Perhaps one of the greatest of Wilderness Society leaders, Robert Sterling Yard may have also been one of its most unexpected.
Yard’s career as a champion of American wilderness began only in his 50s. Yet, this late-found passion came to define him. His work was essential to passing the bill that created the National Park Service.
Early Life and Career
Born in 1861 in Haverstraw, New York, Yard attended Princeton before beginning a career as a journalist, editor, and publisher in New York City. In 1915, Stephen Mather, the newly named assistant secretary of the Interior asked Yard to join him in Washington as an advocate for national parks. Yard accepted, leaving behind his successful New York career.
The National Parks Portfolio
Though far from an experienced wilderness explorer, Yard plunged into his new role with both enthusiasm and humility. From 1915 to 1916, Yard compiled a “National Parks Portfolio,” full of his passionate writings about America’s wild places. The portfolio was distributed to every member of Congress. This publicity campaign helped persuade President Woodrow Wilson to sign the bill that created the National Park Service.
Yard played a vital role in awakening the nation to the scenic magnitude of wilderness. However, he also insisted on the practical value of public lands, testifying, “Our national parks constitute an economic asset that we have entirely overlooked.”
In 1919, Yard founded the National Parks Association. Then, at age 74, he co-founded The Wilderness Society and handled almost all of the day-to-day work of the young organization. He served as the first editor of The Wilderness Society’s former magazine The Living Wilderness. In the last months of his life, Yard published two issues of the magazine while bedridden with pneumonia at the age of 84.