From Joshua Tree to Great Sand Dunes, these 10 special places are protected today thanks to their female champions.
Women were the driving force behind the creation of many of our most popular national parks, yet few today are household names. Time to give credit where credit is due. From Joshua Tree to Great Sand Dunes, these national park sites simply wouldn’t exist as we know them today without the tireless efforts of dedicated women. Learn about the unsung heroes who made it happen.
Joshua Tree National Park, California
Minerva Hamilton Hoyt became enamored with the California desert after she moved to Pasadena with her financier husband in the late 1890s. The Mississippi native made frequent desert trips on horseback and created a desert garden at home. After her infant son and her husband died in quick succession, she found solace in the desert, sleeping in the open and listening to the wind blowing through Joshua trees. She became determined to protect the trees’ fragile ecosystem. To make people care about the desert, she decided to bring it to them and organized desert plant displays at flower shows from New York to London. After creating the International Deserts Conservation League, Hoyt focused on the area south of Twenty-Nine Palms for the creation of a national park. In 1930, she presented the idea to Horace Albright, then director of the National Park Service. He turned it down, but she continued to lobby the Park Service and President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself. On Aug. 10, 1936, the president relented, and Joshua Tree National Monument was created. (The park was redesignated as a national park in 1994.)
Sue Kunitomi Embrey
Manzanar National Historic Site, California
It took 26 years for Sue Kunitomi Embrey to return to Manzanar, the site of a camp where she and more than 10,000 other people of Japanese descent had been incarcerated during World War II. The site was the first of 10 such camps that the federal government created in the 1940s to forcibly detain innocent U.S. citizens and residents. During the years following the war, Embrey was involved in several political campaigns, but it was only after she attended a pilgrimage to Manzanar in 1969 that she started speaking publicly about her own experience at the camp. The next year, she became the co-chair of the committee that organized the annual pilgrimage, and she spearheaded a campaign to designate Manzanar as a national historic site. After President George H.W. Bush signed the bill establishing the park in 1992, Embrey continued to work with the Park Service to develop the site, and she returned to Manzanar year after year for the pilgrimage. In 2006, at age 83, she listened to the event by phone from her hospital bed. She died two weeks later.
Estella Leopold, Bettie Willard and Vim Crane Wright
Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, Colorado
The scientific community had known about the importance of Florissant’s delicate fossils of birds, leaves and insects for decades, but the site near Colorado Springs remained unprotected until two women took up the cause in the 1960s. Estella Leopold, a paleobotanist and the daughter of environmentalist Aldo Leopold, and Bettie Willard, a local scientist and seasonal national park naturalist, teamed up and convinced a Colorado senator to introduce a bill to create a Florissant national park site. As the bill was being debated in Congress, the two women learned that developers had bought land located in the proposed site and planned to build a residential community there. Leopold and Willard enlisted lawyers to ask for a federal injunction and recruited local birder Vim Crane Wright. Wright had been fascinated by a presentation by Leopold on Florissant’s bird fossils, and she decided to lie in front of the bulldozers to prevent them from destroying the site and buy some time. It worked. The federal circuit court granted a temporary injunction, which was sufficient for the bill to pass Congress and be signed by President Richard Nixon in August 1969. According to Polly Welts Kaufman’s book, “National Parks and the Woman’s Voice,” when Wright reflected on her activism, she said her ultimate motivation was the protection of the fossil birds. “In some way this is my offering to the birds,” she said. “It was to me inconceivable that anyone would desecrate the burial grounds of these creatures.”
Virginia Donaghe McClurg
Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
It was on assignment as a reporter for the New York Daily Graphic in 1882 that Virginia McClurg first visited Mesa Verde’s cliff dwellings. She was hooked. She returned four years later with a guide and a photographer and made it a personal mission to both promote the Ancestral Puebloan ruins and advocate for their protection, delivering lectures from Denver to Paris. A founder of the Colorado Cliff Dwellings Association, she helped build a road to the ruins and led a tour of Mesa Verde for anthropologists and scientists, impressing on them how valuable the site was and how urgent it was to protect it. McClurg initially advocated for the creation of a national park, but she eventually changed her stance, pushing instead for a state park that would be run by her association. In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the law creating Mesa Verde National Park, and even though McClurg eventually opposed the designation, the protection of the ruins owed much to her publicity and advocacy efforts.
Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, Maine
For years, Roxanne Quimby used her personal fortune to acquire large tracts of Maine’s North Woods, a unique ecosystem harboring moose and Canada lynx. The co-founder of Burt’s Bees, a personal care products company, had a dream: donate the land for the creation of a national park. Quimby and her son Lucas St. Clair enlisted the help of others, including NPCA, to advocate for the new park. After seeing that a majority of Mainers supported the designation, the Obama administration obliged, and on Aug. 24, 2016, one day before the Park Service’s 100th birthday, Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument became the country’s 413th national park site.
Susan Priscilla Thew
Sequoia National Park, California
When 35-year-old Susan Thew visited Sequoia National Park for the first time, the park had existed for nearly three decades, but only at a fraction of its current size. The Ohio native was awed by the towering sequoias. After she learned of various projects to expand the park, she decided to document the high country east of the park, covering hundreds of miles of difficult terrain. She thought that if the American people could see the area’s stunning landscapes, they’d realize the need to preserve them. So she produced a book, “The Proposed Roosevelt-Sequoia National Park,” a collection of photographs depicting the High Sierra. “If you are weary with the battle, either of business or the greater game of life, and would like to find your way back to sound nerves and a new interest in life, I know of no better place than the wild loveliness of some chosen spot in the High Sierra in which, when you have lost your physical self, you have found your mental and spiritual re-awakening,” she said. Not only would Thew’s advocacy help triple the park’s acreage in 1926, it served as a model for Ansel Adams whose photographs helped convince Congress to create Kings Canyon National Park.
Big Thicket National Preserve, Texas
Efforts to protect the Big Thicket date back to the 1920s when the oil and timber industries threatened to obliterate this hotspot of biodiversity in East Texas, but the campaign to create a national park there picked up in 1964 with the creation of the Big Thicket Association. Maxine Johnston, who was working as a librarian at nearby Lamar University, joined the association and soon helped create a Big Thicket museum, edited and distributed newsletters and took people on tours of the Thicket. In 1972, she took over as president of the association. Over the next couple of years, she made several trips to Washington, D.C., to testify before Congress for the creation of a national park in the Thicket. Following the efforts of Johnston, the rest of Big Thicket Association and other groups such as the Texas League of Women voters, Big Thicket National Preserve was established in 1974. Johnston continued to advocate for the protection of Big Thicket and push for the park’s expansion, which was secured in the 1990s. She received NPCA’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas Citizen Conservationist of the Year award in 1996, and now in her early 90s, she continues to work on behalf of Big Thicket. “I’m so optimistic when I look around and see all the young, enthusiastic faces that volunteered,” she said at a longleaf pine planting organized by NPCA and others in 2018. “We need the next generation to take ownership of the work and do everything they can to protect this treasured place.”
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Colorado
Three local chapters of the PEO Sisterhood (known today as the Philanthropic Educational Organization), an international organization of college women, joined forces to advocate for the protection of the United States’ tallest dunes. The club members lobbied Colorado’s politicians and encouraged citizens to write letters of support to the state’s congressional delegation. Jean Corlett nudged her husband George, the lieutenant governor, to convince the Colorado legislature to support protection of the dunes. The activists also persuaded Rep. George Hardy to plead their case with Park Service Director Horace Albright, who particularly appreciated an article about skiing on sand that they had sent along. Their perseverance paid off. On March 17, 1932, President Herbert Hoover designated the Great Sand Dunes National Monument, which was redesignated as a national park and preserve in 2000.
Bernice Gibbs Anderson
Golden Spike National Historical Park, Utah
Not far from where Bernice Gibbs Anderson grew up in northern Utah, the first transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, and Anderson couldn’t understand why the location of this extraordinary logistical feat wasn’t protected. So from the 1920s to the 1960s, Anderson, a correspondent for the Salt Lake Tribune and a mother of six, wrote almost 3,000 articles, press releases and letters to Park Service officials, members of Congress and presidents. For years, her appeals were ignored. At the 1957 anniversary of the railroad completion, she said the site was “sacred soil” yet its future remained uncertain. “Will it take its rightful place in the heritage and traditions of America, preserved and protected by a grateful government, or will it remain desolate and forgotten to sink into oblivion,” she asked. A few years later, Anderson’s decades-long campaign finally bore fruit. Golden Spike National Historic Site was authorized in 1965. The site was redesignated as a national historical park in 2019, a couple of months before the 150th anniversary of the railroad completion.
Catherine Filene Shouse
Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, Virginia
When a new highway bisected Catherine Filene Shouse’s Wolf Trap farm outside of Washington, D.C., she envisioned a new future for the rural haven she and her family had enjoyed for decades. A longtime patron of the arts, Shouse imagined Wolf Trap as an outdoor center for the performing arts that would be managed by the Park Service. The first reaction from a Park Service official was less than enthusiastic, so Shouse went straight to Interior Secretary Stewart Udall. He was convinced and immediately put his Park Service director on the case. Shouse not only donated the land for the park but added funds for construction of an amphitheater. Within two years, Congress passed the bill that authorized the creation of Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts. Shouse’s involvement didn’t stop there. She oversaw the building of the amphitheater, and she continued to raise funds and donate some of her own money to the park to add new performance spaces and help rebuild the amphitheater, which burned to the ground in 1982.
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About the author
Nicolas Brulliard Senior Editor
Nicolas is a journalist and former geologist who joined NPCA in November 2015. He writes and edits online content for NPCA and serves as senior editor of National Parks magazine.
- Wolf Trap National Park for The Performing Arts
- Golden Spike National Historical Park
- Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument
- Big Thicket National Preserve
- Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve
- Joshua Tree National Park
- Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument
- Manzanar National Historic Site
- Mesa Verde National Park
- Sequoia National Park