Uniforms are funny things. They provide a standardized form of dress and a common identity for their wearers. They represent the ideals and goals of the organizations they represent—both to the members of that organization and to broader society. They can be associated with the best aspects of an organization, or the worst. Uniforms are used by military and non-military organizations, including the National Park Service. Some groups use them more effectively than others. The park service has used its uniforms well over the years. Certainly there are all sorts of factors that have helped make the park service successful. But the agency’s familiar green-and-gray uniform and the famous flat hat definitely have something to do with it. The park service has managed to successfully graft its military antecedents onto a civilian organization and celebrate those antecedents in a progressive manner. The association of the national parks with a positive military ethos, at times and circumstances where that association has steadily built support from the American public, has worked well. It’s been a success story.
It’s worth pointing out that Americans have a strong and abiding, though complex, connection with their military, and powerful positive associations with the military’s role, first in fighting for America’s freedom from colonial domination and later for preserving America’s liberties. (I know, the U.S. Army hasn’t always been a force for liberty, but it’s dominant public impressions we’re talking about now.) Some of those positive associations have rubbed off on the park service, for reasons I’ll lay out below.
I think there are four solid elements I can draw on to back up this claim:
One: Today’s park rangers trace their spiritual ancestry back to the U.S. Cavalry. The park service has never been a branch of the military, but it does have close connections with certain iconographic military units that go back to the 19th century.
In the 1870s, in the first Western parks such as Yosemite and Yellowstone, long before the creation of the park service, units of the U.S. Cavalry—including the famous Buffalo soldiers—had to be sent to the parks to protect them from loggers or ranchers who were intent on doing harm to the newly protected environment. These cavalry units got a fair bit of press attention in their day. In the public mind, the parks became associated with their military protectors. Even before the formal creation of the National Park Service in 1916, the attire of these cavalry men inspired the uniforms for the early “park scouts” in Yellowstone and the rangers in forest service lands who followed in the cavalry’s footsteps.
The person most closely associated with the park service’s uniform ethos is the agency’s first director, Stephen Mather. When, in the 1920s, Mather set about creating an identity for the service’s new employees, he put a uniform code in place that consciously drew on the uniform patterns of those cavalrymen of the mid- and late 19th century. Olive drab uniforms, including the iconic flat hat or Stetson, were incorporated into a formal Park Service uniform code in 1920. It’s not hard to see why. These new park rangers had to be clearly identifiable in the field, so a uniform of some sort was necessary. And that uniform had to practical and hard-wearing, so military patterns would be a natural source of inspiration. What’s more, most of the early rangers serving in the Western parks had to know how to ride a horse, use a weapon, and look after themselves in the field, so there was in any case a natural affinity with the military role of their cavalry predecessors. Mather clearly intended for his new corps of rangers to be considered the spiritual heirs of the national parks, the men who would take over the protection of these pristine spaces. That connection has survived to the present day.
Two: Park rangers are the custodians of the nation’s battlefield and military parks. While the cavalry association set the tone for the military connection with Western parks, a different military-derived dynamic was taking shape on the East Coast. This came from the decision by President Roosevelt in 1933 to transfer the administration of the nation’s Civil War and Revolutionary War battlefields from the War Department to the park service. This move considerably expanded the park service’s presence in the East at a time when only one national park, Acadia, was fully functioning east of the Mississippi (and that was in distant Maine). These battlefields, and their associated national military cemeteries, were—and are—regarded as sacred ground.
It’s also worth noting that these newly designated military parks or battlefield parks were often very close to large urban conurbations, providing opportunities for much larger numbers of ordinary Americans to interact with the park service. This association only grew stronger in the mid- and later 20th century as the park service further expanded its interpretive mission from natural history to America’s military and cultural history as well. In doing so, the park service promoted sites such as Gettysburg, Antietam, Shiloh, and Valley Forge as centers of pilgrimage and learning and recreation for all Americans—places where ordinary people could connect with their country’s past and have a great day out. Over time, it was the park service and its uniformed rangers who became associated in the minds of the American people as the guardians and interpreters of that sacred ground. Which gets me to the rangers themselves.
Three: The park ranger “look” has remained remarkably constant. Just for argument’s sake, imagine if a grandfather were to take his grandson to a national park, and grandpa hadn’t seen a park ranger since that last visit back in the fifties or sixties. It wouldn’t matter much: He’d still recognize them right away, because the uniforms look pretty much the same. Everyone has seen film and still clips of Martin Luther King giving his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial. That event occurred 50 years ago, and if you look at the people standing around King, or watch crowd scenes from the film, you’ll see that dress and fashion sense has changed quite a bit since 1963. But if you look at the tall, lanky park ranger standing immediately to King’s left, you’ll notice that his uniform looks pretty much the same as that worn by rangers today.
Most of the alterations to the basic park service uniform took place early in its history, in the 1930s and 1950s. But since the early sixties, the uniform has changed very little—with the exception of women’s uniforms, which went through some pretty strange iterations in the 1960s and 1970s before settling down to pattern themselves on the men’s uniform in the 1980s (I’ll have to come back to the women’s uniform at another time.) Similarly, the park service’s famous Arrowhead logo, created in the early 1950s, has remained basically unchanged since then (with the exception of one minor design tweak).
So from a visual standpoint, the Class A gray and green ranger uniform of today looks basically the same as that of a half-century ago. And, given the color scheme, it continues to resemble military dress patterns. The park service has, for the most part, avoided the process so many organizations have taken, of chopping and changing uniform design in a desperate attempt to stay “modern” looking. The results of such corporate redesigns are often atrocious. The park service uniform, on the other hand, continues to look pretty good. I’d go as far as to say it’s a classic look. This constancy helps to underpin the service’s sense of solidity and permanence. And it continues to link the service, in the minds of visitors, with its military origins, but in a positive way.
Four: As with the military, the uniform is a guarantee of a basic level of service and competence. Drawing on the previous three factors, park rangers have developed over the years and decades a level of trust and competence that in the mind of the public is tied intimately to the uniform. Crucially, as the park service developed its interpretive mission, it eschewed a one-size-fits-all, top-down approach that favored one side against another, or one story over another. Park rangers have long been given wide latitude to tell the stories of their historical resources. Rangers come from all walks. Rangers in Civil War parks, for example, come from South and North, East and West, country and city; they are also white, black, Hispanic, and Asian (though to be honest they are still mainly white). Rangers are not given “a script” and told to follow that script. Instead they are charged with becoming experts in their fields. They research intensively the relevant history and background, and in so doing find ways to tell these stories that are historically accurate of course, but also intensely human and devoid of triumphalism. In short, these men and women sew themselves into the rich tapestry of the parks they make their professional homes, and they communicate that love of history to the visitors who come to hear them speak. Visitors thus identify the rangers as individuals connected to the story of that park, rather than representatives of a distant, faceless bureaucracy. A goal of park rangers around the country is to tread the fine line between being representatives of a large federal government agency, yet at the same time professing a love of their park and a loyalty to the history of their park. This is a duality that would be familiar to serving military members, who realize that their uniform advertises their role to the wider world—and to the taxpayers and citizens whose support they must have. They too have to tread a line between representing a huge government system and respectfully serving the people in whose name that system exists. Perhaps that is why the military, like the National Park Service, remains highly admired and respected in a country where public trust in so many of our professions has been eroded in recent years.
All this has helped the National Park Service maintain the respect and admiration of a large majority of visitors to the parks. The service’s military associations, old and new, continue to reinforce that sense of respect.
Peter Hildebrand (2010). Clothes make the ranger: National Park Service uniforms serve a vital need. Made to Measure, spring.
Dwight T. Pitcaithley (2013). A history of the National Park Service. Available at http://www.nps.gov/history/history/resedu/education.htm.
Joseph L. Sax (1976), America’s National Parks: Their Principles, Purposes, and Prospects, in Natural History, October, pp. 59-87.
Wallace Stegner (1998). The Best Idea We Ever Had, In Marking the Sparrow’s Fall: The Making of the American West. Ed. Page Stegner. New York: Henry Holt and Company.