Creation of the National Park Service

Creation of the National Park Service National parks and monuments existed decades before the National Park Service. However, controversies arose over the operation and management of parks. Even conservationists argued over whether these parks should be used for timber, water, and energy.

One of the most significant controversies centered on the building of the Hetch Hetchy dam in Yosemite National Park. It was, in fact, Congressional approval of the dam's construction in 1913 that helped underscore the need for a federal agency dedicated to the nation's parks.

Campaign for a New Agency

In 1914, Stephen Mather, an active outdoorsman and Chicago businessman, wrote a letter to Secretary of the Interior Franklin Lane in which he complained about the management of national parks. Lane wrote back, "If you don't like the way things are run, come to Washington and run them yourself." Mather accepted the challenge and, as special assistant to Lane, began building support for the creation of a national parks bureau.

He appealed to the directors of the powerful railroads who hoped to capitalize on the parks' tourist potential. He also found allies in nature groups like the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society. Mather's effective public relations campaign reminded political and civic leaders of the parks’ magnificence and stressed their potential economic value as tourist attractions. On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the National Park Service Organic Act.

Early Leadership

The act which established the National Park Service created a unified system of management for the parks. It also offered a philosophy for the new agency. On the one hand, it must "conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein." At the same time, it must "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.”

The earliest policies of the NPS emerged from the partnership of Mather, who became its first director, and Horace Albright, his assistant director. More than any others, these two men laid the groundwork for the agency's future. They tried to strike a balance between preservation and visitor use, keeping in mind Secretary Lane's instruction that "every activity of the Service is subordinate to the duties imposed upon it to faithfully preserve the parks for posterity in essentially their natural state.”

Getting People to the Parks

Mather and Albright recognized the importance of fostering tourism: public support meant funding from Congress. Working hard to promote the parks and make them accessible and appealing to the public, they admitted automobiles to Yellowstone. They permitted the construction of "low-priced well as comfortable and even luxurious hotels" on park grounds. These facilities, which were built and run by the private sector, are an early example of the important role of concessions in the parks. Mountain climbing, horseback riding, and other recreational activities were encouraged. They also emphasized the educational nature of the parks, incorporating museums, exhibits, and other learning-oriented activities.

In their efforts to promote tourism, Mather and Albright created zoos in some parks. They also stocked park lakes and rivers with non-native fish and eradicated wolves and coyotes from some of the western parks in an attempt to please visitors.


Criteria for the expansion of the park system decreed that new parks would possess "scenery of supreme and distinctive quality or some natural feature so extraordinary or unique as to be of national interest and importance."

In the early years, the majority of national parks were in the west. It was recognized that parks in the east were important as well. The establishment of Acadia, Great Smoky Mountains, Shenandoah, and Mammoth Cave brought parks closer to more heavily populated regions.

Albright recognized that the most effective way to expand the park system into the eastern states was to make it encompass historic sites. He requested that eastern battlefields and war memorials be transferred to the National Park Service from the War Department.

Addition of Historic Sites

Soon after he became director in 1929 Albright convinced Congress to authorize three new historical parks in the east and place them under NPS administration.

The parks included Morristown National Historical Park, George Washington National Monument, and Colonial National Historical Park.

Last updated: March 10, 2016