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National Park Service - History

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National Park Service - founded in 1916, part of the Department of the Interior. The National Park Service works to conserve the natural and cultural resources in the National Park System. It manages national parks, and is involved with programs like the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System; the National Trails System; the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the National Register of Historic Places.

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Mission & History

As the official nonprofit partner of the National Park Service, the National Park Foundation generates private support and builds strategic partnerships to protect and enhance America’s national parks for present and future generations.

Chartered by Congress in 1967, the National Park Foundation is rooted in a legacy that began more than a century ago, when private citizens from all walks of life took action to establish and protect our national parks. Today, the National Park Foundation carries on that tradition as the only national charitable nonprofit whose mission is to directly support the National Park Service.


Yellowstone National Park was created as the first national park in the United States. In 1872, there was no state government to manage it, so the federal government assumed direct control. National parks and national monuments in the United States were originally individually managed under the auspices of the Department of the Interior. The movement for an independent agency to oversee these federal lands was spearheaded by business magnate and conservationist Stephen Mather, as well as J. Horace McFarland.

With the help of journalist Robert Sterling Yard, Mather ran a publicity campaign for the Department of the Interior. They wrote numerous articles that praised the scenic and historic qualities of the parks and their possibilities for educational, inspirational, and recreational benefits. [5]

This campaign resulted in the creation of the NPS. On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the National Park Service Organic Act that mandated the agency "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and 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". [6] Mather became the first director of the newly formed NPS. [7]

On March 3, 1933, President Herbert Hoover signed the Reorganization Act of 1933. The act authorized the President to reorganize the executive branch of the United States government. Later that summer, the new president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, made use of this power after NPS Deputy Director Horace M. Albright suggested that the NPS, rather than the War Department should manage historic American Civil War sites.

President Roosevelt agreed and issued two executive orders to implement the reorganization. These two executive orders transferred to the NPS all of the War Department's historic sites as well as national monuments that the Department of Agriculture had managed and parks in and around Washington, D.C. that an independent federal office had previously operated. [8]

The demand for parks after the end of the World War II left the parks overburdened with demands that the NPS could not meet. In 1951, Conrad Wirth became director of the NPS and began to bring park facilities up to the standards that the public was expecting.

In 1952, with the support of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Wirth began Mission 66, a ten-year effort to upgrade and expand park facilities for the 50th anniversary of the Park Service. New parks were added to preserve unique resources and existing park facilities were upgraded and expanded. [8]

In 1966, as the Park Service turned 50 years old, emphasis began to turn from just saving great and wonderful scenery and unique natural features to making parks accessible to the public. Director George Hartzog began the process with the creation of the National Lakeshores and then National Recreation Areas.

Name [9] Term of office
Start End
1 Stephen Mather May 16, 1917 January 8, 1929
2 Horace M. Albright January 12, 1929 August 9, 1933
3 Arno B. Cammerer August 10, 1933 August 9, 1940
4 Newton B. Drury August 20, 1940 March 31, 1951
5 Arthur E. Demaray April 1, 1951 December 8, 1951
6 Conrad L. Wirth December 9, 1951 January 7, 1964
7 George B. Hartzog Jr. January 9, 1964 December 31, 1972
8 Ronald H. Walker January 7, 1973 January 3, 1975
9 Gary Everhardt January 13, 1975 May 27, 1977
10 William J. Whalen III July 5, 1977 May 13, 1980
11 Russell E. Dickenson May 15, 1980 March 3, 1985
12 William Penn Mott Jr. May 17, 1985 April 16, 1989
13 James M. Ridenour April 17, 1989 January 20, 1993
14 Roger G. Kennedy June 1, 1993 March 29, 1997
15 Robert Stanton August 4, 1997 January 2001
16 Fran P. Mainella July 18, 2001 October 16, 2006
17 Mary A. Bomar October 17, 2006 January 20, 2009 [10]
- Daniel Wenk (acting) January 20, 2009 October 2, 2009
18 Jonathan Jarvis October 2, 2009 [11] January 3, 2017
- Michael T. Reynolds (acting) January 3, 2017 January 24, 2018 [12]
- P. Daniel Smith (acting) January 24, 2018 [12] September 30, 2019 [13]
- David Vela (acting) October 1, 2019 [13] August 7, 2020 [14]
- Margaret Everson (acting) August 7, 2020 January 20, 2021
- Shawn Benge (acting) January 20, 2021 [15]

The National Park System includes all properties managed by the National Park Service, which have a wide variety of titles or designations. The system as a whole is considered to be a national treasure of the United States, and some of the more famous national parks and monuments are sometimes referred to as "crown jewels". [16]

The system encompasses approximately 85.1 million acres (0.344 million km 2 ), of which 2.6 million acres (0.011 million km 2 ) remain in private ownership. The largest unit is Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska. At 13,200,000 acres (53,000 km 2 ), it is over 16 percent of the entire system. The smallest unit in the system is Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial, Pennsylvania, at 0.02 acre (80 m 2 ).

In addition to administering its units and other properties, the NPS also provides technical and financial assistance to several affiliated areas authorized by Congress. The largest affiliated area is New Jersey Pinelands National Reserve at 1,164,025 acres (4711 km 2 ). The smallest is Benjamin Franklin National Memorial at less than 0.01 acres (40 m 2 ).

While there are laws generally covering all units of the National Park System, they are subject to management policies of individual pieces of authorizing legislation or, in the case of national monuments created under the Antiquities Act, presidential proclamation. For example, because of provisions within their enabling legislation, Congaree National Park is almost entirely wilderness area devoid of development, yet Yosemite allows unique developments such as the Badger Pass Ski Area and the O'Shaughnessy Dam within its boundaries. Death Valley National Park has an active mine legislated within its boundaries. Such irregularities would not be found in other parks unless specifically provided for with exceptions by the legislation that created them.

Holdings Edit

For current specifics and a multitude of information, see the Quick Facts [17] section of the NPS website.

Type Amount (2008) [18]
Area of land 84,000,000 acres 340,000 km 2
Area of oceans, lakes, reservoirs 4,502,644 acres 18,222 km 2
Length of perennial rivers and streams 85,049 mi 136,873 km
Archeological sites 68,561
Length of shoreline 43,162 mi 69,463 km
Historic structures 27,000
Objects in museum collections 121,603,193
Buildings 21,000
Trails 12,250 mi 19,710 km
Roads 8,500 mi 13,700 km

Criteria Edit

Most NPS units have been established by an act of Congress, with the president confirming the action by signing the act into law. The exception, under the Antiquities Act, allows the president to designate and protect areas as national monuments by executive order. Regardless of the method used, all parks are to be of national importance. [19]

A potential park should meet all four of the following standards: [20]

  • It is an outstanding example of a particular type of resource.
  • It possesses exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the natural or cultural themes of the nation's heritage.
  • It offers superlative opportunities for recreation, for public use and enjoyment, or for scientific study.
  • It retains a high degree of integrity as a true, accurate, and relatively unspoiled example of the resource.

Special designations Edit

Wilderness areas are covered by the US National Wilderness Preservation System, which protects federally managed lands that are of a pristine condition, established by the Wilderness Act (Public Law 88-577) in 1964. The National Wilderness Preservation System originally created hundreds of wilderness zones within already protected federally administered property, consisting of over 9 million acres (36,000 km 2 ).

Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) began with Executive Order 13158 in May 2000, when official MPAs were established for the first time. [21] The initial listing of U.S. areas was presented in 2010, consisting of areas already set aside under other legislation. The NPS has 19 park units designated as MPAs. [21]

Nomenclature Edit

The NPS uses over 20 different titles for the park units it manages, including national park and national monument. [22]

Classification (2021) [23] Number Area (2009) Visitors (2009) [24]
National Military Park (9), National Battlefield Park (4), National Battlefield Site (1), and National Battlefield (11) 25 71,502.49 acres (289 km 2 ) 8,360,261
National Historical Park (61), National Historic Site (76), and International Historic Site (1) 138 228,260.60 acres (924 km 2 ) 34,407,217
National Lakeshore 3 228,995.14 acres (927 km 2 ) 3,728,821
National Memorial 31 10,588.45 acres (43 km 2 ) 30,559,258
National Monument 85 2,027,864.58 acres (8,206 km 2 ) 22,646,428
National Park 63 52,095,045.71 acres (210,821 km 2 ) 62,950,968
National Parkway 4 177,339.69 acres (718 km 2 ) 29,948,911
National Preserve (19) and National Reserve (2) 21 24,191,311.63 acres (97,899 km 2 ) 2,956,325
National Recreation Area 18 3,700,277.20 acres (14,974 km 2 ) 50,645,414
National River (4) and National Wild and Scenic River and Riverway (10) 14 746,262.99 acres (3,020 km 2 ) 5,999,161
National Scenic Trail 3 239,659.27 acres (970 km 2 ) not available
National Seashore 10 595,013.55 acres (2,408 km 2 ) 17,920,507
Other Designations 11 36,826.96 acres (149 km 2 ) 11,156,670
Totals 423 84,331,948.26 acres (341,279 km 2 ) 320,309,151

National parks preserve nationally and globally significant scenic areas and nature reserves.

National monuments preserve a single unique cultural or natural feature. Devils Tower National Monument was the first in 1906. While the National Park Service holds the most National Monuments, a Monument may be managed or co-managed by a different entity such as the Bureau of Land Management or the Forest Service.

National preserves are for the protection of certain resources and operate similar to many National Parks, but allow limited resource extraction. Activities like hunting, fishing, and some mining may be allowed depending on the cite. Big Cypress National Preserve and Big Thicket National Preserve were created in 1974 as the first national preserves.

National reserves are similar to national preserves, but the operational authority can be placed with a local government. New Jersey Pinelands National Reserve was the first to be established in 1978. [25]

National historic sites protect a significant cultural resource that is not a complicated site. Examples of these types of parks include Ford's Theatre National Historic Site and William Howard Taft National Historic Site.

National historical parks are larger areas with more complex subjects. Appomattox Court House National Historical Park was created in 1940. George Rogers Clark National Historical Park was dedicated in 1936. Historic sites may also be protected in national parks, monuments, seashores, and lakeshores.

National military parks, battlefield parks, battlefield sites, and battlefields preserve areas associated with military history. The different designations reflect the complexity of the event and the site. Many of the sites preserve important Revolutionary War battles and Civil War battlefields. Military parks are the sites of larger actions, such as Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, Vicksburg National Military Park, Gettysburg National Military Park, and Shiloh National Military Park—the original four from 1890.

Examples of battlefield parks, battlefield sites, and national battlefields include Richmond National Battlefield Park, Brices Cross Roads National Battlefield Site, and Antietam National Battlefield.

National memorials are areas that officially memorialize a person or event, though unlike a National Histrorical Site, may or may not be placed at a specific historical location. The Washington Monument, Lincoln memorial, and Jefferson memorials are perhaps the most some of the most well known NPS National Memorials. Like National Monuments, a Memorial may be managed or co-managed by an entity other than the NPS.

National seashores and national lakeshores offer preservation of the national coast line, while supporting water–based recreation. Cape Hatteras National Seashore was created in 1937. Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, created in 1966, were the first national lakeshores.

National rivers and wild and scenic riverways protect free-flowing streams over their length. The riverways may not be altered with dams, channelization, or other changes. Recreational pursuits are encouraged along the waterways. Ozark National Scenic Riverways was established in 1964.

National recreation areas originally were units (such as Lake Mead National Recreation Area) surrounding reservoirs impounded by dams built by other federal agencies. Many of these areas are managed under cooperative agreement with the NPS. Some national recreation areas are in urban centers, because of the recommendations of a presidential commission, the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission (ORRRC). These include Gateway National Recreation Area and Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which encompass significant cultural as well as natural resources.

The National Trails System preserves long-distance routes across America. The system was created in 1968 and consists of two major components: National scenic trails are long-distance trails through some of the most scenic parts of the country. They received official protection in 1968. The Appalachian Trail is the best known. National historic trails commemorate the routes of major historic events. Some of the best known are the Trail of Tears, the Mormon Trail, and the Santa Fe Trail. These trails are administered by several federal agencies.

The National Park System received over 327 million recreation visits in 2019. [26] Park visitation grew 64 percent between 1979 and 2015. [27]

The 10 most-visited units of the National Park System handle over 28 percent of the overall visits. The top 10 percent of parks (41) handle 62.8 percent of all visits, leaving the remaining more than 380 units to accommodate 37.2 percent of visits. [27]

Public History in the Parks: History and the National Park Service

Historians inside and outside the academy are indebted to Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen for their systematic efforts to examine "how Americans understand the past." As they explain in The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life, they used a national telephone survey to ask respondents (among other things) how connected to the past they feel in various situations, and how trustworthy various sources of information are about the past. In their answers to these questions, significant numbers of interviewees ranked family gatherings and accounts by relatives, and museums and historic sites, higher than schools or classroom teachers.

The National Park Service (NPS) has a major stake in living up to that trust of presenting an accurate and comprehensive view of the past. More than 220 of the 377 National Park sites are cultural sites, focusing on history, anthropology, and archaeology. Visitors come to these parks seeking education and inspiration, sometimes long after their years in the classroom are over. For them, these 220 parks are sources of educational experiences, vessels of historical memory, and sometimes places that loom large in questions about personal and national identity.

The NPS is not only in the business of education. It straddles some of the intersections of education, recreation, and historic preservation. It also has roots in antiquarianism and ties to tourism. One of its challenges is to encourage visitors to connect historical trends and contexts with surviving buildings, landscapes, and artifacts. Another is the necessity of making choices about which parts of the human-shaped environment are the most important ones to preserve, as evidence of past human activity.

Among the tools that the NPS uses to try to meet these challenges is a thematic framework, intended as a comprehensive outline of broad themes in U.S. history to assist in communicating American history to the public. Initially developed in 1936, the framework has been particularly useful as a tool for evaluating how well the National Park System reflects the sweep of American history (the framework can be seen at a discussion about the framework is at The NPS and the scholars who worked with the NPS to develop various versions of the thematic frameworks understood the categorization and classification of cultural resources according to historical topics as a necessary tool both for a comprehensive, contextual overview of cultural resources and for the comparative analysis of the relative significance of individual resources. The framework has proved useful as a checklist of possible contexts to address in NPS educational and interpretive programs in parks. However, the key role for the thematic framework has been in identifying gaps in the park system and assessing and justifying the addition of new parks.

Since it became evident that only a few sites could be added as national parks, the Congress established a National Historic Landmark Program (NHL) in 1960 to recognize and encourage the preservation of nationally significant properties outside of the park system. The NPS used its thematic framework to inform and guide the selection of landmarks.

The earliest framework focused on relatively few broad themes, such as the development of the English colonies and the westward expansion, that stemmed from a view of American history as a "march of progress." The 1987 revision used both a chronological and topical approach and expanded the number of themes to 34, with numerous subthemes and items so that there were over 600 different categories. Some critics of the 1987 framework contended that it pigeonholed sites far too narrowly and represented too limiting an approach to the past. For example, Congress passed legislation in 1990 directing the NPS to conduct a study of alternatives for commemorating and protecting resources associated with the Underground Railroad. Turning to the 1987 framework for guidance, the NPS staff discovered that despite all the numerous categories, places in the framework for this study were limited to the subtheme of abolitionism under the theme of humanitarian and social movements or the subtheme of slavery and plantation life under the theme of American ways of life.

In 1988 the historical profession began to register its concern about the framework. Both the Professional Division of the American Historical Association and the board of the Organization of American Historians passed resolutions in 1990 calling on Congress to fund the reexamination and revision of the NPS's national historic thematic framework. The resolutions contended that the existing framework was outdated and did not adequately reflect the breadth of available scholarship. Representative Bruce Vento (D-Minn.), who chaired the House subcommittee with oversight responsibility for the NPS, and historian Heather Huyck, his legislative aide, were strong supporters of strengthening history in the parks and became effective allies in this cause. In a late night session in fall 1990, when Congress was considering the Arizona wilderness bill, Representative Vento, with Huyck working vigorously behind the scenes, managed to attach to this bill a provision dealing with the revision of the thematic framework. On November 28, 1990, President Bush signed Public Law 101-628, the Arizona Desert Wilderness Act and Title XII on "Civil War and Other Studies," which included a section on the "Revision of the Thematic Framework." The law stated that the secretary of the interior "in coordination with the major scholarly and professional organizations" was to undertake "a complete revision of the NPS 'Thematic Framework' to reflect current scholarship and research" and "the full diversity of American history and prehistory."

For several years, the NPS seemed at a loss about the task of revising the framework however, in 1993 the NPS signed a cooperative agreement with the Organization of American Historians to bring together a group of scholars, preservationists, NPS officials, and others to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the 1987 framework and to develop a rough draft of a revised framework. The 31-person working group met in Washington, D.C., for two days in May 1993 and completely reenvisioned the framework, fostering an interdisciplinary approach that reflected more accurately the kinds of questions about culture and society that are meaningful to scholars and to the general public today. The group struggled with issues of chronology, periodization, regionalism, cultural diversity, prioritizing of the past, and the need to shift to a perceptual framework that asked not only "what happened" but also "how and why." For the first time, the framework responded to the riches of social history.

What emerged from the 1993 meeting was a transformed thematic framework with eight concepts that span the broad ranges of human activities: peopling places, creating social institutions and movements, expressing cultural values, shaping the political landscape, developing the American economy, expanding science and technology, transforming the environment, and the changing role of the United States in the world community. Under each theme, the group listed topics that help define the theme and offered illustrations using specific sites. The working group emphasized the way the concepts overlap, and the meeting's report graphically showed the broad themes as a set of interlocking circles. The participants sought a structure that would capture the complexity and meaning of human experience in the past and make that a coherent, integrated whole. In addition to the broad themes, the narrative portion of the report stressed that connecting the eight concepts are three historical building blocks: people, time, and place.

The goal of the revision was to provide a basic intellectual context for evaluating and interpreting the prehistoric and historic resources under the aegis of the NPS. Instead of separating historical and anthropological concerns into separate spheres, as had been the case in earlier frameworks, this new framework connects them. While the old framework set up multiple, but largely exclusive, compartments, the revised framework makes clear that at any given site multiple themes will simultaneously be relevant. Furthermore, the new framework encourages a more thorough examination of cultural and social processes. It invites interdisciplinary consideration of larger trends. It fosters discussion of fundamental social and economic structures and an analysis of change over time. In using the revised thematic framework, NPS staff will recognize more readily the larger implications and research possibilities of a site and better answer such key questions as "Why does this place really matter?" For example, the old thematic framework invited users to end their discussion simply by saying "This is a significant Revolutionary War site," connected either with politics and diplomacy, or with one of the theaters of military action in that war. The current themes, instead, pose questions about how such a place may shed light upon demographics and community building, the development and expression of ideologies and social and political institutions, and foreign relations. These themes ask NPS planners, historians, archaeologists, and ethnographers to stay focused on fundamental aspects of human endeavors and social relationships, in keeping with interdisciplinary approaches in current scholarship.

The National Park Service has been using the revised framework for several years in various planning efforts. It was used, for example, when the NPS embarked on a congressionally mandated planning venture called the Lower Mississippi Delta Region Heritage Study. The broad themes of the framework were the organizing principles for a set of "Stories of the Delta." The framework is also providing structure for a National Historic Landmark study called "The Earliest Americans."

The NPS thematic framework also has potential to improve the design of park interpretive programs. In practice, the previous frameworks had been mainly used for the evaluation of proposals for NHLs and additions to the National Park System. It had little impact on interpretive and educational programs in established parks. The revised framework is a vastly better tool for those purposes. Planners, educators, historians, archeologists, and ethnographers can look at this framework as a checklist of potential questions to ensure a broad view of what NPS staff and visitors should understand about the important contexts of a park's history.

At this point, NPS staff are still fleshing out the implications of the framework. Although many of them recognize the theoretical advantages the framework represents, some are skeptical about its practical utility. However, dealing with ambiguities and complexities is what this framework requires. This necessitates a shift in thinking for people accustomed to the old framework's pigeonholes. As a tool, this thematic framework has the potential of making various NPS programs not merely more complex, but truer to the many-faceted and polyglot nature of our cultures and societies.

Laura Feller is on the staff of the chief historian of the National Park Service and presently serves on the board of the National Council on Public History. Page Putnam Miller is the director of the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History.

Birth of the National Park Service

But others preached preservation and lamented the lack of an overarching federal management that could make this possible. In 1915 a millionaire industrialist named Stephen Mather began a crusade to establish a distinct National Park Service dedicated to the preservation ideal. Mather garnered support from titans of industry, as well as schoolchildren, newspapers, and even the National Geographic Society. (See more about National Geographic and the national parks.)

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@ Mendocino & PelesTears- The national park system is loaded with snapshots of American wilderness. I have a few friends that take part of the summer off to visit new places and parks. They are total outdoors people, and they enjoy camping, fishing, and hiking all over the country. Every summer they bring back pictures of their most recent adventure, and it is out of this world.

I moved a cross country a few years ago, and their journey has inspired me to drive and camp on the way. I drove with my girlfriend (who is now my fiancée) and stopped at a few different parks. We hit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee, White Sands in New Mexico, and Zion in Utah before ending our journey in Lake Tahoe. It was a memorable trip, and we are hoping to drive back across the northern states, stopping at different parks on the way. PelesTears August 26, 2010

@ Mendocino- I have never been to Yellowstone, but I have heard it is amazing. I have been to Olympic National Park in Washington, and it is one of the most beautiful wilderness areas in the country. I went fly fishing with my grandfather and family when I was younger. The park is filled with winding streams and rivers, rocky shorelines, beaches, and thick dense northern rain forests.

When I was young I used to watch Grizzly Adams, and Olympic National Forest reminds me of the scenery in that movie. The area is loaded with wildlife, and Native American culture is prevalent. It has been about twenty years since I have been there, but I would love to take my family to Olympic for a camping trip. mendocino April 26, 2008

What a grand and visionary idea it was to create national parks. They give us all a chance to slow down, to ground us, and make us realize that we are part of something larger.

Yellowstone is one of those places, a gigantic mass of land whose grandeur humbles you. It is home to a diversity of wildlife, and unique to Yellowstone, geysers, such as Old Faithful that erupts on a regular basis.

Yellowstone has a policy of putting animals first, and people have to stay out of the way. You can not but stand in awe as you watch a herd of bison moving freely through the park, or observe elks resting in a clearing.

Brief History of the National Parks

Many of America's most scenic and historic places have been set aside for the use of the public as national parks. "National Parks are spacious land . . . areas essentially in their primeval condition and so outstandingly superior in beauty to average examples of their several types as to demand preservation intact and in their entirety for the enjoyment, education and inspiration of all the people for all time."1 The concept of a "national park" is an American innovation that, in part, grew out of the conservation movement that began in the nineteenth century. When Yellowstone was designated a national park in 1872, it became the first such park in the world.

The burgeoning of American national parks reflected contemporary intellectual, social, and economic changes that to a growing appreciation for wilderness and wildlife, a desire to escape the increasingly urban places that resulted from industrialization, and the popularization of the automobile. With increased awareness of and sensitivity toward nature came the desire to preserve some of the most spectacular landscapes and significant historical and cultural sites for the enjoyment of future generations. Americans wanted to visit these places to experience their beauty firsthand, whether they traveled by train, steamship, or, increasingly, by automobile.

It is no coincidence that the first national park was explored and established in the same decade that saw publication of a great variety of articles and books about nature and wilderness. Several of the writers associated with the national park movement, including Clarence Dutton, Ferdinand V. Hayden, Clarence King, Nathaniel P. Langford, John Muir, and John Wesley Powell, described the spectacular scenery of the western United States. The Appalachian Mountain Club, one of the first private conservation organizations, was founded in 1876 to protect and preserve eastern wilderness areas. The United States Geological Survey, which undertook responsibility for surveying and mapping lands in the national domain, was established as a separate bureau within the Department of the Interior in 1879.

Yellowstone became the first national park in 1872, but the National Park Service was not established until 1916. For four decades the nation's parks, reserves, and monuments were supervised at different times by the departments of War, Agriculture, and the Interior. Although the idea of national parks enjoyed broad popular and congressional support by the early twentieth century, there was some resistance to converting reserves and monuments into new national parks. This was partially the result of a lack of coordinated policy and leadership in financing and administering the parks that already existed. Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane's appointment of Stephen Tyng Mather as the first Superintendent of Parks (1915-29) did much to alter the situation. Mather was a leader in the transformation of the poorly managed and underfinanced national parks and monuments into the centrally administered National Park Service. Under his dynamic leadership, Grand Canyon, Acadia, Bryce, Zion, Lassen, Hawaii, and Mount McKinley National Parks were established. He successfully lobbied for enabling legislation that ensured the future creation of other parks, including those that involved purchase from private owners in the eastern United States, such as Great Smoky Mountains, Shenandoah, and Mammoth Cave.

The national parks of today are public resources for recreation, education, scholarship, and the preservation of endangered landscapes, natural communities, and species. They exist in twenty-five states as well as the Virgin Islands, and include areas as diverse as the "river of grass" that makes up the Everglades, the mountains and valleys of Yosemite, the volcanoes of Hawaii, and the Denali Wilderness of Alaska. Some of them were purchased by private individuals who then generously gave them to the nation others were taken from the public domain in order to protect them from agricultural or commercial development and exploitation.

An important part of each national park's story is reflected in its maps. Each park went through the initial stage of discovery, then exploration, and finally accurate mapping. In the first stages, physical and cultural features were often inaccurately portrayed and some were completely absent from the earliest maps.

Maps tell the story of when and how each park was established, and record physical growth as boundaries were established and expanded. Government mapping, frequently beginning in the discovery and exploration phase, provided an increased understanding of the unique features of an area, such as the locations of bodies of land and water, topographic and geological attributes, and the presence of historic and cultural artifacts.

Commercial mapping, often based on geographic data obtained from government surveys and products, enhances access to and use of the parks. Excellent trail maps and other kinds of thematic maps are produced primarily by commercial firms. Much of the commercial material is protected by copyright and could not be included in this online collection.

Among the most current maps of the national parks are those produced by the National Park Service for official park brochures. Roads, trails, campsites, and other amenities that enable the public to experience more fully the unique features of the park are shown on these maps, which are frequently updated to reflect changes in land use. The close relationship between map and park is symbolized and reinforced by the presentation of a Park Service map to visitors as they pass through the park gateway to explore a special place that has been set aside and preserved for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.

1. Devereux Butcher, Exploring our National Parks and Monuments, 6th ed. rev. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1969), p.356.

1933-1942: Putting people to work in national parks.

In 1933, the U.S. was in the depths of the Great Depression. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sought to change that by putting the unemployed to work through the Civilian Conservation Corps, while also conserving the country’s national resources. Groups of men fanned out across the country, planting billions of trees, fighting wildfires and building roads and trails at places like Shenandoah and Glacier national parks. Today, parks continue to be economic powerhouses by driving travel and tourism to the surrounding communities. For every $1 invested in the National Park Service, it returns $10 to the U.S. economy.

Called the Crown of the Continent, Glacier National Park is a sight to behold with pristine forests, alpine meadows, rugged mountains, and spectacular lakes. During the 1930s and 40s, the Civilian Conservation Corps constructed buildings, trails and roads, but most importantly, they helped suppress forest fires in the area. Photo by National Park Service.

The ‘Biggest Season in the History of the National Park Service’ Predicted for This Year

Leaders of a U.S. Senate panel on Wednesday extolled national parks for providing a respite during the COVID-19 pandemic, but cautioned that enthusiasm for outdoors recreation will create its own problems in this summer’s tourism wave.

Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent and the chairman of a subcommittee that oversees the U.S. National Park Service, said this summer would “be the biggest season in the history of the Park Service,” and ranking Republican Steve Daines of Montana agreed with that prediction.

To help with overcrowding, the National Park Service plans to launch a public education campaign Thursday to encourage visitors to make plans and reservations in advance, acting director Shawn Benge told senators.

Benge also said the government was considering options including timed entry and limiting numbers. The Park Service would also offer real-time digital communications to let visitors know when parking lots are full, for example.

King, Daines and other senators cast the increased interest in parks as a positive development, but said it also posed challenges related to congestion and already-strained parks infrastructure.

While 2020 attendance to the National Park System decreased by about 28%, some parks broke monthly attendance records as Americans sought outdoor recreation opportunities in the U.S. during the pandemic, since both international travel and indoor gatherings were limited.

Members of the subcommittee praised the parks’ abilities to provide spaces to improve mental and physical health during a difficult period.

“I truly believe our national parks were a refuge for many Americans during the pandemic,” Daines said. “It was good for the soul when Americans visited their national parks.”

But with many international destinations still difficult to reach, and some COVID-19 restrictions still in place, senators said they expect swarms of visitors to national parks.

“One of the problems we’re encountering is a kind of inherent tension of loving places to death,” King said. “In our committee room, we have pictures of beautiful parks, but we also have pictures of huge traffic jams in places like Acadia and Yosemite.”

King said several times he hoped to hold another hearing specifically on congestion in national parks, adding that it was a difficult balance to allow maximum access to the parks but not diminish the experience. Congress and the Park Service may try and disperse visitors to less-visited parks and parts of parks, King said.

Long lines

Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, who produced a 2009 PBS series celebrating national parks, testified at the hearing that he viewed the long lines to get in park entrances as a good problem, comparing it to the long lines to vote in his small New Hampshire town. Burns’ film company is based in Walpole.

Visits to national parks may still look different this year, as some mask mandates and other policies like limits on shuttle buses are still in place.

Under President Joe Biden’s executive orders, the Interior Department and other executive branch agencies set mask policy for national parks based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, Benge said. The circumstances of the pandemic are likely to change in coming months and rule changes would likely follow, he said.

For now, unvaccinated employees, contractors and volunteers must wear masks inside parks buildings and outside when distancing is not possible, according to the National Park Service website. Visitors “should” take similar action, the website says.

U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono, (D-Hawaii), asked Benge about implementing a formal reservation system, like the one her state’s Haleakalā National Park uses for sunrise visits, as a way to regulate crowds.

But Sen. Mike Lee, (R-Utah), registered his “strong opposition” to any such plans, saying they could reduce access.

Benge said the government was considering options including timed entry and limiting numbers. The Park Service would also offer real-time digital communications to let visitors know when parking lots are full, for example.

Even before the expected boom this year, parks faced a challenge in maintaining roads, bridges, buildings and other infrastructure. A September 2018 National Park Service study estimated the agency’s 419 units faced $11.9 billion in overdue maintenance needs.

Daines said the short supply of housing for parks employees was also an issue. Yellowstone National Park recently upgraded its employee housing, but many other parks need more, he said.

Last year’s passage of the Great American Outdoors Act, a law to provide mandatory funding for parks, was intended to eat into that backlog, but the law’s effects haven’t fully been realized yet. King asked Benge to have the Interior Department provide a report on the law’s implementation and the department’s plans to use it.

Hirono asked Benge if the Park Service needed more funding to address climate change, especially in coastal parks, adding that Congress could help.

Benge answered that the administration prioritized climate change, but did not know specifically what resources it needed.

‘Magnificent waterfalls,’ sweeping views

In his opening statement, Burns urged senators to continue working to preserve parkland, speaking in the soaring language viewers of his works would recognize.

“At the heart of the National Park idea is the notion that every American – whether their ancestors came over on the Mayflower or were here to begin with, or whether they just arrived, whether they’re from a big city or a farm, whether their father runs a factor or their mother is a maid—every American is part-owner of some of the best seafront property in the nation,” Burns said.

“They own magnificent waterfalls and stunning views of majestic mountains and gorgeous canyons. They have a stake in making sure that… these places are preserved for their children and their children’s children, forever.”

Originally published by the Ohio Capital Journal. Republished here with permission.

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Captain Charles Young Leads Projects at Sequoia 

Garrisoned during the winter at the Presidio of San Francisco, Young rode with his men to the Sierra Nevada for the summer, where they were stationed, undertaking significant construction park projects.

The Buffalo Soldiers constructed new infrastructure, including the wagon road leading into the Sequoia’s Giant Forest, the trail to the top of Mount Whitney, and the arboretum in Yosemite. In addition, they patrolled local businesses in the surrounding areas, keeping poachers at bay. In addition to Yosemite, Sequoia and General Grant Parks, the Buffalo Soldiers also served as rangers in Hawaii and Glacier National Parks.

In 1903, Young was named acting superintendent of Sequoia National Park, the first African American to hold that position.

The contributions that Young and the Buffalo Soldiers made in the development of the national parks had a profound impact. Young, a lover of ecology and nature, made suggestions to the Secretary of Interior on preserving vegetation and stopping erosion, says Shellum. And the presence of Young and the 9th Cavalry protecting the terrain helped to diffuse some of the racist perceptions of African Americans that whites held. 

In 1903, when President Theodore Roosevelt traveled to San Francisco to visit Yosemite, the 9th Cavalry served as his escort, a historic honor for Young and his men.

“He always held himself to a much higher standard than anybody else,” says Shellum. “He always knew that in order to be successful in the Army, he had to walk this color line. And he always had to be much better than any other officer, in order to gain some measure of acceptance.”


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