Land Acquisition History

2012 Map
Park units acquired prior to creation of LWCF (blue).
Park units acquired with LWCF funds (purple).

Hot Springs Reservation was established in 1832 when President Andrew Jackson signed legislation to set aside four sections of land in Arkansas to be reserved for the future disposal of the United States. It was the first time land was set aside by the Federal government for recreation. The reservation was placed under the control of the Department of the Interior when it was established in 1849.

In 1872, Yellowstone National Park was created in the Territories of Montana and Wyoming and placed under exclusive control of the Secretary of the Interior. In the years following the establishment of Yellowstone, the United States authorized additional national parks and monuments, most of them carved from Federal lands of the West.

On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the act creating the National Park Service, a new Federal bureau in the Department of the Interior responsible for protecting the 35 national parks and monuments then managed by the department and those yet to be established. Land acquisition was not an issue for the early national park units as most land was already in Federal ownership or the public domain. Early land purchases were usually limited to acquiring "inholdings" and funding was provided through construction line item appropriations and included as part of the overall construction cost.

In 1933, 56 military parks, including Civil War parks, were transferred to the National Park Service. As the National Park Service grew in the early 1930's, many parks in the Eastern states were created by the donation of land by States and private individuals and some units were created from the Recreational Demonstration Area program under President Roosevelt.

After World War II, the Interstate Highway System was built and attraction to parks for outdoor recreation increased. In the mid-1960s Congress started to create new units called "recreational areas" and “national seashores” within the Park System to meet the growing recreation needs of citizens. The demand and need for additional parks outstripped the conventional acquisition methods of donations and withdrawals. Growth continued and most new parks were created with the land being in private ownership.

It soon became apparent that a funding source was needed to acquire land at these new units. There was no public domain land in the Eastern United States to carve out parks and donation did not fill the void. In 1964, Congress authorized the Land and Water Conservation Fund as the funding source from which Congress could appropriate money to be used by both Federal and State governments to acquire lands or interests in lands for these purposes. The Federal appropriated funds could only be used for land acquisition while the States were authorized to receive appropriation from the fund for land acquisitions as well as planning and development.

Today, funding for Federal land acquisition is still provided primarily by the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which was reauthorized in March 2019 and then fully and permanently funded in August 2020. The National Park System currently has over 400 park units totaling more than 85 million acres, yet more than 2.6 million acres of privately owned lands remain within National Park Service boundaries.

Last updated: December 16, 2021