed as “just ordinary Americans,” was ignored, as in the case of those concessionaires such as Curry who objected to the theft of their years of time invested, the train of arbitrary demands issued by Mather and disregard of the conditions created by government mis-management.
Albright's comments, and lack thereof, at the time of David Curry's untimely death in April of 1916 and further justifications of behavior by Mather, which Albright later realizes pointed to his emotional instability, further illustrate the point. See Creating the National Park System – The Missing Years,” Chapter 8. and Chapter 13.
Horace M. Albright had been, not surprisingly, seduced by the privileges of power and was now a member of the Club.
In the interests of full disclosure, now nearly a century after these events took place, a full examination of the records is called for. While writing this article this writer attempted to access the Superintendent's Reports for Yosemite from 1916 – 1926. The reports from 1906 – 1915 are clearly available and complete and in our files. Those from 1916 – 1926, covering the years when Mather and Albright's management most demands examination, are fragmented. Parts of monthly reports appear to have been eliminated. This report, purported to cover years 1923 – 1925, inclusive, deviating in form from all other reports was requested.. Upon examining it this writer discovered a report spanning 1923 – 1925 which included less than 11 pages, all photographs, for three years of activity. SEE REPORT RECEIVED
A request for correction was made. SEE REQUEST AND RESPONSE
The request was also sent to Ken Salazar, Secretary of the Department of the Interior. A Freedom of Information Act demand will now be filed.
According to George A. Gonzalez in his book, “Corporate Power and the Environment,” published Rowman and Littlefield, 2001, Albright received gifts from John D. Rockefeller, Jr., beginning in 1926. Gonzalez also reports Albright's home in Washington D. C. was partially funded by a gift from David Rockefeller as Albright continued up the ladder of success after Albright left government service, moving on to work in the matrix connecting corporations and government, unfailingly courteous and kind to those who had assisted him.
According to the Albright's daughter and co-author, Marian Albright Schenck, writing in the Introduction to the book, “Creating the National Parks, The Missing Years,” Albright reviewed every letter and document and considered destroying materials while in the process of its writing. In the end the story of years 1917 – 1919 is told in a form while the reader takes away the sense much remains unsaid. Albright's acts in covering for Mather, during this period and later, bring illustrate how in a short period of time an individual can accept the idea a small elite can rightfully abuse power. His later history only raises the level of probability Albright's concerns were also for his own position as an attorney in the employ of government engaged in a cover-up.
Co-author Marian Albright Schenck wrote,"My father worshiped Mather and wanted to do nothing to damage his name." While her sentiments are understandable, she after all, grew up as a member of the Club through her father, evasion of the facts is not acceptable. Americans have a right to know.
A baronial system displaced a representative Republic, beginning in the first decade of the Twentieth Century. Inherently hierarchical, it was comprised of corporate interests and the more elevated levels of government. Those involved believed they were justified in deceiving the American people, acting out the openly enunciated beliefs expressed by Benarys, and slightly earlier, by Robert Sterling Yard. These self-identified interests in government and corporate America began to install gatekeepers, and routinely limit what Americans could know. Spin and propaganda displaced open dialog and disclosure of facts as the standard.
The bifurcated system which confronts us today was being solidified in outline and attitudes in the first and second decades of the Twentieth Century, its pattern perpetuated by the very different treatment accorded 'members of the Club' and 'ordinary Americans.'
Today, Americans face proposals the Parks be sold to pay for the profligate behavior of those same Club members. As millions suffer foreclosure and Main Streets ask in vain for help, banks and other corporate interests, other Club members, receive the sympathy and open support of Congress. The term, 'Barons of Industry,' is not a phrase, but a correct assessment of the system which was once America.
It started much earlier than you imagined and in the places you most trusted.
Debunking the excuses: Lose Your Illusions, No. 2 – Coming Soon.