(Photo credit: National Park Service arrowhead patch, courtesy kqedquest, Flickr Creative Commons)
The National Park Service, along with the rest of the federal government, is back up and running. In celebration, I’d like to talk about something very dear to the park service. It isn’t a monument or a museum or a fixed natural feature. Rather, it’s a logo—specifically the arrowhead badge of the National Park Service. This logo, the key component of the National Park Service’s visual identity, is a classic design. Apart from a small tweak in 2001, it hasn’t changed in more than 60 years. How many entities, private or public, can say that about their corporate identity?
This logo appears on thousands of park service buildings, entrance signs and prominent points around the country, from the entrances to Yellowstone NP in Wyoming to signs for the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor placed roadside along the New York State Thruway. The logo is also worn proudly as a patch on the uniforms of 22,000 park service employees—not only rangers but uniformed maintenance staff as well—and up to another 220,000 volunteers.
The logo’s been around since 1951. It was designed in-house, based on a concept for a logo dreamed up by Dr. Aubrey V. Neasham, a park service historian in San Francisco. The following year, 1952, it started to appear on NPS literature and then on park rangers’ uniforms. And it’s been in widespread use, practically unchanged, ever since. As with the basic park service uniform (including the famous flat hat), the longevity of the familiar arrowhead logo helps impart to the park service a sense of stability and permanence that gives it a greater sense of gravitas with the broader public. It’s also a great design in its own terms.
The logo itself is colored green, white and brown, giving it a very earthy, natural feel. It’s shaped like an arrowhead, which is meant to represent the park service’s commitment to cultural history and archeological preservation. The words “National Park Service” appear on the upper right corner. Take a closer look inside the logo’s borders and you’ll see three other key elements. The most prominent are a sequoia tree and an image of a mountain and water. (The sequoia represents vegetation and wildlife, while the mountains and water stand for the park’s scenic and recreational elements). Down at the bottom, though, is a depiction of one of the most impressive animals to be found in North America: a bison. It’s placed toward the point of the arrowhead. It’s a small part of the logo, but very meaningful.
I like bison. Bison are cool. The American bison symbolizes the American West and American expansion into the West. That’s why the bison also represents the Department of the Interior and appears on the department’s seal. But the species also represents an ecological tragedy narrowly avoided. The American bison is a natural choice to represent the NPS’s commitment to protecting America’s wildlife because it came so close to extinction from hunting. Fortunately, private and federal government efforts in the early 1900s succeeded in bringing the species back from the brink, but it was a close-run thing. By the way, the species we’re talking about, just to be clear, is the bison. It’s not to be confused with buffalo, which are native to parts of Africa and Asia. People have always got this wrong—apparently due to a misnaming of American bison when they were first encountered by Europeans—and it’s got to the point that some think that buffalo should be an acceptable synonym for bison. I don’t think so. Bison are bison, period. And yes, the charging animal depicted on the side of Buffalo Bills helmets is a bison, and not a buffalo.
The one time I actually saw bison in the wild was at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, in North Dakota. We were driving to our campsite and a small group of bison (not enough to call it a herd) were by the roadside; one of them came right up to the car to sniff around, with another following on but just hanging back a little. It was a bit intimidating to be up close to one like that, but also pretty exciting. I had no idea at the time that, a few years later, I’d be wearing an image of one on my shoulder all summer long.
Frequently Asked Questions. National Park Service. Available at http://www.nps.gov/faqs.htm
Badges and Uniform Commemoration of the National Park Service. Available at http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/workman1b/volf.htm