What is the History of the U.S. National Park Service?

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America’s 32nd President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, once famously said about our national parks, “There is nothing so American as our national parks… The fundamental idea behind the parks…is that the country belongs to the people, that it is in process of making for the enrichment of the lives of all of us.” Without question, our National Park Service represents America’s Best Idea!

His famous words still ring true today. America’s national parks genuinely are places of wonder enjoyed by millions of visitors each year. Have you ever wondered, though, how the National Park Service (NPS) as we know it today came about? The answer lies in a deep, rich, and exciting part of our nation’s history.

America’s first national park, Yellowstone, was established in 1872. The National Park Service itself was established in 1916 and manages 424 individual units consisting of over 85 million acres in all 50 states. 

In this article, we’ll discuss the following topics:

  • America’s first national park
  • The creation of the Antiquities Act of 1906 
  • The establishment of the National Park Service in 1916
  • How the Reorganization Act of 1933 changed the NPS
  • The National Park Service as it exists today

1872 – Yellowstone, America’s First National Park

On March 1, 1872, the Yellowstone National Park Act was signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant. This made Yellowstone the country’s first actual national park. 

Over two million acres of land from the public domain within the territories of Wyoming and Montana were set aside. They could not be settled upon, occupied, or sold off. This land was effectively “dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

Yellowstone was placed under the authority and supervision of the Secretary of the Interior. The Secretary was responsible for preserving and protecting resources such as timber, mineral deposits, geologic wonders, and other vital resources within the park.

castle geyser upper geyser basin national park wyoming
Painting titled, “The Castle Geyser, Upper Geyser Basin” by Thomas Moran in 1874. Such artwork shared the first images of the Yellowstone volcano with the general public back east. NPS photo

1906 – Creation of the Antiquities Act of 1906 

On June 8, 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act of 1906 into law. This act gave presidents the power to establish national monuments to preserve areas of natural or historical interest on public lands. Under this act, presidents can proclaim “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest” on U.S. territory as “national monuments.”

This act was widely created due to outcries from a growing movement that sought to preserve the prehistoric cliff dwellings, Pueblo ruins, and early missions of the Southwestern United States

The act also outlawed antiquities on federal lands from being excavated without permission from the department that had jurisdiction.

Of all the units presently incorporated in the National Park Service, around a quarter have originated entirely or partly from the Antiquities Act.

President Theodore Roosevelt and conservationist John Muir pose for a photograph on Overhanging Rock at the top of Glacier Point, Yosemite National Park
President Theodore Roosevelt and conservationist John Muir pose for a photograph on Overhanging Rock at the top of Glacier Point, Yosemite National Park, c. 1903. NPS photo

1916 – Establishment of the National Park Service

By August of 1916, the Department of Interior supervised 14 national parks, 21 national monuments, and the Hot Springs and Casa Grande Ruin reservations. However, there wasn’t a consolidated organization or form of leadership that operated them. Because of this lack of leadership, many parks and monuments were in danger from competing interests. 

Future park directors Stephen T. Mather and Horace Albright, as well as the National Geographic Society, journalists, railroad interests and other organizations, pushed for establishing an organization that would ultimately be in charge of the parks. 

Because of this, congress passed what is frequently referred to as the Organic Act. The Organic Act helped to establish the National Parks Service and immediately put all current parks under its jurisdiction and management. This critical legislation helped set the stage for the NPS’s ultimate mission and helped exemplify its policies and philosophies. 

early park rangers near Grant Grove, Sequoia National Park
Photograph of some early park rangers near Grant Grove, Sequoia National Park, c. 1912. NPS photo

1933 – The Reorganization Act 

When the Reorganization Act was passed in 1933, it enormously impacted the NPS. The act gave the president the authority to hand over national monuments from one government department to another.

All of the War Department’s parks and monuments were turned over to the NPS that year. Additionally, national monuments managed by the Department of Agriculture and the sites incorporated in the national capital parks in Washington, DC were given to the NPS. In total, this reorganization gave the NPS 57 new areas. 

The Reorganization Act of 1933 resulted in several more important changes, including:

  • Combining all the national parks and monuments into one unified National Park Service
  • The expansion and bolstering of the newly developed preservation program by adding all federally owned national military parks, battlefield sites, and shrines into the NPS system. These included Gettysburg, Antietam, Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Fort McHenry
  • The incorporation of national memorials like the Washington Monument and the Statute of Liberty
  • The inclusion of National Capital public buildings and parks into the system
Twilight at Washington National Monument located in Washington D.C.
Twilight at Washington National Monument located in Washington D.C.

Present Day – Current state of the NPS

Currently, the NPS oversees 424 individual units spanning more than 85 million acres in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories. There are at least 19 naming designations, but more often than not, these units are frequently referred to as just “parks.”

It’s also possible for multiple parks to be managed together as an administrative unit within the National Park Service.

National parks are growing in popularity each year, and as such, many parks experience high visitation numbers. America’s national parks saw 297,115,406 recreation visits in 2021 from all the NPS units combined. 

Famous parks such as Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Blue Ridge Parkway, and Golden Gate National Recreation Area saw over 10 million visitors each. 

In a post-pandemic world, more people than ever are looking for opportunities to get outdoors. Because of this, some parks have become so popular they now require reservations. 

These reservations are put in place for traffic and crowd management. They also serve to protect many of the park’s precious resources and landscapes. As ever more people visit the parks, it looks like many of the reservation systems are here to stay. 

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, the NPS is an extraordinary organization that many enjoy today. It is an original and uniquely American idea. The park service has a remarkable and sometimes complex history. It took decades of change and adjustment for the NPS to exist as we see it today. 

America’s first national park, Yellowstone, set a precedent for putting natural reserves within federal authority. 

The Antiquities Act of 1906 permitted the creation of national monuments to preserve areas of natural or historical interest on public lands.

The establishment of the National Park Service in 1916 allowed this new federal bureau to be responsible for protecting national parks and monuments and those yet to be established.

The Reorganization Act of 1933 allowed then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to combine all existing federal parks, historical sites, and monuments under the jurisdiction of the NPS. 

Today, the units that make up the NPS consist of hundreds of unique, historical, and beautiful parks that have made their way into the hearts of millions of visitors every year. 

Were you aware of the rich, fascinating history of the National Park Service?

About Me

My husband and I have three precious daughters and live in the Kansas City, KS area. One of our favorite things to do is travel across the country visiting our extraordinary US National Parks!

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Happy Travels! Sandy