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Book Cover to Administrative History: Organizational Structures of the NPS 1917 to 1985 by Russ Olsen. [Image of mountain and tall grass]
Organizational Structures of the NPS 1917 to 1985



current topic Organizational Structure


Organizational Charts

Naturalists, Rangers, & Historians

Senior Administration Officers


Key Staff Officials

Number "Two"

Senior Operations Officers

Organizational Structure of the National Park Service
- 1917 to 1985 -

Administrative History

Organizational Structure

1917 - 1924

Although August 25, 1916, is recognized as the establishment date of the National Park Service, it was not until May 16, 1917, with the appointment of Stephen T. Mather as Director, that a formal structure was established. From a simple beginning the Service has evolved into what is now a highly complex organizational structure. Stephen Mather's "family" organization has grown to an organization of interdependent groups having differing ways of accomplishing work, yet they are still interrelated subsystems of the whole. There is, however, a decided difference in the "family" of yesterday versus the "family" of today. The evolution of National Park Service organizational structure has been the result of both internal and external forces acting on the organization and the people within the organization. Organizational change occurs in all organizations (work, home, church, etc.). What one must consider is that specific actions to initiate organizational change are taken by people, and complex organizations being what they are, those at the head are the primary change agents.

Basically, there are two kinds of organization, formal and informal. The term formal, as it relates to organizational structure, refers only to the fact that those responsible for maintaining the existence of the organization can describe its form in language and symbols such as charts and manuals. An informal organization is that which is not documented or made a part of some sort of continuing record. Such organizational structure definition is not to be confused with how an organization accomplishes its work. The National Park Service has a long history of organizations that work through people moving up, down, or laterally, where "titles" and "report to's" mean little as long as the mission of the Service is or was accomplished.

What is interesting when one looks at the National Park Service organization charts over the years is:

  • With the exception of new program thrusts, program additions or deletions, the organization has functioned with substantially the same supervisory structure.
  • The formal structure, while exhibiting growth has basically remained the same.
  • The organization was and is a social structure, although in the past several years the social aspects of the structure are far more apparent in the field and through the Employees and Alumni Association, the 1916 Society, and the National Park Service Wives Association.
  • There is a line of continuity that stretches back to 1917. People remained a part of the organization for long periods of time.
  • Organizations were developed around people.
  • On the average, there has been some sort of organizational change every 22 months.

Since 1917, there have been periods of time where no formal documentation exists. There are, for example, no official, formally approved organization charts for 1917, 1918, 1920 through 1924, the mid-1940's, 1964, 1967, mid-1970, 1971, and 1982. A reason for this may be that prior to 1955, organizational approval was vested in the Director of the National Park Service. After 1954, organizational approval was held at the agency (Department of the Interior) level with the establishment of a Departmental Manual (the National Park Service portion of the Departmental Manual is Part 145). However, for the period 1916 to 1985 we were able to locate more than 55 examples of formal and informal descriptions of organizations from which it was possible to develop 38 organizational depictions. These sources ranged from National Archives documents to telephone directories.

As one looks at the organizational structure there have probably been no more than eight major changes in how the Service was organized to accomplish its mission. As examples, the following might be considered as major:

  • First organization in 1917 (for obvious reasons).
  • Establishment of program Assistant Directors in the 1920's.
  • Effect of Executive Order 61661 and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) program in the 1930's.
  • The establishment of Regional Offices in the late 1930's.
  • The establishment of centralized design and construction offices in the 1950's.
  • The establishment of the Office of Archeology and Historic Preservation in the 1960's.
  • The establishment of the Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service in the 1970's.
  • The abolishment of the Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service in the 1980's.

Expressed as an opinion not substantiated by known fact, the remainder of the changes were more process changes or changes in flow as to who accomplished the business of the Service. In assessing and describing the organization, an hypothesis was drawn that an organization takes on the flavor of those individuals at the head of the organization. For example, Mather's interests revolved around the management of the parks, which was one of the reasons that Franklin Lane appointed him. His organizations were small central offices designed to meet necessary park needs. As there was a recognition of increased need, his apparent thrusts were to put the needs close to the parks.

In its beginnings (1917 through 1918), the Headquarters appears to have been a small policy and oversight office for the national parks and monuments, as well as a housekeeping function vested in a Chief Clerk who was responsible for routine bureau activities (personnel, mail and files, small purchases, and accounts). In 1919, Engineering and Landscape Engineering appeared as identifiable functions and were located in a series of offices on the West Coast (see chart #2). Location of offices in the west (in Los Angeles, California, in Portland, Oregon, in the Underwood Building in San Francisco, California, and on the Berkeley campus of the University of California) made sense, as prior to 1933 the majority of the national parks and monuments were west of the Mississippi River. If one traced the Design, Planning, and Construction functions they would date from this period. Although not showing up on an organizational chart until he replaced Daniel Hull, Thomas C. Vint was on board in the early 1920's. His influence on planning and design was to continue through the early 1960's and still continues today. Individuals who worked for Vint branched out over the years to become regional directors and park superintendents and to occupy other high level positions.

1 Executive Order 6166 transferred 2 National Parks, 11 Military Parks, 10 Battlefield sites, 10 National Monuments, 3 miscellaneous memorials, and 11 National Cemeteries from the War Department to the Office of National Parks, Buildings and Reservations of the Department of the Interior.




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