On This Date: The National Park Service Was Created
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by Countable | 8.25.17
On August 25, 1916 President Woodrow Wilson signed the National Park Service Organic Act into law, creating the National Park Service (NPS) to manage U.S. national parks, battlefields, historic sites, and monuments. The bill tasked the NPS with preserving the ecology and history of the places under their stewardship while also making them accessible for the public to use and enjoy.
For the last 102 years, the National Park Service has managed the most breathtaking and scenic destinations in the U.S., so in honor of its centennial we wanted to give you the background on how the national parks came to be.
Why was a national park system needed?
America’s westward expansion during the 1800s exposed the sites that would eventually become national parks to increasing numbers of people who appreciated their beauty and wanted to conserve them for future generations.
The first major step toward the creation of a national park came in 1864 when President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation granting Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove to the state of California so they could be preserved. Eight years later, Yellowstone was established as the first national park and was joined by Sequoia, Yosemite, and Mount Rainier before the turn of the century.
Three more national parks (Crater Lake, Wind Cave, and Mesa Verde) had been created by the time President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act in 1906 to create national monuments with Devils Tower becoming the first. There is a difference between national parks and national monuments — Congress has to approve the creation of a national park and while it can do so for monuments as well, the president can proclaim an area as a monument. (And monuments aren’t just nature like most national parks, they can be historic sites as well).
But there was a problem emerging with all this conservation, as each park was run individually without any common rules or procedures applying to them all. This inefficiency led to calls for a designated federal agency that was focused only managing national parks and monuments.
What did the bill do?
The National Park Service Organic Act created the NPS as an agency within the Dept. of the Interior, which is responsible for managing federal lands. It gave the NPS control over the national parks and monuments and gave the service a clear purpose in caring for the sites:
“To conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife 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.”
In the course of fulfilling that mission, the NPS was authorized to take steps to eradicate animal or plant life that is detrimental to a national park or monument and — if benefits the primary purpose of the park — sell or dispose of timber and allow animals to graze on the land (although the bill banned grazing in Yellowstone).
What impact has it had?
At the time of its creation, the National Park Service consisted of 12 national parks and 19 national monuments. Today, there are 59 national parks and 84 national monuments under its management. By 1918, the NPS developed day-to-day rules for the parks and monuments under its management, ensuring that the sites could remain in pristine condition for posterity.
Today, new national parks are still being created, with four being granted that status since 2000 (Cuyahoga Valley, Congaree, Great Sand Dunes, Pinnacles). The popularity of the national parks hasn’t dimmed over time as there were 307,247,252 visitors to national parks in 2015 alone.
Enjoy our video from last year's 100th anniversary of the National Park Service.
— Eric Revell
(Photo Credit: Ron_Thomas / iStock)
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