The National Park Service & National Historic Landmarks: A Celebration of History

Brown, purple, blue, and green city and park silhouette graphic with the words 2016 National Park Service Centennial

National Park Service

An Act of Congress created the National Park Service (NPS) on August 25, 1916, through legislation commonly referred to as the “Organic Act.” The original wording of the Act directed the NPS to “conserve the scenery and natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means that will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” The NPS has continuously striven to fulfill the intent behind this broad mission statement throughout the subsequent 100 years. The 2016 celebration focuses on the centennial birthday of the NPS. As we reflect on the myriad roles and benefits the Act created, from stewards of irreplaceable resources to community assistance and civic engagement, it’s also an opportunity to appreciate the many friends, volunteers and partners without whom the NPS could not fulfill its lofty obligation to the nation. This includes our many partners and programs in historic preservation administered by the NPS, and all the owners and stewards of the more than 2500 National Historic Landmarks that help tell the stories of America.

Although the original statutory language identified “historic objects” as a category of resources to be protected and to remain unimpaired, by far the initial focus of the newly established bureau was on the natural and scenic landscapes located in the western half of the country. And it often seems as though the original emphasis on the scenic “crown jewels” continues to pervade the nation’s consciousness. Think Yellowstone, our first national park, or Yosemite, Grand Teton, the Grand Canyon, and other iconic landscapes. Films like the recent Ken Burns documentary, “The National Parks—America’s Best Idea” (a term actually coined by writer Wallace Stegner), as well as current centennial-themed books, articles, videos and social media sites frequently highlight the parks in which superb examples of natural areas, wilderness and wildlife are the dominant aspects. These spectacular landscapes are rightfully considered our nation’s treasures, appreciated and visited by millions from around the world. They provide inspiration for other nations to preserve their own unique natural legacies. But the national park idea extends beyond magnificent scenery to encompass our historic and cultural heritage as well.

Of the 35 national parks and monuments that the NPS administered at the time of its creation in 1916, several had been identified and set aside for federal protection due to their historic, or perhaps more accurately, prehistoric significance and value. These places, primarily situated in the nation’s southwestern region, had been proclaimed National Monuments by presidential proclamation, as authorized in the Antiquities Act of 1906. The Act authorized U.S. Presidents to “declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic interest” on federally owned lands. The early monuments consisted primarily of Indian communal cliff dwellings, village sites, ruins and artifacts.Their increasing despoliation, vandalism, and theft had caused concerns by scientists and archeologists regarding their protection and preservation.

Although the Antiquities Act identified “historic landmarks” as a type of resource that could be set aside and protected by presidential proclamation, this specific wording for nationally significant properties would not be used in an official capacity for another 54 years. But its use in the 1906 legislation indicates early federal efforts to recognize that identification and protection of historic and archeological sites was essential to the telling of the broader American story. With the passage of the NPS Organic Act in 1916, this additional recognition by the federal government of the necessity to protect America’s natural, scenic and cultural heritage for the enjoyment and education of the public, in perpetuity, was secured.

The “historic objects” identified in the Organic Act are now more appropriately understood and classified as “cultural resources,” managed and protected by the NPS. They are the material evidence of past human activity. The NPS is responsible for the care and treatment of a broad mosaic of cultural resources, defined as structures, cultural landscapes, archeological resources, museum collections, and ethnographic resources. NPS continues to identify, preserve, share, and interpret these important park resources for current and future generations. Through informed and careful management we seek to protect and enhance their resilience against the slow degradations of time and the elements, allowing all people to learn not only of our immediate ancestors but of people of other races, ethnicities, traditions and cultures. Direct engagement with, and an enhanced comprehension of, cultural resources and processes allows for a richer appreciation of our diverse history- what it means to be an American.
Generations have experienced and shared memories of our national parks and the multiple meanings they hold, from the largest (Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska) to the smallest (Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial in Philadelphia). As we acknowledge and celebrate the NPS centennial, we should also recognize the variety of ways the NPS fulfills its mission to protect, interpret, and sustain our natural and cultural heritage. This includes the NPS role as a national leader in the telling of myriad American stories and endeavors. Stories like that of Thaddeus Kosciuszko, a military engineer from Poland who volunteered and played a significant role in the American revolutionary cause. Stories that are revealed and made manifest in individual buildings such as Kosciuszko’s house; at the Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas; in urban districts like Lowell National Historical Park in Massachusetts and Pullman National Monument in Illinois; and in cultural landscapes like the African Burial Ground National Monument in New York and Kalaupapa National Historical Park in Hawaii. History and pre-history can be experienced not only in the park units specifically authorized for that purpose and through the resources therein, but also in the park units that are more known for their scenic and natural features. Even in the most spacious areas that we frequently think of as “unspoiled wilderness,” humans have traditionally interacted with and manipulated nature at various scales, from early foraging cultures to more current impacts due to global climate change.
Although the national park system primarily started out geographically situated in the western half of the country, officials soon looked to the east for new opportunities and additions. In addition to acquiring additional scenic and natural national parks in the east such as Acadia in Maine, Shenandoah in Virginia, and Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina, the most significant occurrence to more comprehensively expand the park system resulted from a fortuitous conversation during a presidential motorcade outing in 1933. Horace Albright, the second park service director, discussed his long-held interest in American history with President Franklin Roosevelt during a day trip to Shenandoah. Albright convinced Roosevelt to transfer historic sites and civil war battlefields from other agencies to the NPS. Roosevelt’s executive order authorized the transfer of 56 new units to the NPS, 44 of them historical in purpose. This action set the course for NPS involvement and responsibility for protection of historic and cultural places representing a broad swath of America’s past These places were integrated with others possessing superior natural resources—a cumulative expression of a single, unified national heritage.

Taking on new historic sites in the 1930s was a major turning point for the NPS, but without a comprehensive and coordinated national program for the identification, evaluation, acquisition, and preservation of newly acquired and additional sites, it was a disjointed process. Seeking to establish a broad legal foundation to more fully define the NPS role in its new endeavor in historic preservation, Congress enacted the Historic Sites Act in 1935. Building upon the previous statutes discussed, the Act conferred upon the NPS several specific mandates, most importantly to research, survey and inventory historic and archeological properties and identify those possessing national significance. The primary purpose of this “Historic Sites Survey” was to identify potential new historical units for addition to the park system, but it would also serve to identify equally deserving properties owned by entities outside the NPS. The provisions of the Historic Sites Act of 1935 and the subsequent formation of the Historic Sites Survey formed the nucleus of the current NHL Program, which shares a direct lineage with the origins and evolution of history in the national park system. NHL properties and historical/cultural units of the NPS also share established criteria for evaluation and a thematic framework that connects and integrates our nation’s nationally significant properties.

As we look back in appreciation of the passage of the NPS Organic Act and reflect on its meaning and importance to the concept of our nation by establishing a foundation for America’s future, this moment also provides a unique opportunity to recognize the importance of the various programs administered by the NPS, in partnership with other federal agencies, States, Indian Tribes, local governments, nonprofit organizations and the private sector. These additional programs operate primarily beyond the boundaries of the parks, and extend the benefits of natural and cultural resource conservation and outdoor recreation throughout this country and the world. They form a vital part of the NPS mission and help sustain and enhance our quest for knowledge and quality of life throughout America. There are a range of NPS programs that engage with communities and assist with conservation and recreation activities, but the NPS mission to portray and interpret American history is enhanced and augmented through the many preservation partnership programs that the NPS oversees.

These programs are as diverse and varied as the parks and themes found within the national park system. They include, among many others, the Maritime Heritage Program, the National Heritage Area Program, the Historic Preservation Tax Incentives Program, and the American Battlefield Protection Program. There are programs that tell the difficult and tragic, yet also inspirational and hopeful, stories of our nation’s history, such as the Japanese-American Confinement Sites Program and the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program. Increasingly, programs such as the National Register of Historic Places and the National Historic Landmarks Program are identifying, recognizing and interpreting places that tell more diverse stories, with multiple perspectives and points of view.These stories are oftentimes contested, but more fully embrace under-represented individuals and communities.

As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the NPS, let’s take this opportunity to appreciate and reflect on the range and diversity of historic properties within the NHL Program, as well as the historic units and cultural resources overseen by the NPS. Collectively, these special places contribute to the illustration and preservation of our rich national heritage, for the benefit and inspiration of all people. In these times of tightened budgets and other challenges, we acknowledge the important role NHL stewards and owners play in caring for these places that portray the diverse and relevant stories of American history. Thanks—and keep up the good work!
Originally published in "Exceptional Places" Vol. 11, 2016, a newsletter of the Division of Cultural Resources, Midwest Region. Written by Geoffrey Burt.

Last updated: June 15, 2018