Writer and historian Wallace Stegner called national parks “the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”
Starting in the 1800s, the scenic natural wonders of the West, places like mineral springs in Arkansas, towering mountains and majestic trees of Yosemite, spouting geysers of Yellowstone, and the arid ruins of Casa Grande, inspired individual Americans to call for their preservation, asking their government to create something called “national parks.”
In 1916, the work of caring for these places was moved to a new agency created by Congress for that specific purpose. The National Park Service was given the responsibility to not only conserve and protect parks, but also to leave them “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
The job got bigger as the number and types of parks expanded. In the 1930s, military parks and national monuments were added. Then came national parkways and seashores followed by urban parks in the 1960s. During the next decade, the size of the National Park System nearly doubled with the addition of 47 million acres in Alaska.
Today numbering close to 400, national parks now include places that commemorate more recent – and in many cases more sobering – history. The stories of the fight for civil rights, the World War II Japanese American internment camps, and Sand Creek, the site of the tragic Indian massacre in 1864, are all told in national parks.
Over the years, the work of the National Park Service has moved beyond park borders. We are honored to be invited into America’s communities to help build trails and playgrounds, return historic buildings to productive use, revitalize neighborhoods, expand affordable housing, protect watersheds, recognize and promote local history, and introduce the next generation to stewardship opportunities and responsibilities.
America’s Best Idea just keeps getting better.