History of the National Park Service

By: Thomas Edgar

On March 1, 1872, Ulysses S. Grant designated Yellowstone as the United States’ first national park.[1] It could not have been known at the time that this would lead to a network of hundreds more national parks as well as national monuments. It also could not have been known a new bureau of the federal government needed to be formed in order to manage these parks and monuments. The National Park Service currently manages 397 national areas.[2] Its mission is to “Preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.”[3]

The purpose of the National Parks System was and remains twofold. The first goal was to conserve areas important to the heritage of the United States. The second goal was to create an environment conducive to tourism. It was the hope that the citizens of the United States would visit the beauty provided by the vast landscape of the country.[4] The Antiquities Act of 1906 was signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt. The act reserves the right for the President to designate national monuments. It is one of the first pieces of legislation enacted to help preserve the heritage of the United States as well indigenous peoples. The act reflects a belief  that archeological sites and artifacts are important public resources.[5]

The Department of the Interior is responsible for the national parks. The army was originally designated to manage Yellowstone and parks in California, while other parks were run by civilians. Stephen T. Mather, a business man from Chicago, believed that the National Parks were not being managed appropriately. Mather was aided by Horace M. Albright. Both men suggested that there be a greater emphasis placed on the economic value of the parks. They launched a media campaign outlining their plan for the national parks which involved the creation of a service to manage the parks. The campaign worked, and on August 2h, 1916 Woodrow Wilson signed the Organic Act into law.[6]

The Organic Act established the National Parks Service (NPS) under the Department of the Interior. Stephen T. Mather served as its first director with Albright serving as assistant director. The mission of the NPS was, and remains, to promote the use of the parks by the public while conserving the areas at the same time.[7] At times these two goals have come into conflict. The Organic Act stipulates that if public use impairs the conservation effort then the conservation effort takes precedence. The Organic Act did not stipulate how the NPS was to run the parks. This is because each park requires its own management requirements based on the needs of the park. The interpretation of the United States Justice Department explains how the Organic Act allows for parks to have the freedom to manage themselves, “The Organic Act provides the NPS with the authority to make such regulations as it deems …necessary or proper for the use and management of the parks.’”[8] In 1970 an amendment known as the National Park System General Authorities Act was added to the Organic Act. This act placed all of the national parks under the same mission of carrying out the Organic Act. It further stipulated that all of the parks fall under one management system, but manage themselves as specific needs arise. This sentiment was expressed again when the NPS released its Management Policy in 2006.[9] The Management Policy is a handbook which dictates how all parks are to be managed.

The National Parks System has helped the United States since its conception in not only providing for tourism, but also providing work in times of national duress. The parks played a large role in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. The Civilian Conservation Corps employed thousands of men to work in the parks. Their work involved projects dealing with conservation, rehabilitation, and other various constructions. This work helped to alleviate some of the financial pressures brought on by the Great Depression while also beautifying the parks.[10]

The NPS, at times, had to fend off pressures from the government. For example, during World War II the government attempted several times to extract resources from national parks and monuments to help with the war effort. This conflicted with the mission of the NPS to preserve the areas in their control. The NPS believed that there were other areas that could be exploited for the war effort that were not under park protection. A specific example of this occurred in 1944, when the U.S. military came to the officials in charge of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona asking to use part of the park as a practice bombing range. The NPS members located at Organ Pipe National Monument refused, citing that there were other areas that would be equally useful.[11]

The national park system experienced a travel boom following the war. The parks became overwhelmed, causing Conrad L. Wirth, the parks director, to initiate Mission 66. This billion dollar project involved the renovation of the infrastructure of the parks to better suit the public. This included the creation of park visitor centers. The project was completed in ten years. The national parks system continued to expand until the 1980s when NPS director Russell E. Dickenson believed that funding and staffing could not keep up. Dickenson proposed to slow the growth of the system and focus on renovating the parks currently in place. The project was aptly named, the Park Restoration and Improvement Program. This was similar to Mission 66 in that it focused on renovating infrastructure and would carry a billion-dollar price tag. In 1985 NPS Director William Penn Mott, Jr., returned the park system to an expansive stance. He also wanted the National Park Service to place a greater emphasis on educating the public in both American history as well as environmental values.[12]

The National Park Service continues to manage the nation’s parks, and conserve its history, while allowing visitors to experience it at the same time. As of today it appears as though the number of NPS members is going to start to diminish due to lack of funding. The Obama administration has actually increased the park budget.  These funds, however, have been allocated to pay for higher insurance and rents affiliated with running the parks. The NPS currently has 28,000 employees for 397 parks and other areas.[13]


[1] National Park Service, “The National Park Service,” History E-Library, http://www.cr.nps.gov/history/hisnps/NPSHistory/npshisto.htm (accessed April 3, 2012).

[2] National Parks Conservation Association, “Frequently Asked Questions,” About Us, http://www.npca.org/about-us/faq.html#difference (accessed April 15, 2012).

[3] National Park Service, “Mission,” National Park Service, http://www.nps.gov/aboutus/mission.htm (accessed April 3, 2012).

[4] National Park Service, “The National Park Service,” History E-Library, http://www.cr.nps.gov/history/hisnps/NPSHistory/npshisto.htm (accessed April 3, 2012).

[5] Archeology Program, “Antiquities Act 1906-2006,” National Park Service, http://www.nps.gov/archeology/sites/antiquities/about.htm (accessed April 3, 2012).

[6] National Park Service, “The National Park Service,” History E-Library, http://www.cr.nps.gov/history/hisnps/NPSHistory/npshisto.htm (accessed April 3, 2012).

[7] Ibid.

[8] “National Park Service Organic Act,” The United States Department of Justice, http://www.justice.gov/enrd/3195.htm (accessed April 3,2012).

[9] Ibid.

[10] National Park Service, “The National Park Service,” History E-Library, http://www.cr.nps.gov/history/hisnps/NPSHistory/npshisto.htm (accessed April 3, 2012).

[11] Charles A. Richey, Santa Fe, AZ, to Director, Region Three, October 20, 1943, Folder: WarEmergency, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Box 95, Central Classified Files, 1907-49, RG 79, NARA-MD.

[12] National Park Service, “The National Park Service,” History E-Library, http://www.cr.nps.gov/history/hisnps/NPSHistory/npshisto.htm (accessed April 3, 2012).

[13] “National park staffing would be cut under Obama budget,” USA Today, http://www.usatoday.com/news/washington/story/2012-02-28/obama-budget-national-parks/53288492/1 (accessed April 4, 2012).

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