National Park System

views updated May 29 2018


NATIONAL PARK SYSTEM. The national park system preserves the natural and cultural resources of the United States for the benefit of present and future generations. A total of 384 units, spanning 83.6 million acres in forty-nine states, fall under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service (NPS), the federal bureau responsible for the protection, management, and maintenance of designated areas. National parks are customarily established by act of Congress on the advice of the secretary of the interior, although the president retains the right to create national monuments under the Antiquities Act. Preserved by virtue of their natural, recreational, or historic value, the national park system encompasses an array of sites including parks, monuments, battlefields, and scenic rivers, as well as structures such as the White House and the Statue of Liberty. Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska represents the largest unit in the system at 13.2 million acres, while the Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial in Pennsylvania comprises the smallest at one-fiftieth of an acre. The first person to describe the reserves under NPS tutelage as part of a system was the service's assistant director Horace M. Albright in 1918, although only in 1970 did Congress officially recognize the individual units and their united purpose as "cumulative expressions of a single national heritage." The national park ideal is regarded by many as America's greatest contribution to world culture; according to western novelist Wallace Stegner, it is "the best idea we ever had." By the end of the twentieth century, a global national park movement predicated on preserving scenic and historic landscapes counted 1,200 reserves worldwide.

The Birth of the National Park Movement

The nineteenth-century artist George Catlin is usually credited as the original exponent of the national park ideal. Concerned at the rapid decimation of indigenous peoples and wildlife brought about by westward expansionism, Catlin proposed the creation of "A nation's park, containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their nature's beauty!" during a trip to the Dakotas in 1832. The same year, Congress moved to protect a natural feature for the first time, establishing Hot Springs National Reservation, Arkansas, for the purposes of public medicinal use. The dedication of Mount Auburn rural cemetery, Boston (1831), and New York City's Central Park (1861) attested to a growing perception amongst nineteenth-century Americans of nature as a bucolic refuge from city life. The tenets of romanticism, as manifested in the writings of Henry David Thoreau and the paintings of Thomas Cole, celebrated wild nature as a sublime venue for contemplation and spiritual renewal. From the 1850s onward, cultural nationalists looked to the grandeur of western scenery as a harbinger of national greatness, with pure and imposing vistas evincing a proud heritage to rival the cathedrals of Europe.

A newfound appreciation of rugged landscapes as natural and cultural treasures, allied with a desire to avoid the profligate commercialism that had sullied the natural resplendence of Niagara Falls, underscored the early American national park movement. Mindful of attempts by businessmen to capitalize on the popularity of the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees since their discovery in the early 1850s, Congress ceded forty square miles in the High Sierras to the State of California for "public use, resort, and recreation" in 1864. Eight years later, in 1872, the government withdrew 3,300 square miles of rocky terrain, spouting geysers, and plunging waterfalls in Wyoming and Montana territories to create Yellowstone National Park. The establishment of Yellowstone "as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people" is generally regarded as the formal beginning of the national park system. While the protective ideals encompassed in the Yellowstone Act resembled the Yosemite example, the size of the Rocky Mountain reserve, together with its federal jurisdiction, proved unprecedented. The setting aside of vast swaths of land under the auspices of governmental protection represented a significant exception to the culture of acquisition and conquest that predominated in nineteenth-century American society, although the smooth passage of the Yellowstone bill in part reflected the worthlessness of the high country for extractive or agricultural purposes.

Despite the precedent established in Yellowstone, it took eighteen years for Congress to found another park that endured into the twentieth century, as Mackinac National Park, Michigan (1875), was abolished in 1895. Aided by railroad companies eager to profit from park-related tourism, the movement to furnish additional national parks gained momentum in the 1890s. Yosemite, General Grant, and Sequoia, all in California, attained national park status in 1890, reflecting burgeoning desires to protect grandiose western scenery. Dedicated in 1899, Mount Rainier, Washington, became the first reserve to be labeled a national park in its enabling legislation.

Congress also acquired an interest in preserving Native American ruins and artifacts during this period. Motivated by concerns over wanton vandalism and looting of prehistoric sites in the Southwest, Congress enacted legislation to protect Casa Grande Ruin, Arizona (1889), and Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado (1906). The Antiquities Act, passed in 1906, allowed the president to establish national monuments for the preservation of archaeological sites, historic structures, and features of scientific merit. During his presidency, Theodore Roosevelt designated eighteen national monuments, notably Devils Tower, Wyoming (1906), and Grand Canyon, Arizona (1908).

The National Park Service and the Consolidation of a System

By 1916, the United States boasted fourteen national parks and twenty-one national monuments. However, no presiding institution existed to manage them effectively. Lacking national policy directives, superintendents administered preserves independently, rarely coordinating their actions with equivalent officials in other park units. Compromised management in the fledgling preserves allowed poaching and vandalism to proliferate. Flouting of regulations became so acute that the secretary of the interior dispatched the U.S. Army to Yellowstone and the California parks to thwart market and souvenir hunters. The controversial damming of Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy Valley in 1913 further revealed the vulnerability of national parks to material interests and demonstrated a need for an institutional framework to ensure their protection. In 1916, a cadre of influential conservationists, including the Chicago businessman Stephen T. Mather, the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., J. Horace McFarland from the American Civic Association, and the publicist Robert Sterling Yard, successfully lobbied for the creation of a federal agency to administer park areas. President Woodrow Wilson signed the bill creating the National Park Service (NPS) within the Department of the Interior on 25 August 1916. The purpose of the bureau, as outlined in its enabling legislation (usually described as the Organic Act), was to "promote and regulate the use of Federal areas known as national parks, monuments, and reservations … [and] 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." As only the second agency in the world charged with managing protected environments (the first being Canada's Dominion Parks Branch, founded in 1911), the National Park Service articulated an important commitment to conservation in the United States.

Stephen T. Mather was the first director of the NPS (1916–1929) and was assisted by the California lawyer Horace M. Albright. Together, the two men defined the principal tenets and administrative methodology of the National Park Service. Mather and Albright readily endorsed the agency's dual mandate of preservation and use, firmly believing that securing a rosy future for the NPS depended on rendering the parks popular, and economically lucrative, tourist destinations. Lavish publications such as the National Parks Portfolio (1916), guidebooks, and promotional leaflets advertised America's preserves as scenic playgrounds. The bureau stressed the role of entertainment

in the national park experience. Vacationers savored the delights of bear-feeding shows, Indian rodeos, outdoor sports, and the famous summer firefall at Yosemite's Glacier Point. Administrators advocated the construction of rustic hotels and forged alliances with railroad companies and the American Automobile Association. By 1919, nearly 98,000 vehicles journeyed through the parks, leading two asphalt enthusiasts to herald the automobile as "the greatest aid" to the parks' "popularity and usefulness."

By promoting national parks as valuable recreational resources, Mather and Albright secured appropriations from Congress and fended off attempts by timber, mining, and grazing lobbies to encroach on protected areas. When Albright retired following a term as director (1929– 1933), the national parks had achieved popular success along with security. However, the focus on entertainment had led early authorities into a series of ill-advised management policies. Styling the parks as idyllic resorts, staff engaged in programs of fire suppression, vista clearing, exotic species introduction, and predator control. Early administrators failed to anticipate the problems inherent in promoting preservation alongside use, and subsequent park managers struggled with an array of thorny management issues deriving from the contradictory nature of the dual mandate.

Expansion, Ecology, and Wartime Retrenchment

The 1930s represented a dynamic period of expansion for the national park system. Following a pivotal meeting between Horace Albright and Franklin D. Roosevelt in April 1933, the president signed a decree transferring authority for fifty-six parks and monuments under the auspices of the Agriculture and War Departments to the National Park Service. The reorganization of 10 August 1933 significantly expanded the size and the range of the national park system, conferring authority on the NPS to manage historic as well as natural features. Progress in the realm of historic preservation continued under the direction of Arno B. Cammerer (1933–1940), who presided over an exhaustive survey of nationally significant buildings mandated by the Historic Sites Act (1935). The NPS also broadened its responsibilities for recreational provision with a series of newly designated parks, including Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina/Virginia (1933), and Cape Hatteras National Seashore, North Carolina (1937). Extant national parks received investment in infrastructure as part of New Deal public relief programs. Thousands of unemployed workers attached to the Civilian Conservation Corps serviced the preserves, leading to the construction of roads, trails, and visitor facilities.

With the park system consolidated, staff commenced a detailed appraisal of traditional management priorities. Influenced by the emergent discipline of ecological science, a new generation of resource managers strongly expressed a need to preserve representative landscapes as well as monumental scenery. Advocates stressed the essential role of parks as scientific laboratories, arguing for areas to be protected in their natural condition. Early park programs such as animal shows and predator extermination came under severe criticism. George Wright, Ben Thompson, and Joseph Dixon, biologists in the employ of the newly created Wildlife Division (1933), emerged as champions of "total preservation." In their influential 1933 report, The Fauna of the National Parks, Wright, Thompson, and Dixon raised pertinent questions about the arbitrary boundaries and biotic sustainability of many parks, and extolled "nature itself" rather than inanimate scenery as "perhaps our greatest natural heritage." Scientific reports by Adolph and Olaus Murie in turn demonstrated the contribution of persecuted species such as wolves and coyotes to healthy ecosystems. Subsequent policy changes reflected the rise of ecological thought in NPS philosophy. Predators earned protection as "special charges" of the parks, while personnel phased out bear-feeding events, caged menageries, and the Yosemite fire-fall. The dedication of Everglades National Park (1934), a flat coastal swamp in Florida, communicated a fresh commitment to the preservation of biological systems irrespective of their scenic splendor.

The appointment of Newton B. Drury, a conservationist with the California-based Save the Redwoods League, as NPS director (1940–1951) signified a departure from the Mather-Albright management tradition. Drury's administration represented an era of retrenchment for the national park system. As a result of wartime exigencies, funding plummeted from $21.1 million in 1940 to $4.6 million in 1944, while personnel faced demands that the national parks be opened to forestry, mining, and grazing. The NPS headquarters relocated from Washington, D.C., to Chicago for the duration of World War II, and only reconvened in October 1947. The park system survived such challenges, although Drury resigned in protest over Bureau of Reclamation plans to dam Dinosaur National Monument, Utah.

Mission 66 and the Environmental Revolution

Faced with a national park system suffering from financial neglect and insufficient facilities, Conrad L. Wirth, a landscape architect who had worked in the preserves during the 1930s as part of the Civilian Conservation Corps, became director (1951–1963) and embarked on a massive program of development and investment. Labeled Mission 66, Wirth's ambitious ten-year plan committed more than $1 billion to improving park infrastructure and visitor resources. Park personnel constructed 2,800 miles of new roads, 575 campgrounds, 936 miles of trails, and 114 visitor centers as part of the scheme. The major overhaul came in response to a vast surge in visitation during the post-1945 era, facilitated by increased affluence, affordable transportation, and rising interest in outdoor vacationing. The number of tourists who visited the parks in 1950 reached 33 million, compared to 6 million in 1942.

The environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s exerted a defining influence on the national park system. Influential staff reports during this period articulated a growing environmental ethic shaped by scientific discovery and citizen advocacy. Concerned at the overpopulation of elk in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall convened an advisory board on wildlife management under the chairmanship of biologist A. Starker Leopold. When the committee delivered its report in 1963, it stated that "biotic associations within each park [should] 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." Advertising the preserves as "vignette[s] of primitive America," the report emphasized the importance of natural regulation allied with the restoration of ecological processes. These findings helped refine official NPS philosophy and contributed to diverse management imperatives, from the reinstitution of natural fire regimes to predator reintroduction schemes. During the 1960s and 1970s, an active public environmental lobby, led by the Sierra Club and the National Parks Conservation Association, highlighted the fate of protected areas and their wildlife. Environmentalists pressured the NPS to promote wilderness values and criticized the agency for its historic focus on leisure promotion. In his 1968 book Desert Solitaire, the part-time ranger and radical ecologist Edward Abbey berated the rise of "industrial tourism" and called for the banning of automobiles from national parks, areas that he defined as "holy places."

The national park system underwent a major expansion under the directorship of George B. Hartzog (1964– 1972). Congress inaugurated a series of newly created parks, including Ozark National Scenic Riverways, Missouri (1964), Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan (1966), and North Cascades National Park, Washington (1968). The Gateway National Recreation Area, New York City (1972), and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, San Francisco (1972), satiated demands for open spaces in urban areas.

In 1980, the national park system received a dramatic boost with the addition of forty-seven million acres of Alaskan lands. The dedication of new units under the,

Alaskan National Interest Lands Conservation Act more than doubled the existing park system. Significantly, national preserves allowed the continuance of Native American subsistence activities such as trapping and hunting within their borders, an important recognition of historic indigenous land-use rights in national park territories.

The Challenges of Preservation

By the 1980s, the national park system had grown to encompass a multitude of different units and responsibilities. However, resource allocation failed to keep pace. Funding cutbacks, which proved especially acute under the administration of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, contributed to a $5 billion backlog in park infrastructure improvements and repair projects by the mid-1990s. During the so-called "Sagebrush Rebellion" of the early 1980s, staff dealt with western interest groups and their powerful political representatives who argued for the parks to be opened to commercial and industrial uses. Budgetary constraints and political machinations led to declining morale, evident in the critical appraisal of the system offered by the government-sponsored Vail Report (1991). Resource managers engaged in long-term, and often contentious, strategies for ecological restoration and faced an uphill struggle establishing public-transport systems inside park boundaries. The popularity of national parks as tourist destinations led to concerns over Americans "loving the parks to death." At Grand Canyon National Park, car drivers lined up to catch a glimpse of the famous ravine, while helicopters and light aircraft buzzed overhead. The proliferation of exotic species and encroaching urban development jeopardized the biotic health of many preserves. Sulfur and nitrogen clouds from fossil fuel power plants resulted in declining air quality and the defoliation of native spruce trees at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee. Many park units proved too small to serve as sustainable environments for vulnerable species such as the grizzly bear, while peripheral development rendered many preserves "ecological islands." At the end of the twentieth century, the national park system remained arguably incomplete, with a number of ecological zones, including George Catlin's grasslands, lacking protection.

Despite its shortcomings, the national park system nonetheless received capacious popular support, with the National Park Service consistently rated one of the most respected federal agencies. The intense media attention devoted to the Yellowstone fires of 1988 and the Yellowstone wolf reintroduction scheme of 1995 testified to the cultural allure of national parks. The controversial debates that frequently attended park management issues reflected on issues of governmental power, resource use, national pride, and environmental responsibility. Meanwhile, the preserves retained status as ideal vacation destinations, attracting almost 286 million visitors in 2000.


Dilsaver, Lary M., ed. America's National Park System: The Critical Documents. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1994.

Frome, Michael. Regreening the National Parks. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1992.

Ise, John. Our National Park Policy: A Critical History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1961.

Kaufman, Polly Welts. National Parks and the Woman's Voice. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996.

Rettie, Dwight F. Our National Park System: Caring for America's Greatest Natural and Historic Treasures. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995.

Runte, Alfred. National Parks: The American Experience. 2d rev. ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987.

Sellars, Richard West. Preserving Nature in the National Parks: A History. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997.


See also individual entries such asEverglades National Park ; Mount Rushmore ; Yosemite National Park .

National Parks

views updated Jun 08 2018

National Parks

America's national park system includes hundreds of areas covering millions of acres in nearly every state and U.S. possession. The national parks include natural wonders, historical and cultural landmarks, and recreational areas as varied as Massachusetts' Cape Cod National Seashore, Hawaii's Volcanoes National Park, New York's Statue of Liberty, and Pennsylvania's Gettysburg National Battlefield. The National Park Service has designed the parks so that they interlock to tell the natural and cultural history of the United States of America and of man's presence there. The National Park Service functions as the parks' primary custodian, guiding their natural and historic preservation as well as the continued growth of tourism and public education. The idea of establishing natural and historical areas as national parks developed in the United States during the nineteenth century evolved to fulfill a perceived cultural need for a strong national identity that could be found in America's monumental scenery. The popular media was essential in the drive to sustain this idea in a country largely dedicated to material progress at any expense. Magazines, newspapers, and paintings promoted the parks as places where any citizen could grow mentally, physically, and spiritually through communion with nature. The parks came to exemplify America's democratic ideal through their ownership by all citizens and they remain national symbols of pride. The rise of the environmental movement in the mid to late twentieth century has also made the national parks symbols of American environmental consciousness.

Alfred Runte's National Parks: The American Experience states that "gentlemen adventurers, artists, and explorers" had created the national park idea by the second half of nineteenth century. Soon after the American Revolutionary War of the late eighteenth century, intellectuals in the newly created United States were hurt by comments implying that they had no sense of patriotism or appreciation for the past. A new country of limited cultural achievements forced these men to turn to nature to find unique national symbols that they could proudly proclaim to the world. Runte believes that this cultural desire to break with Europe, rather than a deep commitment to ecological preservation, was the catalyst for the development of America's national park system. The founders of the idea of the national park were also spurred by the example of the privately owned land around Niagara Falls on which promoters, souvenir stands, and ugly fences joined with admission charges to create a national embarrassment. The world's first national park system began with the 1864 designation of the Yosemite area in California and the 1872 designation of the Yellowstone area in Wyoming to the Department of the Interior. Yellowstone was the world's first area to be officially designated as a national park.

Private citizen Stephen T. Mather had an idea for a specialized park service to properly manage the new parks around the year 1915, and enlisted the head of the influential National Geographic Society to help him promote the cause. This was the beginning of an invaluable friendship between the society and the park system that aided in park promotion. Renowned environmentalist John Muir and renowned Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted also lent their prominent voices to the national park idea. The popular press, however, was the most instrumental voice in the public promotion of the national parks, as it had the power to attract the public support and attendance so essential to the park system's survival. Popular magazines such as Horace Greeley's New York Tribune, National Geographic, Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, and Harper's Weekly played on the public's patriotic sentiment to help raise support. Stephen Mather's efforts met with success in 1916 when then President Woodrow Wilson created the National Park Service as a bureau within the Department of the Interior with the stated goals of conserving park resources while providing for the public's enjoyment. The Park Service would quickly discover the difficulties inherent in managing the fine balance between preservation of America's finite natural resources and catering to the needs of tourists whose revenues helped support the new agency.

Until the early nineteenth century, the national parks existed mainly among the spectacular scenery of the American West, as the United States government created the early parks from lands in the public domain, few of which existed in the East. The West's grand and monumental scenery also served as a primary catalyst for the national park movement, as popular culture glorified the area in magazines, paintings, and dime novels. A move for eastward expansion did not begin until the 1920s due to the major obstacle of obtaining land. Congress would not use taxpayer money to purchase the necessary private lands, forcing the Park Service to rely on private donors to gain eastern parklands. Donors such as the wealthy Rockefeller family provided for the creation of eastern parks like the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the Appalachian Trail. The Park Service acquired over fifty additional sites in 1933, including those areas previously controlled by the War Department and the Forest Service as well as the Washington, D.C., National Capital Parks. The 1960s saw the addition of wild and scenic free-flowing rivers, national lakeshores, national trails, and urban national recreation areas; the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act more than doubled the system's size. The Park Service also branched out into other areas of public education when it greatly increased its participation in historical interpretation in the late twentieth century, making it one of the country's leading educators in the areas of American history and environmental values as they related to the development of the nation's parks.

A third of the areas that comprise the national park system are primarily scenic in nature. Americans prize these areas for their clean air and natural beauty as well as their abundance of bears and other exotic wildlife. Famous examples of scenic national parks include Arizona's Grand Canyon and Petrified Forest, South Dakota's Badlands, and Wyoming's Grand Tetons. The magnificent natural features of these areas are what first spurred the idea of creating national parks to promote American culture and preserve its natural beauty. The Park Service has attempted to recreate all of the parks under their care to their primitive appearance before the European settlers' arrival. These areas' popular image is that of a place where the urbanite can go to escape noisy, crowded, industrial city life in nature's tranquillity. The parks dedicated to preserving natural and monumental scenery increased in popularity and importance with the mid to late twentieth-century rise of environmental awareness in the United States. The 1963 Leopold Report, which evaluated the National Park Service's environmental policies, led directly to the restructuring of natural resource management to be more in line with ecological preservation. The Park Service continued to face pressures for resort-like development with the late twentieth-century's increasing popularity of outdoor recreation activities.

The Park System also preserves areas of national historic interest. These parks represent a link to the country's past and exemplify the continuity between past and present. They promote the values of American history and are highly patriotic, often drawing comparisons to shrines. Famous examples include Philadelphia's Independence National Historic Park, as well as many famous battlefields of the American Revolutionary and Civil Wars. The government's interest in the preservation of historic areas began in the late nineteenth century with the decision to protect prehistoric Native American areas from plundering scavenger hunters. Among the first areas to be so preserved were the Casa Grande Ruin in Arizona and Mesa Verde National Park in New Mexico and Colorado. The 1906 Antiquities Act marked a great step forward in the National Park Service's move into historic preservation. This act gave presidents the power to set aside areas of historic interest by designating them National Monuments. President Theodore Roosevelt effectively utilized this act and remained closely associated with the park movement well into the twentieth century. The National Park Service moved into historic preservation in the 1920s as the park system expanded eastward. The Park Service received control over nearly fifty sites that included many popular Revolutionary War and Civil War battlefields. The National Park Service increased their role in historical interpretation when it entered the increasingly popular "living history" movement of the late twentieth century.

One of the national park system's main ideological goals has been the promotion of national enthusiasm for America's cultural heritage. The national parks symbolize the virtues that the United States promotes and with which it wishes to be associated. Park service guidebooks and publications inform readers of how the various parks embody these cultural values. The early parks represented America and effectively served as cultural exemplars to which Americans could point with great pride. The existence of national parks epitomized the American ideals of altruism, statesmanship, and philanthropy at their best. The parks also functioned in the nineteenth century as popular moral and religious affirmations of America's manifest destiny to the ownership of this great land, an ownership seemingly sanctioned by nature and nature's God. Promoters also thought that the national parks would help promote robust health and good citizenship through the rigors of outdoor life. Freeman Tilden, quoted in former Park Service head Conrad Wirth's introduction to America's Wonderlands, vividly captures these beliefs when he avowed that "a consummate expression of this ultimate wealth of the human spirit … is to be found in the National Park system…. Many a man has come to find merely serenity or scenic pictures—and has unexpectedly found a renewal and affirmation of himself." Quiet contemplation among nature's grandeur would both soothe the weary city resident as well as boost his love of the country.

The National Park Service's initial founding mission was to hold America's natural wonders in public trust for all Americans, past, present, and future. This mission expanded in the mid to late twentieth century as the Park Service adopted a more ecological focus with the rise of the environmental movement. The national parks and environmental preservation have become synonymous in the United States. Intense debates over the ecological future of the parks mirror the environmental debates rife in American society. An ongoing debate over utilitarian versus preservationist aims began with the very inception of the national park movement. The famous nineteenth-century environmentalist, John Muir, valued the country's natural beauty as an asset and national treasure but realized that the general public ranked scenery instead by its size and grandeur. The visiting public also wished to see these great wonders in relative comfort. Concessions to tourists were necessary to increase needed popular support of the parks. Total preservation was therefore an impractical idea. The National Park Service instead marketed its scenery through a "See America First" campaign. In 1956, "Mission 66" demonstrated the Park Service's realization of the public's role in its creation and continued success with the largest budget allotment for improvement in its history. This money provided for the construction and renovation of roads, trails, hotels, campgrounds, and visitor centers to add to the public's comfort and enjoyment. The late twentieth-century growth of environmental awareness, however, also encouraged public support of parks that represented sound ecological units such as the Florida Everglades, even if the scenery was not as spectacular. Twentieth-century interest groups formed for park preservation and protection, as urban and suburbanites took up the environmental cause and used the popular press to gain support as had their nineteenth-century predecessors.

The national park movement's proponents heavily marketed the national parks in the popular media in order to attract a variety of visitors. Railroads were the most influential early promoters and played a large role in early development, building rustic hotels to house the guests their trains carried to the parks. The 1916 creation of the National Park Service was inextricably linked with changes designed to increase badly needed tourist revenues. Popular magazine articles promoted the idea of the national parks as economically valuable tourist destinations. The decision to allow automobiles to enter the parks for the first time provided the biggest boost to tourist numbers. While "sagebrushing" became a popular 1920s term for those visitors who chose to do without creature comforts as they camped amidst nature's spectacular scenery, automobiles were most instrumental in raising public support. The majority of the American people desired inexpensive and comfortable vacations, an observation not lost on park promoters. The parks were now more physically and monetarily accessible. Publicity stunts such as tunneling roadways through huge redwood trees and staging bear feeding shows also attracted an increasing number of visitors. The National Park Service also branched out into other avenues of public interest with the addition of museums, publications, and other educational activities designed to aid the visiting public.

Popular images of the national parks remain that of breathtaking beauty amidst a quiet, almost spiritual atmosphere. Popular images of Park Service employees continue to picture them as rugged "men's men" who roam the great outdoors and come to the dramatic rescue of stranded visitors. Most Americans cherish fond memories of vacations spent hiking in the sweet air, glimpsing a moose or a bear from the car window, or marveling at the timely eruption of Yellowstone's famous Old Faithful geyser. The next generation of park visitors can add a trip to a museum or a talk with a costumed living history interpreter to the list of things to do at a national park. All of the National Park Service's activities combine with the national parks' reputation as monumental tributes to the American spirit to make them powerful cultural and educational forces. The parks have also enjoyed a steadily increasing popularity among the American public since their nineteenth-century inception. The National Park Service has consistently ranked among the most popular federal agencies in public opinion surveys even late in the twentieth century when Americans became ever more distrustful of their government. The parks and their employees will carry an enduring reputation for excellence into the new millennium. America's national parks are truly a unique and monumental cultural legacy.

—Marcella Bush Trevino

Further Reading:

Everhart, William C. The National Park Service. Boulder, Colorado, Westview Press, 1983.

Foresta, Ronald A. America's National Parks and Their Keepers. Washington, D.C., Resources for the Future, 1985.

Harmon, David, editor. Mirror of America: Literary Encounters with the National Parks. Boulder, Colorado, Roberts Rinehart Publishing, 1990.

Meyer, Judith L. The Spirit of Yellowstone: The Cultural Evolution of a National Park. Lanham, Maryland, Rowman and Littlefield, 1996.

Muir, John; edited by J. Cohee. Our National Parks. Madison, University of Wisconsin Press, 1981.

Newhouse Elizabeth, editor. National Geographic's Guide to the National Parks of the United States. Third edition. Washington, D.C., National Geographic Society, 1977.

Runte, Alfred. National Parks: The American Experience. Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1979.

Sax, Joseph L. Mountains Without Handrails: Reflections on the National Parks. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1980.

Sontag, William H., editor. National Park Service: The First 75 Years. Philadelphia, Eastern National Park and Monument Association, 1990.

Tilden, Freeman. Interpreting Our Heritage. Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1977.

Watkins, T. H., and Dyan Zaslowsky. These American Lands: Parks, Wilderness, and the Public Lands. Washington, D.C., Island Press, 1994.

National Parks

views updated May 09 2018


A national park, as distinct from a landscaped urban park, is a place set aside to preserve a natural geology or ecology deemed to possess significant inherent value. The concept of a national park thus constitutes a practical effort to place a specific ethical limit on technological development, sometimes for scientific as well as public benefit.

Historical Origin

Shortly after northwest Wyoming was annexed as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, mountaineers and trappers began returning from their adventures in the American West with stories of a strange and mysterious place where steaming water bubbled from the ground and geysers shot like clockwork into the sky.

Rumors swirled for decades, until, in 1870, several expeditions were organized to explore the area around the Yellowstone River. The first expedition was so awed by the hissing, cauldron-like landscape that upon return members began a campaign for the creation of the world's first national park.

In response the federal government funded a second, scientific expedition, which was led by Dr. F. W. Hayden, then head of the U.S. Geological Survey. The group also included photographer William Henry Jackson, whose photographs (often developed on location in the hot springs) would prove the existence of a national treasure to skeptical Easterners and convince the country that Yellowstone needed to be set aside for the ages. Another participant, Lieutenant Gustavas C. Doane testified before Congress about what he had seen:

[This land] is without parallel; as a field for scientific research, it promises great results; in the branches of geology, mineralogy, botany, zoology, and ornithology, it is probably the greatest laboratory that nature furnishes on the surface of the globe. (Everhart 1972, p. 6)

On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone Act. With the creation of Yellowstone National Park, 2 million acres were established "as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people." The act went on to stipulate that regulations would be put in place to provide for the preservation "from injury or spoliation, of all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities, or wonders ..."

Many in Congress voted for the creation of Yellowstone National Park because they did not want to see it destroyed by the type of crass commercialization and over-building that had occurred in New York's Niagara Falls. Preservation for its own sake was not a foundational idea. Indeed ideas such as Manifest Destiny and abundance were hallmarks of the frontier sensibility. Few thought the bounty of America had limits. Fewer still thought the government had any business interfering with their right to exploit the scenic wonders and natural resources at the frontier.

Though a great park was created, with visitors came despoliation. By 1886 the cavalry had to be called in to protect the park from vandalism, logging, and hunting. By the time a bill passed, creating a National Park Service within the Department of Interior to administer public lands, there were thirty-one national parks and monuments in the United States and a growing awareness that some type of protection was critical to the survival the nation's wild and scenic places. With the passage of the National Park Service Act of 1916, the debate between conservationists and preservationists over just how to protect the parks was settled: Conservationists arguing for the wise use of the natural resources in the national parks lost out to the preservationists who argued that wilderness areas should remain untouched and unexploited.

One of the authors of the National Park Service Act was landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr.—of New York City's Central Park fame—who supported the notion of preserving places that would provide a contrast to and respite from the pace of the modern world. He envisioned parks where ordinary citizens could rest mind, body, and soul. From spiritual uplift to scientific research, recreation, and education, national parks were seen as a way to enhance the lives of the general public. The spread of the national park idea—that large tracts of wilderness should be protected for all time—could arguably be called one of the great contributions from the United States to world civilization.

Outside the United States

By the outbreak of World War I, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, and Sweden had adapted the American concept of national parks to their own lands and needs. (In many of these countries, the primary motive for establishing national parks was the protection of native peoples rather than the flora, fauna, and natural wonders of the area.) In 1914 Switzerland created a national park, but dedicated it to scientific research rather than recreation.

In the inter war period, news of the massive slaughter of African wildlife led to the 1933 London Conference for the Protection of African Fauna and Flora. The conference helped inspire the creation of large national parks in eastern and central Africa to protect game populations and preserve areas for scientific study, but its ideals and goals had much wider influence and were used as a blueprint to help establish national parks worldwide.

As the national parks idea took root, an awareness developed of the need for some type of world organization that could promote nature conservation. In 1948 at a conference sponsored by the United Nations, the International Union of Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) was founded.

In the early twenty first century the IUCN, in coordination with the United Nations Environment Programme, is a self-described green web in which 140 countries, more than 750 non-governmental organizations, and 10,000 internationally renowned scientists generate environmental conventions, global standards, and scientific knowledge. It has become the voice, and often the instrument, for worldwide action to protect the biodiversity of species, ecosystems, and landscapes. The IUCN also monitors and maintains a database of National Parks and Protected Areas.

A protected area was defined at the Fourth World Congress on National Parks and Protected Areas (Caracas, Venezuela, 1992) as "land and/or sea especially dedicated to the protection and maintenance of biological diversity, and of natural and associated cultural resources, and managed through legal or other effective means" (World Conservation Monitoring Centre Internet site). Though in the early 2000s there are more than 100,000 protected areas worldwide, not all of them are national parks—defined by the IUCN as a "natural area of land and/or sea, designated to (a) protect the ecological integrity of one or more ecosystems for present and future generations, (b) exclude exploitation or occupation inimical to the purposes of designation of the area and (c) provide a foundation for spiritual, scientific, education, recreational and visitor opportunities, all of which must be environmentally and culturally compatible" (UNEP Protected Areas Programme: "Definition of a Protected Area" Internet site).

In the IUCN category of national parks, there are more than 3,300 worldwide. Other protected areas categories include Strict Nature Reserves/Wilderness Areas: protected areas managed mainly for science or wilderness protection; Natural Monuments: protected areas managed mainly for conservation of specific natural features; Habitat/Species Management Areas: protected areas managed mainly for conservation through management intervention; Protected Landscape/Seascape: protected areas managed mainly for landscape/seascape conservation and recreation; and Managed Resource Protection Areas: protected areas managed mainly for the sustainable use of natural ecosystems. Though fewer in number than the other protected areas, national parks account for 30 percent of the global network of protected areas, due to the fact that they are often much larger in size.

Ethical Defense of National Park Concept

As the global population passes 6 billion, pressure increases for human occupation of national parks as well as the exploitation of their natural resources. But the arguments for protection remain strong: It is important to preserve the genetic resources and diversity of species found in the world national parks in order to preserve the strains from which our modern and increasingly vulnerable food crops derive. These areas also serve as a repository of edible and medicinal plants and for vital watersheds that provide water to urban and agricultural regions. And they protect cultural, archeological, and natural monuments.

Visits to national parks can also revivify a sensitivity to nature and perhaps even strengthen an environmental ethic that is so essential for human survival and the continuation of all species. Finally the national parks can, as former U.S. National Park Service Director George Hartzog, Jr., so eloquently put it, help us "better understand, or perceive, our place in the universe" (Everhart 1972, foreword by George Hartzog.)


SEE ALSO Conservation and Preservation;Deforestation and Desertification;Environmental Ethics;Environmental Regulatory Agencies;Nature.


Everhart, William C. (1972). The National Park Service. New York: Praeger.

Green, Michael J. B., and James Paine. (1997). State of the Worlds Protected Areas at the End of the Twentieth Century. (Paper presented at IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas Symposium on "Protected Areas in the 21st Century: From Islands to Networks.") Cambridge, UK: World Conservation Monitoring Centre.

Quigg, Philip W. (1978). Protecting Natural Areas: An Introduction to the Creation of National Parks and Reserves. New York: National Audubon Society.

Whitman, Sylvia. (1994). This Land is Your Land: The American Conservation Movement. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner.


Pitcaithley, Dwight T. (2001). "Philosophical Underpinnings of the National Park Idea." National Park Service. Available from

World Conservation Monitoring Centre. Protected Areas Programme. Available from

World Conservation Monitoring Centre. Protected Areas Programme. "Definition of a Protected Area." Available from

National Parks

views updated May 09 2018

National Parks

The United States was the first country in the world to establish national parks. Initially, national parks were designed to protect and preserve areas considered significant for their scenic or recreational value to human beings. Recently, that notion has been replaced by more ecological views, in which the goal is to maintain stable interactions and relationships between all living things and their environment. Besides preserving nature, national parks preserve cultural and historical sites.

The first parks

The term “national park” was first applied to the Yellowstone reserve created in the territories of Wyoming and Montana in 1872. The public wanted to preserve the beauty of the huge land reserve, and because no state government existed to which park administration might be shifted, the federal government grudgingly assumed responsibility. At first, there were no federal funds to administer the new national park; in its early years, Yellowstone was managed by the U.S. Army .

Even before Yellowstone National Park was established, federal action had established two other natural reserves. In 1832, the national government set aside an Arkansas hot spring as a “reservation,” chiefly for its medicinal value. In 1864, Congress ceded the Yosemite Valley and the nearby Mariposa Grove of giant redwoods to the State of California for permanent management as a state park.

The dramatic beauty of Yosemite and Yellowstone fired the popular imagination. When debating whether to make these areas parks, supporters argued that such “natural curiosities” as the waterfalls at Yosemite and the geysers at Yellowstone were national treasures to be protected for public enjoyment.

About 1890, a new way of thinking about preservation emerged: the idea that wilderness itself was useful and therefore worth protecting. As much as anyone in his generation, California naturalist John Muir (1838–1914) encouraged Americans to think of wild nature as a complement to civilization. He believed that contact with nature invigorated people and enlightened their souls. In 1890, Muir published a series of articles in Century magazine that urged protection of the Sierra Nevada high country beyond the previously reserved Yosemite Valley. The Yosemite National Park was created in 1890 at Muir's urging.

West vs. East

In the West, much of the land was in the public domain (not under private or state ownership). Well into the twentieth century, the creation of a national park in the West required a simple transfer of land from one

federal agency to another, rather than an expensive real estate purchase. Because there were vast amounts of public land, it was possible to create some enormous nature preserves—two million acres in the case of Yellowstone.

There were not nearly as many public lands in the East. As a result, private philanthropy (charitable giving by individuals and companies) played a crucial role. The first eastern park, Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island in Maine , established in 1919, was a gift from wealthy summer residents of the Bar Harbor area. The philanthropy of Standard Oil Company founder John D. Rockefeller Jr. (1874–1960) played a large role in the creation and maintenance of Acadia and early southeastern parks such as Great Smoky and Shenandoah. (He also bought and donated land for such western parks as Grand Teton and Yosemite.)

The conservation movement

In the early twentieth century, theories of maintaining nature turned from preservation to conservation—the protection and renewal of natural resources, such as clean air and rivers, a healthy wildlife population, and dense forest areas, using careful land management to assure the greatest social and economic value for the present and future. With conservation, humans could use the resources of nature as long as they took steps to ensure that the resources would be available to future generations.

Two pioneers in the conservation movement were President Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919; served 1901–9) and the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot (1865–1946). They firmly believed in the wise management of the public domain through land management, and they took steps to conserve the United States's forests and natural resources. Conservationists created national forests; these national preserves differed from the national parks in that they permitted lumbering, mining, animal grazing, and human recreation (including hunting, which is prohibited in national parks).

During Roosevelt's administration, five new national parks, four biggame refuges, and fifty-one bird reservations were created. Under the National Monuments Act of June 8, 1906, places such as Muir Woods in California, the Grand Canyon in Arizona , and Mount Olympus National Monument in Washington were set aside for the public to enjoy.


Since the 1920s, national parks have changed to accommodate new recreational interests such as mountaineering, camping, and hiking. In 1916, the National Park Service (NPS) was created to provide for public enjoyment of the parks while also conserving the scenery. The first NPS director, Stephen Tyng Mather (1867–1930), worked hard to promote tourism. In the 1910s and 1920s, Mather allowed cars to enter the parks because cars made the parks accessible to millions. Mather encouraged private businesses to build hotels, stores, and transportation systems for the parks, opening the national parks to the American public as never before. Although these policies brought more people and more money into the parks, they also led to what critics consider overdevelopment of many parks.

Ecological perspectives

Everglades National Park in Florida was created in 1934 mostly to protect the wildlife and vegetation of the 40-mile-wide “river of grass.” Everglades suggested a fresh approach to nature preservation—establishing national parks to protect ecological systems for their own sake, rather than for human benefit. In debates in the 1970s over the future of the public lands of Alaska , advocates of wilderness preserves argued that the proposed parks should protect their ecosystems (the complex set of relationships between all the living organisms in an area). They lobbied for scientifically meaningful boundaries that would enclose whole watersheds (areas of land where all the water drains to the same place) and entire animal migration routes.

Cultural preservation

The preservation of historic and cultural resources has been a responsibility of the national park system since the turn of the century. In the 1890s, in response to pressure from veterans’ groups, the War Department began to set aside historical lands such as American Civil War (1861–65) battlefields and military cemeteries.

Systematic federal protection of historic sites began with the passage of the Antiquities Act (1906). This law was passed because people were buying up national treasures such as the recently discovered Native American cliff dwellings and artifacts in the Southwest. The Antiquities Act prohibited destruction of historic and prehistoric objects on public lands and authorized the president to preserve these sites as national monuments.

The Historic Sites Act of 1935 made it the mission of the National Park Service to survey, acquire, research, restore, and operate historic sites and structures. The act decisively shaped the historic preservation movement in the United States and gave a leading role to the National Park Service.

In 2007, the national park system was composed of a network of nearly four hundred parks. Fifty-eight of these are “national parks”; the rest are national forests, national monuments, historic sites, urban recreation areas, national historical parks, national historical reserves, and national heritage corridors. The park system is comprised of more than 83 million acres.

National Park

views updated May 17 2018

National park

National parks are areas that have been legally set apart by national governments because they have cultural or natural resources which are deemed significant for the particular country. National parks are typically large areas that are mostly undisturbed by human occupation or exploitation. They are characterized by spectacular scenery, abundant wildlife , unique geologic features, or interesting cultural or historic sites.

National parks are managed to eliminate or minimize human disturbances, while allowing human visitation for recreational, educational, cultural, or inspirational purposes. Activities consistent with typical national park management include hiking, camping, picnicking, wildlife observation, and photography. Fishing is usually allowed, but hunting is often prohibited. In the United States, national parks are distinguished from national forests and other federal lands because timber harvesting, cattle grazing, and mining are, with a few exceptions, not permitted in national parks, whereas they are permitted on most other federal lands.

The United States was the first country to establish national parks. The Yosemite Grant of 1864 was the first act that formally set aside land by the federal government for "public use, resort and recreation." Twenty square miles (52 sq km) of land in the Yosemite valley and four square miles (10 sq km) of giant sequoia were put under the care of the State of California to be held "inalienable for all time." In 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law the establishment of Yellowstone National Park . Yellowstone differed from Yosemite in that it was to be managed and controlled by the federal government, not the state, and therefore has received the honor of being considered the first national park. Years later, Yosemite was turned over to the federal government for federal management also. Since 1916, national parks in the United States have been administered by the National Park Service an agency in the U.S. Department of the Interior .

The concept of national parks has caught on all over the world and continues to spread. Between the years 1972 and 1982 the number of national parks in the world increased by 47% and the area encompassed in the parks increased 82%. Today over 1000 national parks can be found worldwide in more than 120 countries.

Many national parks in both developed and developing countries are facing threats, however. The most commonly reported threats are illegal removal of wildlife, destruction of vegetation, and increased erosion . Often there is a lack of personnel to deal with these threats. Management problems also arise because demand for use of park resources is increasing. Many of these uses are conflicting, and virtually all would have significant impacts on the resources that characterize the parks.

Although parks consist of natural resources, they are conceived, established, maintained, and often threatened by humans. It is necessary for a society to derive benefits from the parks to maintain public support for them. In light of the need for public support, merely putting a fence around the park and keeping people out is likely to fail in the long term. Paradoxically then, some development and use is necessary for conservation of the resources. Deciding on the appropriate amounts and kind of uses compatible with the resources is the key to successful park management.

During the summer of 1962 the first World Conference on National Parks was held in Seattle, Washington. This historic conference and subsequent ones have given people of many nations a forum to discuss threats facing their parks and strategies for meeting the demand for conflicting uses. Only through such international dialogue and continued diligence will these treasures we call national parks be saved for future generations .

[Ted T. Cable ]



Machlis, G. E., and D. L. Tichnell. The State of the World's Parks. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1985.

Runte, A. National Parks and American Experience. 2nd ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987.

national parks

views updated Jun 27 2018

national parks. Proposals for national parks were first heard in the 19th cent. as industrial towns grew ever bigger and suburbs swelled. But advocates found it difficult to decide whether the parks should be places to which people could resort for relaxation and pleasure, or whether the public should be excluded as far as possible. The National Trust was founded in 1895, the Society for the Protection of Nature Reserves in 1912, and the Council for the Protection of Rural England in 1926. The CPRE obtained from MacDonald in 1929 an inquiry into the need for national parks, which reported in favour and recommended a National Parks Authority. Economic and political crisis then intervened, but the Forestry Commission was persuaded to create a number of national forest parks. The issue was taken up again after the Second World War and a National Parks Commission established in 1949, with power to designate national parks, and to identify areas of outstanding natural beauty, outside the parks, but in need of protection. The commission did not apply to Scotland. It would not own the parks, nor have direct administrative responsibility, but would operate through the county councils. The first parks, established in 1951, were Dartmoor, Snowdonia, the Peak District, and the Lake District, followed by the Pembrokeshire coast (1952), the north Yorkshire moors (1952), Exmoor (1954), the Yorkshire Dales (1954), Northumberland (1956), and the Brecon Beacons (1957). The New Forest and the Norfolk Broads were given ‘equivalent status’. Forty areas of outstanding natural beauty have been recognized, including the Chilterns, Cotswolds, Gower, the Malverns, the Long Mynd and Wenlock Edge, and the Wye valley. In 1968 responsibility was transferred to the Countryside Commission, and a Countryside Council for Wales. There are no national parks or areas of outstanding natural beauty in Scotland, but national scenic areas have been designated and afforded some protection. The original predicament continues to cause problems and policy has to balance the interests of visitors and residents, which not infrequently clash over industrial and mining development.

J. A. Cannon

national park

views updated May 29 2018

national park As defined by the IUCN (1975), a large area of land containing ecosystems that have not been materially altered by human activities, and including plant and animal species, landscape features, and habitats of great scientific interest, or of beauty, or recreational or educational interest. It is under the direct control of the state, and the public is allowed to visit it for inspirational, cultural, and recreational purposes. Implicitly, a national park is an area set aside in perpetuity for conservation, within which such public recreational activity is permitted as is compatible with the primary conservation objectives. British national parks do not comply strictly with the IUCN definition, since they comprise areas that have been altered significantly during a long period of human occupation and since they are still actively farmed and occupied, much of the land being owned privately rather than publicly. Land is so designated in order to maintain long-established, cultural landscapes. Similar schemes have been developed elsewhere, but they are often given distinctive and less confusing titles, e.g. parcs naturels et régionaux in France, and ‘greenline parks’ in the USA.

national park

views updated May 21 2018

national park As defined by the IUCN (1975), a large area of land containing ecosystems that have not been materially altered by human activities, and including plant and animal species, landscape features, and habitats of great scientific interest, or of beauty, or recreational or educational interest: it is under the direct control of the state, and the public is allowed to visit it for inspirational, cultural, and recreational purposes. Implicitly, a national park is an area set aside in perpetuity for conservation, within which such public recreational activity is permitted as is compatible with the primary conservation objectives. British national parks do not comply strictly with the IUCN definition, since they comprise areas that have been altered significantly during a long period of human occupation and since they are still actively farmed and occupied, much of the land being owned privately rather than publicly. Land is so designated in order to maintain long-established, cultural landscapes. Similar schemes have been developed elsewhere, but they are often given distinctive and less confusing titles, e.g. parcs naturels et régionaux in France, and ‘greenline parks’ in the USA.

national park

views updated May 18 2018

national park As defined internationally, an extensive area of land that has not been influenced significantly by human activities and that is set aside in perpetuity to preserve its landscapes, species, or ecosystems. British national parks are large areas, designated officially on the recommendation of English Nature, the Countryside Council for Wales, or Scottish Natural Heritage, that are preserved for the enjoyment of the public because of the beauty of their countryside and the opportunities they afford for outdoor recreation.

national parks

views updated May 29 2018

national parks Protected areas where restraint on the killing of wildlife is enforced, and forests, waters and other natural environments are preserved from commercial use. The USA was the first country to set aside reserves for conservation and recreation. Yellowstone National Park was the first national park (1872). In Africa, the main purpose of national parks is game preservation.

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National parks