[Skip to Content]

Conrad L. Wirth

1899 - 1993

Inducted October 1999

 "The national park system exists for the benefit of all people, and it must be so managed that its natural and historic values will be available, let us say in the year 2066, when Joe Doaks and Agnes Hobbleskirt will be born. Such is the responsibility of the service, or, if you prefer, the bureaucrats."
~Conrad L. Wirth

Conrad “Connie” Louis Wirth, born in Elizabeth Park, Hartford, CT. was the son of Theodore and Leonie Mense Wirth. Theodore Wirth, well-known superintendent of municipal parks, instilled a lifelong passion for parks in his second of three sons. In 1923 Conrad Wirth earned a Bachelor of Science degree in architecture and landscape planning from Massachusetts Agricultural College (University of Massachusetts). For the next fi ve years, Wirth went into private practice in New Orleans and San Francisco as a landscape and town planner.

In 1928 Wirth joined the National Park and Planning Commission in Washington, which was the start of his long federal career. Horace Albright brought him to the National Park Service (NPS) in 1931 as assistant director for land planning. When President Roosevelt launched his public works programs, Albright was responsible for implementing it as part of the Interior Department. Albright delegated that responsibility to Wirth and in 1933 he was given supervisory responsibility for all state and county park activities of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).

During the Great Depression, Wirth distinguished himself with his brilliant implementation of CCC programs in support of federal, state, and local parks. He developed proposals for creating new state parks, and he oversaw the planning, design, and construction of the facilities necessary for parks to accommodate public use. Under his direction, the NPS employed hundreds of thousands of CCC workers to construct roads, trails, cabins, museums, campgrounds, picnic grounds, administration offices, and other state park facilities. Wirth was also a member of the committee that founded and established “Shangri La,” now known as Camp David1, a retreat that every President since Franklin Delano Roosevelt has utilized. The National Geographic Society cited Wirth for his contribution to the welfare of the country as director of the CCC.

Conrad Wirth was the director of the National Park Service from 1951-1964.
National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection


Conrad Wirth on shore of St. Mary Lake, Glacier National Park, June 1960.
National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection

Wirth’s remarkable contributions in this role were a prelude to the profound impact he had on the NPS when subsequently serving as the agency’s director from 1951 to 1964. NPS director, Arthur E. Demaray, named Wirth an associate director in 1951. Soon thereafter Wirth succeeded Demaray. In some ways this was an unusual appointment because Wirth had no experience in the field, but he had proven his administrative ability in the headquarters office. A planner and developer at heart, Wirth moved in a different direction from earlier NPS preservationist policies. Wirth was confronted with parks that had deteriorated during the war years when their general maintenance and upkeep was suspended.

After the war, when gas rationing was removed, millions of Americans poured into the parks. Their infrastructure was inadequate to accommodate these visitors. Wirth proposed an ambitious development program to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the NPS, and, in his own words, to “overcome the inroads of neglect and to restore to the American people a National Park System adequate for their needs.” The goal was to bring all units of the NPS “up to a consistently high standard of preservation, staffing, and physical development, and to consolidate them fully into one national park system.”

The scale of Wirth’s vision was extraordinary. There had been little investment in the parks after the war, and Wirth believed the only way to quantumly increase it was to present a total program for the whole system from which all legislation and their constituents would benefit, rather than to seek incremental improvements in particular parks each year. Such an ambitious plan would require a level of annual appropriations many times higher than the existing level. Titled Mission 66, the ten-year construction and rehabilitation program cost $11 billion. Wirth personally convinced President Eisenhower of the merits of the plan, carefully cultivated powerful people in Congress, and ensured there was something nice in the package for every member of the House and Senate who had a park in their district. No legislation authorizing Mission 66 was passed rather it relied on annual appropriations. Congress followed through with these appropriations and Mission 66 resulted in the major upgrading of visitor centers, roads, trails, and other park amenities. The success of the program stimulated the creation of the Outdoor Recreation Resource Review Commission in 1958.

Wirth’s leadership was influential in the development and organization of numerous groups. His philosophy and approach to public service is best captured in his biography Parks, Politics, and the People. He was an active member and president of the American Institute of Park Executives, executive director of the Hudson Valley Commission, helped organize and served as a board member for the White House Historical Society, first chairman of the New York State Historic Trust, and a trustee emeritus for the National Geographic Society. In 1965 his diplomacy skills and field experience played an instrumental role in the merging of several professional organizations to form the National Recreation and Park Association.

A renowned conservationist and manager of outdoor recreation resources, Wirth’s career spanned a period of more than 50 years, 33 of which were spent with the National Park Service. Numerous awards and recognitions were presented to him during his career. Among them were two Pugsley Gold Medals from the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, Theodore Roosevelt Medal, Rockefeller Public Service Award, Conservation Award of the American Forestry Association, and the Everly Gold Medal of the American Institute of Park Executives. He was particularly proud of the Wirth Environmental Award, which the National Park Foundation named for him and his father. Wirth was the first recipient of this award for his efforts to preserve the nation’s open land and waters. His legacy will forever be etched in the landscape of our nation’s parks.

Conrad L. Wirth at Dedication, Death Valley Visitor Center, November 12, 1960.
National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection


Wirth Environmental Award developed by National Park Foundation for the century of leadership provided by Theodore and Conrad Wirth.
Parks and Recreation, July 1986

Adapted from: Hartsoe, C, Sanders, D & Bridges, M (eds) (2009), Profiles in Leadership: Robert W. Crawford Recreation and Park Hall of Fame. National Recreation and Park Association and American Academy of Park and Recreation Administration.

  • American Academy of Park and Recreation Administration. (1983). Legends of the American Park and Recreation Association. Downloaded on May 10, 2008 from http://www.aapra.org/ legends.html
  • Crompton, J.L. (in press).Twentieth century champions of parks and conservation: The Pugsley Award Recipients 1928-1964. Volume I. Champaign, IL: Sagamore Publishing.
  • Saxon, W. (July 28, 1993). Conrad L. Wirth, 93; Led National Parks Service, The New York Times.

Return to list of inductees