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cover to Shaping the System
Shaping the System



current topic Introduction

Shaping the System


The National Parks:

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A Few Words About this Book
Barry Mackintosh
Bureau Historian, National Park Service

Yellowstone geyser When did the National Park System begin? The usual response is 1872, when an act of Congress created Yellowstone National Park, the first place so titled. Like a river formed from several branches, however, the system cannot be traced to a single source. Other components–the parks of the nation's capital, Hot Springs, parts of Yosemite–preceded Yellowstone as parklands reserved or established by the federal government. And there was no real "system" of national parks until Congress created a federal bureau, the National Park Service, in 1916 to manage those areas assigned to the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The systematic park administration within Interior paved the way for annexation of comparable areas from other federal agencies. In a 1933 government reorganization, the National Park Service acquired the War Department's national military parks and monuments, the Agriculture Department's national monuments, and the national capital parks. Thereafter the NPS would be the primary federal agency preserving and providing for public enjoyment of America's most significant natural and cultural properties in a fully comprehensive National Park System.

Ronald F. Lee's Family Tree of the National Park System, published by the Eastern National Park and Monument Association in 1972, chronicled the system's evolution to that date. Its usefulness led the NPS to issue a revised and expanded account titled The National Parks: Shaping the System in 1985. This is the third edition of that publication, reflecting the system's continued growth and diversity.

Yosemite valley The nomenclature of National Park System areas is often confusing. System units now bear some 20 titles besides "national park," which commonly identifies the largest, most spectacular natural areas. Other designations like national seashore, national lakeshore, national river, and national scenic trail are usefully descriptive. In contrast, the national monument title–applied impartially to large natural areas like Dinosaur and small cultural sites like the Statue of Liberty–says little about a place. For no obvious reason, some historic forts are national monuments and others are national historic sites, while historic battlefields are variously titled national military parks, national battlefields, and national battlefield parks, among other things.

All these designations are rooted in the system's legislative and administrative history. Where distinctions in title denote no real differences in character or management policy, the differing designations usually reflect changes in fashion over time. Historical areas that once would have been named national monuments, for example, more recently have been titled national historic sites, if small, or national historical parks, if larger. Regardless of their titles, all system units are referred to generically as parks, a practice followed in this book.

springs of Hot Springs The dates used here for parks are usually those of the earliest laws, presidential proclamations, or departmental orders authorizing or establishing them. In some cases these actions occurred before the areas were placed under NPS administration and thus in the National Park System. In 1970 Congress defined the system as including "any area of land and water now or hereafter administered by the Secretary of the Interior, through the National Park Service, for park, monument, historic, parkway, recreational, or other purposes." This legal definition excludes a number of national historic sites, memorials, trails, and other areas assisted or coordinated but not administered by the NPS.

Lee's Family Tree, with its chronological listing of park additions and concise discussion of significant examples, developments, and trends, was a valuable orientation and reference tool for NPS personnel and others tracking the system's growth to Yellowstone's centennial year. It is hoped that this revised edition of Shaping the System, still owing much to Lee's work, will serve the same purposes for the present generation of park employees and friends.


Last Modified: Wed, Jan 10 2001 07:08:48 am PDT

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