From Yosemite to Yellowstone, Chamizal to Chickasaw, and Gettysburg to the Grand Canyon, the parks managed by the National Park Service (NPS) shine across the United States of America. Today, the NPS manages almost 400 sites and employs more than 30,000 rangers at its peak season during the summer. Yet like the small seeds of a California Coastal Redwood that ultimately grows to a height of 350 feet or higher, the NPS has evolved and grown over a long period of time.
While living with American Indians of the Great Plains in 1832, artist George Catlin had an epiphany. He realized that “Indians, wildlife, and wilderness” could be preserved “by some great protecting policy of government . . . in a magnificent park . . . a nation’s park, containing man and beast.” With this statement, Catlin has been credited with initiating the national park idea.
Throughout the 19th century, vast tracts of land were exploited by the miner’s shovel, the farmer’s plow, and the lumberman’s axe. However, these natural resource users and over-users were not bad people. Many of them pursued the same aspirations as many of us do today: living a good life and making good profit. Fortunately, some citizens began to understand that nature was a necessity for the survival and wellbeing of the human race.
As a result of this new way of thinking, in 1864 the Yosemite Grant was set aside by the state of California. In 1872, Yellowstone became the world’s first national park. Sequoia, General Grant, and Yosemite followed suit in 1890. Although these first national parks continued to allow grazing and hunting, they did not allow wide-scale exploitation and development. This means that in reality, these were the first federal lands in the U.S.—indeed in the world—set aside for public enjoyment and preservation.
Slowly, but steadily, more national parks were established. From 1906 to 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt began to proclaim national monuments. Whereas Congress establishes national parks, the Antiquities Act of 1906 permits the president to proclaim national monuments. Roosevelt used the Antiquities Act of 1906 to establish 18 new monuments, including Mesa Verde and Gila Cliff Dwellings. These monuments were important because for the first time in U.S. history, American-Indian cultural sites were being remembered and preserved rather than vandalized and looted.
The early national parks and monuments were not all gold and glory. Specifically, there were three big problems. First, Congress gave meager appropriations to the parks. This meant that the parks remained underfunded, understaffed, and underappreciated by the public. Second, the parks were administered not only by one government agency but by three. Third, the parks were exploited. A prime example of this came in 1913 when the Hetch Hetchy Valley of Yosemite National Park became Hetch Hetchy Reservoir to serve the water needs of the San Francisco Bay area. However, the NPS has slowly become the organization that it is today. Its main goal always being to preserve America’s national treasures for generations to come.
National Park Service Centennial
America’s National Park Service (NPS) will observe its 100th Birthday on August 25, 2016, exactly a century after President Woodrow Wilson signed the act that created it as a new federal agency within the Department of the Interior. Its mission was defined, in part, “to 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.” When first formed, some 40 national parks and monuments were assembled under the management of the NPS. Now 100 years later, we celebrate the creation of this dedicated service which has managed America’s incredible wealth of scenic, historic, geologic, cultural and recreational resources ever since, becoming a model for similar efforts worldwide. A multitude of special centennial events are being planned to attract all Americans into these parklands and historic sites, in order to familiarize them personally with and build their pride in these diverse treasures, of which we are all part owners. Similarly, we will welcome countless international visitors to show them firsthand the best that America has to offer.
What can be expected:
It is important to recognize that these and other initiatives are not just about a one-day, or even a one-year birthday celebration, but about the development of an even greater emphasis on and commitment to conservation, preservation, and stewardship of our national wonders and heritage for the next century and beyond. There is most definitely a place for you to participate, personally, in assuring the success of these efforts.
Additional Resources: A Brief History of the National Park Service, The First Directors Mather and Albright, NPS Organic Act, NPS Caring for the American Legacy, Celebrating Our Centennial, Establishment of New Mexico's National Parks
Last updated: March 19, 2017