Minty Fresh

U.S. Mint follows up state quarters with "America the Beautiful" program, focusing on national parks and other uniquely American places.


By Scott Kirkwood


Reach into your pocket right now and there’s a good chance you’ll find a couple of national park icons floating around—the Lincoln Memorial on the penny and the five-dollar bill, or sites like Crater Lake and the New River Gorge which appear on the 50 state quarters released in the last ten years. And starting this April, you’re sure to find a few more of your 392 favorite places coming up “tails.” 

In 2008, Congress passed legislation authorizing the “America the Beautiful” program to honor 56 natural and historic sites in the United States and its territories. Art work on the back of each coin will highlight one of dozens of national park units along with a handful of national forests and wildlife refuges operated by the U.S. Forest Service and Fish & Wildlife Service, respectively. Each year, five new designs will be released, in the order in which the location was first designated, leading off with Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas (set aside as a federal reservation in 1832), Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, Yosemite National Park in California, Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, and Mt. Hood National Forest in Oregon. The program will conclude in 2021 with a coin commemorating Tuskegee Airmen National Historic site in Alabama, but the legislation allows the Treasury secretary the option of extending the program another 12 years to run through the 56 states and territories one more time. As usual, the Mint and third-party manufacturers are sure to generate collector’s editions and special mementos as well. 

“The idea of setting aside lands and historical places for preservation and historical interpretation and preserving those places for future generations is a uniquely American theme,” says Cynthia Meals, a spokesperson with the Mint. “Our primary goal is to meet the demands of commerce, but coin collecting is one of the most popular hobbies in the world—something that people have been doing for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Circulating coins make it into the pockets of everyone in this country and millions of people throughout the world, so it’s really a great educational tool to teach people about these places they may have never heard of.” 

For the last two years, representatives from the Mint have been working with a handful of governors to recognize a site in each of the first few states on the list. Representatives from the Mint have spoken with employees at Yosemite National Park, debating the merits of El Capitan versus Half Dome and determining what aspects of Arkansas’ Hot Springs would be the best to carve out the copper and nickel alloy used to create a quarter. The best subjects, obviously, are those that can be rendered in three dimensions with no use of color, which leaves out iconic sites like Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring, for instance. The Park Service has provided the Mint with source materials including historic images and double-checked plant and animals species to make sure they’re accurate. A few park rangers have even run out to nearby sites to take snapshots of a mountain’s peaks from multiple angles to help out the artists. 

The Mint’s own artists and occasionally freelance artists will come up with at least a dozen design ideas, which are narrowed down to three to five finalists that illustrate key facets of the site. The Commission of Fine Arts then reviews the designs for aesthetic considerations, and the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee focuses on elements of interest to collectors, like the selection of subjects and the number of coins to be minted. Meanwhile, the state governors and federal agencies like the Department of Interior also get a chance to offer their input. The director of the U.S. Mint takes these comments into consideration and recommends a design to the Secretary of the Treasury, who makes the ultimate decision. 

Once a design has passed through that gauntlet, the artist sets to work producing the final three-dimensional version. Some use computer design tools, but Don Everhart, one of seven sculptors led by the chief engraver, continues to rely on an 8-inch disc of clay to do much of his work. If the design involves sharp lines like architectural details such as rows of windows or columns, he’ll use the clay shape to create a plastic mold, carve out the sharp lines in that medium, then create another clay figure using that mold, and so on, until he’s satisfied with the end result.

“I’ve only visited a couple of the parks in the first groupings of coins—Yellowstone and Gettysburg,” says Everhart, “but they really made an impression on me, and I tried to incorporate those memories and feelings into the designs I created.”

The final designs produced by Everhart and his colleagues will be unveiled this spring, and the Hot Springs National Park coin will be delivered to the Federal Treasury and distributed to banks all over the country days later. For more information about the coin program itself, including the entire list of sites and release dates, visit the U.S. Mint. To receive each “America the Beautiful” quarter as it’s released, contact Coins of America, which is donating a percentage of the proceeds to NPCA, at 866.615.5867 or www.coinsofamerica.com.

Scott Kirkwood is National Parks' editor in chief.

This article appears in the Spring 2010 issue.

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