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National Park Service Act (1916)

National Park Service Act (1916)

Brian E. Gray

On December 19, 1913, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Raker Act, which authorized San Francisco to construct a dam at the mouth of Hetch Hetchy Valley in the Tuolumne River watershed of Yosemite National Park. The Raker Act was preceded by more than a decade of detailed analysis of the city's need for a supplemental supply of water as well as an exhaustive analysis of the alternative sources. Congress passed the act following six months of bitter debate. On one side were progressives, who favored municipal control of water and electric utilities, and conservationists, who believed that the public lands should be used to produce the greatest good for the greatest number of people. On the other side were the preservationists, a new environmental constituency led by John Muir and the Sierra Club. Preservationists argued that the national parks should be preserved and protected for the public's enjoyment and appreciation of scenic beauty and natural wonders. The Hetch Hetchy controversy was the last battle of John Muir's life, and he was devastated by the loss. Friends described him as isolated and despondent. From his home in Martinez, California, Muir wrote to Vernon Kellogg of Palo Alto on December 27, 1913: "As to the loss of the Sierra Park Valley it's hard to bear. The destruction of the charming groves and gardens, the finest in all California, goes to my heart. But in spite of Satan & Co. some sort of compensation must surely come out of this dark damn-dam-damnation." Muir died the following December.


The Hetch Hetchy debate highlighted two flaws in the prevailing philosophy of national park management. First, although Congress had reserved several million acres of land from the public domain to create fourteen national parksincluding Yellowstone (1872), Yosemite (1890), Sequoia and General Grant (1890), Mount Rainier (1899), Crater Lake (1902), Mesa Verde (1906), Glacier (1910), and Rocky Mountain (1915)it had not set forth a coherent national park policy. For example, Congress established Yellowstone National Park to protect its geothermal resources and wildlife; Yosemite to preserve its granite valleys, meadows, and high peaks; Sequoia to protect its redwood forests; and Mesa Verde for its archaeological resources.

Second, Congress had failed to answer a variety of important questions about national park management and use:

  • Hotels and roads were constructed in Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Glacier, whereas other parks remained relatively undeveloped. Should the special features of the parks be preserved in their natural state or improved for the benefit of tourists?
  • Hunting was authorized in Yellowstone. In Mount Rainier National Park, prospectors could stake new mining claims and were allowed to cut timber as needed to supply operations. Sheep and cattle were driven from the San Joaquin Valley each summer to feast on the meadows and other forage in Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows. Does the reservation of land for use as a national park necessarily rule out other uses?
  • The Hetch Hetchy controversy had focused Congress's attention on the tension between preservation and conservation more than had any previous conflict. Is it possible to protect the scenic wonders for which the national parks were created while also putting the resources of the parks to use to produce the greatest good for the greatest number?


In an effort to answer at least some of these questions, Congress enacted the National Park Service Act of 1916 (39 Stat. 535), which created the national park system. Although Muir did not live to see it, this act partly compensated for the loss of Hetch Hetchy Valley and turned his vision of protected lands into reality. The act gathered into a single system the fourteen national parks and twenty-one national monuments and created a National Park Service to manage that system. In defining the land and resource management responsibilities of the Park Service, Congress adopted the preservationists' vision for the national parks, declaring that the fundamental purpose of the national park system is "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."

Over the next two decades, Congress significantly expanded the national park system, adding, among others, Mount McKinley (now Denali National Park, 1917); the Grand Canyon, Acadia, and Zion (1919); Bryce Canyon (1924); the Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah (1926); Grand Teton (1929); Carlsbad Caverns (1930); Isle Royale (1931); the Everglades (1934); Big Bend (1935); and Olympic (1938). Under the leadership of its first directors, Stephen Mather and Horace Albright, the National Park Service managed its lands for the protection and preservation of the unique features that caused the lands to be set aside in the first place. Although many parks remained open to preexisting activities such as grazing and mining, neither the Park Service nor Congress was willing to authorize new uses that would be inconsistent with the preservationists' goals.


Today, the National Park Service manages 383 parks, monuments, recreation areas, battlefield preserves, memorials, historic sites, lakeshores, seashores, scenic trails, and wild and scenic river corridorsmore than 80 million acres of land. The national park system extends from the islands of Acadia National Park in Maine to the Hawaii Volcanoes in the Pacific, and from the Gates of the Arctic in Alaska to Florida's Everglades. It includes North America's highest peak (Denali) and its lowest elevation (Death Valley). The system embraces the vast and remote wilderness of the Alaska parks and preserves; the summer crowds of Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon; the urban refuges of the Golden Gate and New York Gateway recreation areas; the still waters of Crater Lake; the powerboats of Lake Mead and Lake Powell; the monoliths of Mount Rainier and Devil's Tower; the remnants of the Anasazi; the symbols of the Revolution at Valley Forge and Philadelphia; and the solemn memorials of Gettysburg, Arlington, and the Capitol Mall.

The National Park Service has not yet resolved the tensions that were present at its creation. Traffic jams in Yosemite Valley and the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, snowmobiles in Yellowstone and Grand Teton, and stresses on fragile ecosystems in Mesa Verde and Carlsbad increasingly pose conflicts between the twin goals of the National Park Service Actto preserve the parks and their natural resources while also providing for their use and enjoyment. Clear cuts on national forest land along the edge of Redwood National Park, oil exploration adjacent to Arches, and pollution flowing into the Everglades expose the parks as "helpless giants"affected by human activities outside their borders but lacking clear legal authority to protect their lands and resources. And the Park Service has struggled with the question of whether the national parks should provide accommodations and entertainment similar to those found in the communities from which their visitors have come (hotels, fast food, and structured recreational activities, for example) or instead offer a unique wilderness (or at least quasi-wilderness) experiencewhat Professor Joseph Sax, a national park scholar, has called "Mountains without Handrails."

Yet despite these tensions and management conflicts, the national parks system is an essential American institution, evoking and preserving our grandest mountains, most majestic canyons, verdant forests, and cherished cultural artifacts. To quote Wallace Stegner, one of the American West's greatest writers, our national parks remain "the best idea we ever had."

See also: National Historic Preservation Act; Yellowstone National Park Act.


Ise, John. Our National Parks Policy: A Critical History. Washington, DC: Resources for the Future, 1961.

Nash, Roderick. Wilderness and the American Mind, 3d ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1982.

Runte, Alfred. National Parks: The American Experience, 3d ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.

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

Simon, David J., ed. Our Common Lands: Defending the National Parks. Washington, DC: Island Press, 1988.

Stegner, Wallace. Marking the Sparrow's Fall. New York: Henry Holt, 1998.

John Muir (18381914)

John Muir (18381914) was a naturalist who spent a great deal of time studying botanical specimens. From 1880, he campaigned for the establishment of Yosemite National Park, for the preservation of forests, and against the Hetch Hetchy project. Muir was a founder of the Sierra Club. Contemporary protesters adopted his motto against dams, "Free the rivers," and painted it on the Hetch Hetchy Dam in 1987.

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