T. Mather, Superintendent's Conference, October 1925, Mesa Verde National
NATIONAL PARK SERVICE
A Brief History
Barry Mackintosh 1999
of the National Park Service must begin with the parks that preceded it
and prompted its creation.
park concept is generally credited to the artist George Catlin. On a trip
to the Dakotas in 1832, he worried about the impact of America's westward
expansion on Indian civilization, wildlife, and wilderness. They might
be preserved, he wrote, "by some great protecting policy of government...
in a magnificent park.... A nation's park, containing man and beast, in
all the wild and freshness of their nature's beauty!"
vision was partly realized in 1864, when Congress donated Yosemite Valley
to California for preservation as a state park. Eight years later, in
1872, Congress reserved the spectacular Yellowstone country in the Wyoming
and Montana territories "as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the
benefit and enjoyment of the people." With no state government there yet
to receive and manage it, Yellowstone remained in the custody of the U.S.
Department of the Interior as a national park-the world's first area so
followed the Yellowstone precedent with other national parks in the 1890s
and early 1900s, including Sequoia, Yosemite (to which California returned
Yosemite Valley), Mount Rainier, Crater Lake, and Glacier. The idealistic
impulse to preserve nature was often joined by the pragmatic desire to
promote tourism: western railroads lobbied for many of the early parks
and built grand rustic hotels in them to boost their passenger business.
nineteenth century also saw growing interest in preserving prehistoric
Indian ruins and artifacts on the public lands. Congress first moved to
protect such a feature, Arizona's Casa Grande Ruin, in 1889. In 1906 it
created Mesa Verde National Park, containing dramatic cliff dwellings
in southwestern Colorado, and passed the Antiquities Act authorizing presidents
to set aside "historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of
historic or scientific interest" in federal custody as national monuments.
Theodore Roosevelt used the act to proclaim 18 national monuments before
he left the presidency. They included not only cultural features like
El Morro, New Mexico, site of prehistoric petroglyphs and historic inscriptions,
but natural features like Arizona's Petrified Forest and Grand Canyon.
Congress later converted many of these natural monuments to national parks.
the Interior Department was responsible for 14 national parks and 21 national
monuments but had no organization to manage them. Interior secretaries
had asked the Army to detail troops to Yellowstone and the California
parks for this purpose. There military engineers and cavalrymen developed
park roads and buildings, enforced regulations against hunting, grazing,
timber cutting, and vandalism, and did their best to serve the visiting
public. Civilian appointees superintended the other parks, while the monuments
received minimal custody. In the absence of an effective central administration,
those in charge operated without coordinated supervision or policy guidance.
were also vulnerable to competing interests, including some within the
ascendent conservation movement. Utilitarian conservationists favoring
regulated use rather than strict preservation of natural resources advocated
the construction of dams by public authorities for water supply, power,
and irrigation purposes. When San Francisco sought to dam Yosemite's Hetch
Hetchy Valley for a reservoir after the turn of the century, the utilitarian
and preservationist wings of the conservation movement came to blows.
Over the passionate opposition of John Muir and other park supporters,
Congress in 1913 permitted the dam, which historian John Ise later called
"the worst disaster ever to come to any national park."
highlighted the institutional weakness of the park movement. While utilitarian
conservation had become well represented in government by the U.S. Geological
Survey and the Forest and Reclamation services, no comparable bureau spoke
for park preservation in Washington. Among those recognizing the problem
was Stephen T. Mather, a wealthy and well-connected Chicago businessman.
When Mather complained to Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane about
the parks' mismanagement, Lane invited him to Washington as his assistant
for park matters. Twenty-five-year-old Horace M. Albright became Mather's
principal aide upon Mather's arrival in 1915.
for a national parks bureau, Mather and Albright effectively blurred the
distinction between utilitarian conservation and preservation by emphasizing
the economic value of parks as tourist meccas. A vigorous public relations
campaign led to supportive articles in National Geographic, The Saturday
Evening Post, and other popular magazines. Mather hired his own publicist
and obtained funds from 17 western railroads to produce The National Parks
Portfolio, a lavishly illustrated publication sent to congressmen and
other influential citizens.
responded as desired, and on August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson
approved legislation creating the National Park Service within the Interior
Department. The act made the bureau responsible for Interior's national
parks and monuments, Hot Springs Reservation in Arkansas (made a national
park in 1921), and "such other national parks and reservations of like
character as may be hereafter created by Congress." In managing these
areas, the Park Service was directed "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."
Lane named Mather the Park Service's first director and Albright assistant
director. A policy letter Lane approved in 1918 elaborated on the bureau's
dual mission of conserving park resources and providing for their enjoyment.
While reemphasizing the primacy of preservation, it reflected Mather's
and Albright's conviction that more visitors must be attracted and accommodated
if the parks were to flourish. Automobiles, not permitted in Yellowstone
until 1915, would be allowed throughout the system. Hotels would be provided
by concessionaires. Museums, publications, and other educational activities
were encouraged as well.
letter also sought to guide the system's expansion. "In studying new park
projects, you should seek to find scenery of supreme and distinctive quality
or some natural feature so extraordinary or unique as to be of national
interest and importance," it directed. "The national park system as now
constituted should not be lowered in standard, dignity, and prestige by
the inclusion of areas which express in less than the highest terms the
particular class or kind of exhibit which they represent."
the 1920s the national park system was really a western park system. Only
Acadia National Park in Maine lay east of the Mississippi. The West was
home to America's most spectacular natural scenery, and most land there
was federally owned and thus subject to park or monument reservation without
purchase. If the system were to benefit more people and maximize its support
in Congress, however, it would have to expand eastward. In 1926 Congress
authorized Shenandoah, Great Smoky Mountains, and Mammoth Cave national
parks in the Appalachian region but required that their lands be donated.
With the aid of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and other philanthropists, the
states involved gradually acquired and turned over most of the land needed
for these parks in the next decade.
Park Service's greatest opportunity in the East lay in another realm-that
of history and historic sites. Congress had directed the War Department
to preserve a number of historic battlefields, forts, and memorials there
as national military parks and monuments, beginning in 1890 with Chickamauga
and Chattanooga National Military Park in Georgia and Tennessee. After
succeeding Mather as director in 1929, Albright was instrumental in getting
Congress to establish three new historical parks in the East under Park
Service administration. Colonial National Monument, Virginia, which included
Yorktown Battlefield, and Morristown National Historical Park, New Jersey,
the site of Revolutionary War encampments, edged the Park Service into
the War Department's domain.
Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in 1933, Albright accompanied the new
president on a trip to Shenandoah National Park and mentioned his desire
to acquire all the military parks. Roosevelt agreed and directed Albright
to initiate an executive transfer order. Under the order, effective August
10, 1933, the Park Service received not only the War Department's parks
and monuments but the 15 national monuments then held by the Forest Service
as well as the national capital parks, including the Washington Monument,
Lincoln Memorial, and White House. The addition of nearly 50 historical
areas in the East made the park system and Park Service truly national
and deeply involved with historic as well as natural preservation.
launched his New Deal, the Park Service received another mission: depression
relief. Under its supervision the Civilian Conservation Corps employed
thousands of young men in numerous conservation, rehabilitation, and construction
projects in both the national and state parks. The program had a lasting
impact on the Park Service. Many professionals hired under its auspices
remained on the bureau's rolls as career employees, and regional offices
established to coordinate CCC work in the state parks evolved into a permanent
regional system for park administration.
1930s the Park Service also became involved with areas intended primarily
for mass recreation. Begun as depression relief projects, the Blue Ridge
Parkway between Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains national parks and
the Natchez Trace Parkway between Nashville, Tennessee, and Natchez, Mississippi,
were designed for scenic recreational motoring. In 1936, under an agreement
with the Bureau of Reclamation, the Park Service assumed responsibility
for recreational development and activities at the vast reservoir created
by Hoover Dam. Lake Mead National Recreation Area, as it was later titled,
was the first of several reservoir areas in the park system. In 1937 Congress
authorized Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the first of several seashore
and lakeshore areas.
left the Park Service for private business in 1933 and was succeeded by
his able associate director, Arno B. Cammerer. Newton B. Drury, who had
directed the Save-the-Redwoods League in California, followed Cammerer
in 1940. America's entry into World War II a year later forced Drury to
preside over a drastic retrenchment in Park Service activity and defend
the parks against pressures for consumptive uses in the name of national
defense. Timber interests sought Sitka spruce in Olympic National Park
for airplane manufacture. Ranchers and mining companies pressed to open
other parks to grazing and prospecting. Scrap drive leaders eyed historic
cannon at the Park Service's battlefields and forts. Drury successfully
resisted most such demands, which eased as needed resources were found
era brought new pressures on the parks as the nation's energies were redirected
to domestic pursuits. Bureau of Reclamation plans to dam wilderness canyons
in Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado and Utah touched off a conservation
battle recalling Hetch Hetchy. Interior Secretary Oscar L. Chapman's decision
to support the project contributed to Drury's resignation in March 1951.
But this time the park preservationists won: Congress finally declined
to approve the Dinosaur dams.
Wirth, a landscape architect and planner who had led the Park Service's
CCC program, became director in December 1951. Facing a park system with
a deteriorating infrastructure overwhelmed by the postwar travel boom,
he responded with Mission 66, a ten-year, billion-dollar program to upgrade
facilities, staffing, and resource management by the bureau's fiftieth
anniversary in 1966. A hallmark of Mission 66 was the park visitor center,
a multiple-use facility with interpretive exhibits, audiovisual programs,
and other public services. By 1960, 56 visitor centers were open or under
construction in parks from Antietam National Battlefield Site, Maryland,
to Zion National Park, Utah.
66 development, criticized by some as overdevelopment, nevertheless fell
short of Wirth's goals-in large part because the Park Service's domain
kept expanding, diverting funds and staff to new areas. Congress added
more than 50 parks to the system during the ten-year period, from Virgin
Islands National Park to Point Reyes National Seashore in California.
Expansion continued apace under George B. Hartzog, Jr., who had superintended
the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis before succeeding
Wirth in 1964. Under his leadership through 1972, the Park Service and
system branched out in several new directions.
resource management was restructured along ecological lines following
a 1963 report by a committee of scientists chaired by A. Starker Leopold.
"As a primary goal, we would recommend that the biotic associations within
each park be maintained, or where necessary recreated, as nearly as possible
in the condition that prevailed when the area was first visited by the
white man," the Leopold Report declared. "A national park should represent
a vignette of primitive America." Environmental interpretation, emphasizing
ecological relationships, and special environmental education programs
for school classes reflected and promoted the nation's growing environmental
history" programs became popular attractions at many historical parks,
ranging from frontier military demonstrations at Fort Davis National Historic
Site, Texas, to period farming at Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial, Indiana.
The Park Service's historical activities expanded beyond the parks as
well. Responding to the destructive effects of urban renewal, highway
construction, and other federal projects during the postwar era, the National
Historic Preservation Act of 1966 authorized the bureau to maintain a
comprehensive National Register of Historic Places. Listed properties-publicly
and privately owned, locally as well as nationally significant-would receive
special consideration in federal project planning and federal grants and
technical assistance to encourage their preservation.
new types of parks joined the system during the Hartzog years. Ozark National
Scenic Riverways in Missouri, authorized by Congress in 1964, foreshadowed
the comprehensive Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, which led to the
acquisition of other free-flowing rivers. On the Great Lakes, Pictured
Rocks and Indiana Dunes became the first national lakeshores in 1966.
The National Trails System Act of 1968 made the Park Service responsible
for the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, running some 2,000 miles from
Maine to Georgia. Gateway National Recreation Area in New York City and
Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco, both established
in 1972, were precedents for other national recreation areas serving metropolitan
Cleveland, Atlanta, and Los Angeles.
bicentennial of the American Revolution in the mid-1970s, the two dozen
historical parks commemorating the Revolution benefited from another big
development program. At Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia
the Park Service reconstructed the house where Thomas Jefferson drafted
the Declaration of Independence, installed elaborate exhibits at the site
of Benjamin Franklin's house, and moved the Liberty Bell to a new pavilion
outside Independence Hall. On July 4, 1976, President Gerald R. Ford,
once a seasonal ranger at Yellowstone, spoke at Independence Hall and
signed legislation making Valley Forge a national historical park.
later, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 more
than doubled the size of the national park system by adding over 47 million
wilderness acres. The largest of the new areas in Alaska, Wrangell-St.
Elias National Park, comprises more than 8,300,000 acres, while the adjoining
Wrangell-St. Elias National Preserve comprises nearly 4,900,000. Together
they cover an area larger than New Hampshire and Vermont combined and
contain the continent's greatest array of glaciers and peaks above 16,000
feet. The national preserve designation was applied to ten of the new
Alaska areas because they allowed certain activities, like sport hunting
and trapping, not permitted in national parks.
E. Dickenson, a former park ranger and manager, took the helm in 1980.
Because the Park Service's funding and staffing had not kept pace with
its growing responsibilities, Dickenson sought to slow the park system's
expansion. The Reagan administration and the Congress that took office
with it in 1981 were of like mind. Rather than creating more parks they
backed Dickenson's Park Restoration and Improvement Program, which allocated
more than a billion dollars over five years to resources and facilities
in existing parks.
Penn Mott, Jr., a landscape architect who had directed California's state
parks when Ronald Reagan was governor, followed Dickenson in 1985. Deeply
interested in interpretation, Mott sought a greater Park Service role
in educating the public about American history and environmental values.
He also returned the bureau to a more expansionist posture, supporting
such additions as Great Basin National Park, Nevada, and Steamtown National
Historic Site, a railroad collection in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Steamtown,
championed by Scranton's congressman for its local economic benefits,
was a costly venture much criticized as an example of "park barrel" politics,
but Mott was convinced of its educational potential.
Ridenour, formerly head of Indiana's Department of Natural Resources,
served as director during the Bush administration (1989-1993). Doubting
the national significance of Steamtown and other proposed parks driven
by economic development interests, he spoke out against the "thinning
of the blood" of the national park system and sought to regain the initiative
from Congress in charting its expansion. He also worked to achieve a greater
financial return to the Park Service from park concessions. In 1990 the
Richard King Mellon Foundation made the largest single park donation yet:
$10.5 million for additional lands at the Antietam, Gettysburg, Fredericksburg,
and Petersburg Civil War battlefields, Pecos National Historical Park,
and Shenandoah National Park.
Kennedy, who had directed the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of American
History, was the Clinton administration's choice to head the Park Service
in 1993. Like Mott, he was especially concerned about expanding the bureau's
educational role and sought to enlarge its presence beyond the parks via
the Internet. His tenure coincided with a government-wide effort to restructure
and downsize the federal bureaucracy, which accelerated after the Republicans
took control of Congress in 1995. The Park Service restructured its field
operations and embarked on a course of reducing its Washington and regional
office staffs by 40 percent.
Robert Stanton became the first career Park Service employee since Dickenson
to head the bureau. Beginning as a ranger, he had most recently served
as regional director of the National Capital Region. An African American,
Stanton took particular interest in increasing the diversity of the Park
Service to better serve minority populations.
As of 1999
the national park system comprises 379 areas in nearly every state and
U.S. possession. In addition to managing these parks-as diverse and far-flung
as Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and the Statue of Liberty National Monument-the
Park Service supports the preservation of natural and historic places
and promotes outdoor recreation outside the system through a range of
grant and technical assistance programs. Major emphasis is placed on cooperation
and partnerships with other government bodies, foundations, corporations,
and other private parties to protect the parks and other significant properties
and advance Park Service programs.
surveys have consistently rated the National Park Service among the most
popular federal agencies. The high regard in which the national parks
and their custodians are held augurs well for philanthropic, corporate,
and volunteer support, present from the beginnings of the national park
movement but never more vital to its prosperity.
Horace M., and Robert Cahn. The Birth of the National Park Service:
The Founding Years, 191333. Salt Lake City: Howe Brothers, 1985.
Horace M, and Marian Albright Schenck. Creating the National Park Service:
The Missing Years. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.
Lary M., ed. America's National Park System: The Critical Documents.
Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1994.
William C. The National Park Service. Boulder, CO: Westview Press,
Ronald A. America's National Parks and Their Keepers. Washington:
Resources for the Future, 1985.
George B., Jr. Battling for the National Parks. Mt. Kisco, NY:
Moyer Bell, 1988.
Charles B., Jr. Preservation Comes of Age: From Williamsburg to the
National Trust, 19261949. 2 vols. Charlottesville: University
Press of Virginia, 1981.
Our National Park Policy: A Critical History. Baltimore: Johns
Hopkins Press, 1961.
Barry. The National Parks: Shaping the System. Washington: National
Park Service, 1991.
Dwight F. Our National Park System: Caring for America's Greatest Natural
and Historic Treasures. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995.
James M. The National Parks Compromised: Pork Barrel Politics and America's
Treasures. Merrillville, IN: ICS Books, 1994.
Hal K. Preserving Different Pasts: The American National Monuments.
Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.
National Parks: The American Experience. 3d ed. Lincoln: University
of Nebraska Press, 1997.
Robert. Steve Mather of the National Parks. 3d ed. New York: Alfred
A. Knopf, 1976.
Richard West. Preserving Nature in the National Parks: A History.
New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997.
C. Wilderness Defender: Horace M. Albright and Conservation. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1970.
L. Parks, Politics, and the People. Norman: University of Oklahoma
history? Need more info? See our book National
Parks: Shaping the System, available on-line!
to History of the National Park Service page