T. Mather, Superintendent's Conference, October 1925, Mesa Verde
NATIONAL PARK SERVICE
A Brief History
Barry Mackintosh 1999
account of the National Park Service must begin with the parks that
preceded it and prompted its creation.
national park concept is generally credited to the artist George
Catlin. On a trip to the Dakotas in 1832, he worried about the impact
of America's westward expansion on Indian civilization, wildlife,
and wilderness. They might be preserved, he wrote, ãby some great
protecting policy of government... in a magnificent park.... A nation's
park, containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of
their nature's beauty!ä
vision was partly realized in 1864, when Congress donated Yosemite
Valley to California for preservation as a state park. Eight years
later, in 1872, Congress reserved the spectacular Yellowstone country
in the Wyoming and Montana territories ãas a public park or pleasuring-ground
for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.ä With no state government
there yet to receive and manage it, Yellowstone remained in the
custody of the U.S. Department of the Interior as a national park÷the
world's first area so designated.
followed the Yellowstone precedent with other national parks in
the 1890s and early 1900s, including Sequoia, Yosemite (to which
California returned Yosemite Valley), Mount Rainier, Crater Lake,
and Glacier. The idealistic impulse to preserve nature was often
joined by the pragmatic desire to promote tourism: western railroads
lobbied for many of the early parks and built grand rustic hotels
in them to boost their passenger business.
late nineteenth century also saw growing interest in preserving
prehistoric Indian ruins and artifacts on the public lands. Congress
first moved to protect such a feature, Arizona's Casa Grande Ruin,
in 1889. In 1906 it created Mesa Verde National Park, containing
dramatic cliff dwellings in southwestern Colorado, and passed the
Antiquities Act authorizing presidents to set aside ãhistoric and
prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific
interestä in federal custody as national monuments. Theodore Roosevelt
used the act to proclaim 18 national monuments before he left the
presidency. They included not only cultural features like El Morro,
New Mexico, site of prehistoric petroglyphs and historic inscriptions,
but natural features like Arizona's Petrified Forest and Grand Canyon.
Congress later converted many of these natural monuments to national
1916 the Interior Department was responsible for 14 national parks
and 21 national monuments but had no organization to manage them.
Interior secretaries had asked the Army to detail troops to Yellowstone
and the California parks for this purpose. There military engineers
and cavalrymen developed park roads and buildings, enforced regulations
against hunting, grazing, timber cutting, and vandalism, and did
their best to serve the visiting public. Civilian appointees superintended
the other parks, while the monuments received minimal custody. In
the absence of an effective central administration, those in charge
operated without coordinated supervision or policy guidance.
parks were also vulnerable to competing interests, including some
within the ascendent conservation movement. Utilitarian conservationists
favoring regulated use rather than strict preservation of natural
resources advocated the construction of dams by public authorities
for water supply, power, and irrigation purposes. When San Francisco
sought to dam Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy Valley for a reservoir after
the turn of the century, the utilitarian and preservationist wings
of the conservation movement came to blows. Over the passionate
opposition of John Muir and other park supporters, Congress in 1913
permitted the dam, which historian John Ise later called ãthe worst
disaster ever to come to any national park.ä
Hetchy highlighted the institutional weakness of the park movement.
While utilitarian conservation had become well represented in government
by the U.S. Geological Survey and the Forest and Reclamation services,
no comparable bureau spoke for park preservation in Washington.
Among those recognizing the problem was Stephen T. Mather, a wealthy
and well-connected Chicago businessman. When Mather complained to
Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane about the parks' mismanagement,
Lane invited him to Washington as his assistant for park matters.
Twenty-five-year-old Horace M. Albright became Mather's principal
aide upon Mather's arrival in 1915.
for a national parks bureau, Mather and Albright effectively blurred
the distinction between utilitarian conservation and preservation
by emphasizing the economic value of parks as tourist meccas. A
vigorous public relations campaign led to supportive articles in
National Geographic, The Saturday Evening Post, and other popular
magazines. Mather hired his own publicist and obtained funds from
17 western railroads to produce The National Parks Portfolio, a
lavishly illustrated publication sent to congressmen and other influential
responded as desired, and on August 25, 1916, President Woodrow
Wilson approved legislation creating the National Park Service within
the Interior Department. The act made the bureau responsible for
Interior's national parks and monuments, Hot Springs Reservation
in Arkansas (made a national park in 1921), and ãsuch other national
parks and reservations of like character as may be hereafter created
by Congress.ä In managing these areas, the Park Service was directed
ãto conserve the scenery and the 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 as will leave them unimpaired for
the enjoyment of future generations.ä
Lane named Mather the Park Service's first director and Albright
assistant director. A policy letter Lane approved in 1918 elaborated
on the bureau's dual mission of conserving park resources and providing
for their enjoyment. While reemphasizing the primacy of preservation,
it reflected Mather's and Albright's conviction that more visitors
must be attracted and accommodated if the parks were to flourish.
Automobiles, not permitted in Yellowstone until 1915, would be allowed
throughout the system. Hotels would be provided by concessionaires.
Museums, publications, and other educational activities were encouraged
policy letter also sought to guide the system's expansion. ãIn studying
new park projects, you should seek to find scenery of supreme and
distinctive quality or some natural feature so extraordinary or
unique as to be of national interest and importance,ä it directed.
ãThe national park system as now constituted should not be lowered
in standard, dignity, and prestige by the inclusion of areas which
express in less than the highest terms the particular class or kind
of exhibit which they represent.ä
the 1920s the national park system was really a western park system.
Only Acadia National Park in Maine lay east of the Mississippi.
The West was home to America's most spectacular natural scenery,
and most land there was federally owned and thus subject to park
or monument reservation without purchase. If the system were to
benefit more people and maximize its support in Congress, however,
it would have to expand eastward. In 1926 Congress authorized Shenandoah,
Great Smoky Mountains, and Mammoth Cave national parks in the Appalachian
region but required that their lands be donated. With the aid of
John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and other philanthropists, the states
involved gradually acquired and turned over most of the land needed
for these parks in the next decade.
the Park Service's greatest opportunity in the East lay in another
realm÷that of history and historic sites. Congress had directed
the War Department to preserve a number of historic battlefields,
forts, and memorials there as national military parks and monuments,
beginning in 1890 with Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military
Park in Georgia and Tennessee. After succeeding Mather as director
in 1929, Albright was instrumental in getting Congress to establish
three new historical parks in the East under Park Service administration.
Colonial National Monument, Virginia, which included Yorktown Battlefield,
and Morristown National Historical Park, New Jersey, the site of
Revolutionary War encampments, edged the Park Service into the War
after Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in 1933, Albright accompanied
the new president on a trip to Shenandoah National Park and mentioned
his desire to acquire all the military parks. Roosevelt agreed and
directed Albright to initiate an executive transfer order. Under
the order, effective August 10, 1933, the Park Service received
not only the War Department's parks and monuments but the 15 national
monuments then held by the Forest Service as well as the national
capital parks, including the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial,
and White House. The addition of nearly 50 historical areas in the
East made the park system and Park Service truly national and deeply
involved with historic as well as natural preservation.
Roosevelt launched his New Deal, the Park Service received another
mission: depression relief. Under its supervision the Civilian Conservation
Corps employed thousands of young men in numerous conservation,
rehabilitation, and construction projects in both the national and
state parks. The program had a lasting impact on the Park Service.
Many professionals hired under its auspices remained on the bureau's
rolls as career employees, and regional offices established to coordinate
CCC work in the state parks evolved into a permanent regional system
for park administration.
the 1930s the Park Service also became involved with areas intended
primarily for mass recreation. Begun as depression relief projects,
the Blue Ridge Parkway between Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains
national parks and the Natchez Trace Parkway between Nashville,
Tennessee, and Natchez, Mississippi, were designed for scenic recreational
motoring. In 1936, under an agreement with the Bureau of Reclamation,
the Park Service assumed responsibility for recreational development
and activities at the vast reservoir created by Hoover Dam. Lake
Mead National Recreation Area, as it was later titled, was the first
of several reservoir areas in the park system. In 1937 Congress
authorized Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the first of several
seashore and lakeshore areas.
left the Park Service for private business in 1933 and was succeeded
by his able associate director, Arno B. Cammerer. Newton B. Drury,
who had directed the Save-the-Redwoods League in California, followed
Cammerer in 1940. America's entry into World War II a year later
forced Drury to preside over a drastic retrenchment in Park Service
activity and defend the parks against pressures for consumptive
uses in the name of national defense. Timber interests sought Sitka
spruce in Olympic National Park for airplane manufacture. Ranchers
and mining companies pressed to open other parks to grazing and
prospecting. Scrap drive leaders eyed historic cannon at the Park
Service's battlefields and forts. Drury successfully resisted most
such demands, which eased as needed resources were found elsewhere.
postwar era brought new pressures on the parks as the nation's energies
were redirected to domestic pursuits. Bureau of Reclamation plans
to dam wilderness canyons in Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado
and Utah touched off a conservation battle recalling Hetch Hetchy.
Interior Secretary Oscar L. Chapman's decision to support the project
contributed to Drury's resignation in March 1951. But this time
the park preservationists won: Congress finally declined to approve
the Dinosaur dams.
L. Wirth, a landscape architect and planner who had led the Park
Service's CCC program, became director in December 1951. Facing
a park system with a deteriorating infrastructure overwhelmed by
the postwar travel boom, he responded with Mission 66, a ten-year,
billion-dollar program to upgrade facilities, staffing, and resource
management by the bureau's fiftieth anniversary in 1966. A hallmark
of Mission 66 was the park visitor center, a multiple-use facility
with interpretive exhibits, audiovisual programs, and other public
services. By 1960, 56 visitor centers were open or under construction
in parks from Antietam National Battlefield Site, Maryland, to Zion
National Park, Utah.
66 development, criticized by some as overdevelopment, nevertheless
fell short of Wirth's goals÷in large part because the Park Service's
domain kept expanding, diverting funds and staff to new areas. Congress
added more than 50 parks to the system during the ten-year period,
from Virgin Islands National Park to Point Reyes National Seashore
in California. Expansion continued apace under George B. Hartzog,
Jr., who had superintended the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial
in St. Louis before succeeding Wirth in 1964. Under his leadership
through 1972, the Park Service and system branched out in several
resource management was restructured along ecological lines following
a 1963 report by a committee of scientists chaired by A. Starker
Leopold. ãAs a primary goal, we would recommend that the biotic
associations within each park be maintained, or where necessary
recreated, as nearly as possible in the condition that prevailed
when the area was first visited by the white man,ä the Leopold Report
declared. ãA national park should represent a vignette of primitive
America.ä Environmental interpretation, emphasizing ecological relationships,
and special environmental education programs for school classes
reflected and promoted the nation's growing environmental awareness.
historyä programs became popular attractions at many historical
parks, ranging from frontier military demonstrations at Fort Davis
National Historic Site, Texas, to period farming at Lincoln Boyhood
National Memorial, Indiana. The Park Service's historical activities
expanded beyond the parks as well. Responding to the destructive
effects of urban renewal, highway construction, and other federal
projects during the postwar era, the National Historic Preservation
Act of 1966 authorized the bureau to maintain a comprehensive National
Register of Historic Places. Listed properties÷publicly and privately
owned, locally as well as nationally significant÷would receive special
consideration in federal project planning and federal grants and
technical assistance to encourage their preservation.
new types of parks joined the system during the Hartzog years. Ozark
National Scenic Riverways in Missouri, authorized by Congress in
1964, foreshadowed the comprehensive Wild and Scenic Rivers Act
of 1968, which led to the acquisition of other free-flowing rivers.
On the Great Lakes, Pictured Rocks and Indiana Dunes became the
first national lakeshores in 1966. The National Trails System Act
of 1968 made the Park Service responsible for the Appalachian National
Scenic Trail, running some 2,000 miles from Maine to Georgia. Gateway
National Recreation Area in New York City and Golden Gate National
Recreation Area in San Francisco, both established in 1972, were
precedents for other national recreation areas serving metropolitan
Cleveland, Atlanta, and Los Angeles.
the bicentennial of the American Revolution in the mid-1970s, the
two dozen historical parks commemorating the Revolution benefited
from another big development program. At Independence National Historical
Park in Philadelphia the Park Service reconstructed the house where
Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence, installed
elaborate exhibits at the site of Benjamin Franklin's house, and
moved the Liberty Bell to a new pavilion outside Independence Hall.
On July 4, 1976, President Gerald R. Ford, once a seasonal ranger
at Yellowstone, spoke at Independence Hall and signed legislation
making Valley Forge a national historical park.
years later, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act
of 1980 more than doubled the size of the national park system by
adding over 47 million wilderness acres. The largest of the new
areas in Alaska, WrangellöSt. Elias National Park, comprises more
than 8,300,000 acres, while the adjoining WrangellöSt. Elias National
Preserve comprises nearly 4,900,000. Together they cover an area
larger than New Hampshire and Vermont combined and contain the continent's
greatest array of glaciers and peaks above 16,000 feet. The national
preserve designation was applied to ten of the new Alaska areas
because they allowed certain activities, like sport hunting and
trapping, not permitted in national parks.
E. Dickenson, a former park ranger and manager, took the helm in
1980. Because the Park Service's funding and staffing had not kept
pace with its growing responsibilities, Dickenson sought to slow
the park system's expansion. The Reagan administration and the Congress
that took office with it in 1981 were of like mind. Rather than
creating more parks they backed Dickenson's Park Restoration and
Improvement Program, which allocated more than a billion dollars
over five years to resources and facilities in existing parks.
Penn Mott, Jr., a landscape architect who had directed California's
state parks when Ronald Reagan was governor, followed Dickenson
in 1985. Deeply interested in interpretation, Mott sought a greater
Park Service role in educating the public about American history
and environmental values. He also returned the bureau to a more
expansionist posture, supporting such additions as Great Basin National
Park, Nevada, and Steamtown National Historic Site, a railroad collection
in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Steamtown, championed by Scranton's congressman
for its local economic benefits, was a costly venture much criticized
as an example of ãpark barrelä politics, but Mott was convinced
of its educational potential.
M. Ridenour, formerly head of Indiana's Department of Natural Resources,
served as director during the Bush administration (1989ö1993). Doubting
the national significance of Steamtown and other proposed parks
driven by economic development interests, he spoke out against the
ãthinning of the bloodä of the national park system and sought to
regain the initiative from Congress in charting its expansion. He
also worked to achieve a greater financial return to the Park Service
from park concessions. In 1990 the Richard King Mellon Foundation
made the largest single park donation yet: $10.5 million for additional
lands at the Antietam, Gettysburg, Fredericksburg, and Petersburg
Civil War battlefields, Pecos National Historical Park, and Shenandoah
G. Kennedy, who had directed the Smithsonian Institution's Museum
of American History, was the Clinton administration's choice to
head the Park Service in 1993. Like Mott, he was especially concerned
about expanding the bureau's educational role and sought to enlarge
its presence beyond the parks via the Internet. His tenure coincided
with a government-wide effort to restructure and downsize the federal
bureaucracy, which accelerated after the Republicans took control
of Congress in 1995. The Park Service restructured its field operations
and embarked on a course of reducing its Washington and regional
office staffs by 40 percent.
1997 Robert Stanton became the first career Park Service employee
since Dickenson to head the bureau. Beginning as a ranger, he had
most recently served as regional director of the National Capital
Region. An African American, Stanton took particular interest in
increasing the diversity of the Park Service to better serve minority
of 1999 the national park system comprises 379 areas in nearly every
state and U.S. possession. In addition to managing these parks÷as
diverse and far-flung as Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and the
Statue of Liberty National Monument÷the Park Service supports the
preservation of natural and historic places and promotes outdoor
recreation outside the system through a range of grant and technical
assistance programs. Major emphasis is placed on cooperation and
partnerships with other government bodies, foundations, corporations,
and other private parties to protect the parks and other significant
properties and advance Park Service programs.
opinion surveys have consistently rated the National Park Service
among the most popular federal agencies. The high regard in which
the national parks and their custodians are held augurs well for
philanthropic, corporate, and volunteer support, present from the
beginnings of the national park movement but never more vital to
Horace M., and Robert Cahn. The Birth of the National Park Service:
The Founding Years, 191333. Salt Lake City: Howe Brothers,
Horace M, and Marian Albright Schenck. Creating the National
Park Service: The Missing Years. Norman: University of Oklahoma
Lary M., ed.
National Park System: The Critical Documents.
Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1994.
William C. The National Park Service. Boulder, CO: Westview
Ronald A. America's National Parks and Their Keepers. Washington:
Resources for the Future, 1985.
George B., Jr. Battling for the National Parks. Mt. Kisco,
NY: Moyer Bell, 1988.
Charles B., Jr. Preservation Comes of Age: From Williamsburg
to the National Trust, 19261949. 2 vols. Charlottesville:
University Press of Virginia, 1981.
John. Our National Park Policy: A Critical History. Baltimore:
Johns Hopkins Press, 1961.
National Parks: Shaping the System. Washington:
National Park Service, 1991.
Dwight F. Our National Park System: Caring for America's Greatest
Natural and Historic Treasures. Urbana: University of Illinois
James M. The National Parks Compromised: Pork Barrel Politics
and America's Treasures. Merrillville, IN: ICS Books, 1994.
Hal K. Preserving Different Pasts: The American National Monuments.
Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.
Alfred. National Parks: The American Experience. 3d ed. Lincoln:
University of Nebraska Press, 1997.
Robert. Steve Mather of the National Parks. 3d ed. New York:
Alfred A. Knopf, 1976.
Nature in the National Parks: A History.
New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997.
Donald C. Wilderness Defender: Horace M. Albright and Conservation.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.
Conrad L. Parks, Politics, and the People. Norman: University
of Oklahoma Press, 1980.
enough history? Need more info? See our book
Parks: Shaping the System, available on-line!
History of the National Park Service page