As the National Park Service winds down the nationwide celebration of its centennial in 2016, one major point of information that is missing in all the PR and literature is the name of a local man and his lifelong mission: William Kent and the conservation of wild places in America. It is especially pertinent to us in Marin County, Kent’s home base for much of his life. What has not been acknowledged this year is that Kent, as Marin’s congressman in Washington D.C., wrote and sponsored the legislation creating the Organic Act of 1916, which established the National Park Service.
Kent was a great conservationist. For many years Kent and his wife Elizabeth hosted notable figures in politics, conservation and literature at their home in Kentfield. They welcomed visitors to stay the night, the weekend, even weeks. John Muir was a frequent guest of the Kents. “The whole family enjoyed these little visits,” Elizabeth Thacher Kent wrote, “and they delighted in the stories of his early inventions and his young life in Wisconsin, full of a thirst for knowledge from nature and from books.”
The friendship with Muir arose out of a famous transaction in which William Kent saved a noted virgin redwood grove in Marin County. It has been told how young Will Kent grew up with a deep appreciation of redwoods and other trees, abundant wildlife and clean water. “Mr. Kent was a great lover of nature,” wrote his friend Rolfe Thompson. “He was never happier than when he was roaming the hills, or whipping the streams, for game or fish.” His love of nature was the perfect setup for the act for which he is mostly remembered: his generous arrangements for the dedication of Muir Woods National Monument in 1908.
In 1910, Kent was urged to run for congress by a long list of prominent people including Gifford Pinchot and Theodore Roosevelt. He was elected that fall after a contentious and exhausting campaign, and the family packed up the Kentfield house and moved to Washington, D.C., where they spent the next nine years during his three terms as a U. S. Congressman representing northern California. His conservation legacy became national through his belief in public lands, culminating in his successful bill that created the National Park Service, during his third term in 1916-17.
During his time in Congress, Kent worked closely with Stephen Mather and others in formulating the idea of a National Park Service, and Kent himself wrote the House legislation authorizing it. In collaboration with Senator Reed Smoot of Utah, the National Park Service Organic Act (16 U.S.C. l 2 3, and 4) was signed into law on August 25, 1916 by President Woodrow Wilson. The Act states as its purpose “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
Kent continued to devote his time to conservation work, including consultation with Presidents and others in power in Washington and Sacramento. He was a founder, in 1918, of the Save-The-Redwoods League.
In Marin, Kent’s accomplishments were profound. Kent was instrumental in the creation of Marin Municipal Water District in 1912 and the protection of its watershed lands. He owned land across Mt. Tamalpais to the coast, which he held for preservation. Besides the Muir Woods donation, he also was a major player in the creation of Mt. Tamalpais State Park, and transferred much of his land to the public; Kent also donated land for the famed Mountain Theatre, where for a century the Mountain Play has drawn audiences from all over. His role in the preservation of Mt. Tamalpais is great, and chronicled in a number of good local books and articles.
However, as we have seen, Kent’s legacy reached far beyond tiny Marin County, and the record should reflect his huge contribution. The U. S. National Parks have been called “America’s best idea” and have long proved themselves so. All Americans owe our deepest “thank you” to Marin’s own William Kent.