One Hundred Years of the National Park Service

Today’s post comes from Andrew Grafton in the National Archives History Office.

View with Shadowed Ravine, “Grand Canyon from South Rim, 1941,” Arizona (Vertical Orientation), by Ansel Adams. (National Archives Identifier 519885)

Yellowstone. The Grand Canyon. Yosemite. For many Americans, the mere mention of these sites conjures up images of grandeur and magnificence.

As the conservator of the United States’ most storied and important landmarks, the National Park Service is charged with the preservation and operation of each of the nation’s 59 national parks, as well as hundreds of protected shorelines, preserves, and historical landmarks.

This summer, the National Archives will be commemorating the 100th anniversary of the National Parks Service by displaying the document that founded the NPS, the Organic Act of 1916.

H.R. 15522, An Act to Establish a National Park Service, as the legislation is officially known, “created in the Department of the Interior a service to be called the National Park Service . . . [NPS] shall promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks, monuments, and reservations . . . to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects . . . for future generations.”

Castle Geyser Cove, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, 1942, by Ansel Adams. (National Archives Identifier 519992)

Though the first national park had been established at Yellowstone on March 1, 1872, it and subsequently designated national parks were only loosely managed under the Department of the Interior.

By establishing a National Park Service, the Federal Government ensured the efficient and responsible conservation of national landmarks for future generations.

The passage of the Organic Act was the result of a collaborative effort between businessmen, government officials, and private citizens, who together  had advocated for the establishment of a National Park Service for decades.

Pioneers such as conservationist John Muir and President Theodore Roosevelt, who brought the need to protect certain sites from human interference to public attention in the late 1800s, paved the way for the efforts that would come in the 20th century.

In particular, it was Muir’s writing and lobbying in the 1870s and 1880s to educate the public on the intrinsically emotional and spiritual value of protected lands that helped shape the opinions of many important government figures. Muir’s contributions led to his informal title as the “father of our National Parks.”

John Muir (fourth from right) and President Teddy Roosevelt (center) with park officials during a visit to Yosemite in 1905. (National Archives Identifier 2132678)

In later years, Muir met with President Roosevelt to discuss ways in which the Federal Government could most effectively conserve its most treasured natural wonders. These meetings were influential in Roosevelt’s own conservation efforts—while in office Roosevelt designated dozens of national landmarks, several of which were later converted into national parks.

During the 1910s, as industrial and commercial developments continually threatened the preservation of the parks, the need for a central authority to protect park interests became clear. The patchwork system of park management that existed between the U.S. Army, the Department of the Interior, and civilian volunteers threatened the viability of the parks for future generations.

Stephen T. Mather, first Director of the National Park Service, Glacier Point, Yosemite National Park, 1926. (Photo Courtesy of the National Park Service)

Stephen T. Mather, the eventual first Director of the National Park Service, played an instrumental role in drafting congressional support for a central administrative body to oversee protected Federal lands.

Mather, a devoted conservationist, organized a public relations campaign that drew on the influence of business leaders, the National Geographic Society, periodical publications, Washington elites, and the public at large to push for the passage of legislation on this issue.

Mather’s efforts worked. Though originally opposed by the adjoining Forestry Department for fear of competing revenue streams, sufficient lobbying by the bill’s proponents eventually garnered enough support to pass both houses of Congress and send the Organic Act to the desk of President Woodrow Wilson.

President Wilson signed the bill on August 25, 1916, and the National Park Service was born.

The Organic Act provided for the appointment of a full-time Director of the National Park Service as well as a support staff to manage the parks from Washington, D.C. These employees were to be paid out of a pool of funds appropriated by Congress. Additionally, the Parks Director was tasked with organizing the system of local officials and park rangers that operated each site.

Today the National Park Service employs over 22,000 full time employees as well as 221,000 volunteers across more than 400 park areas. Each year, the National Park Service enables more than 275 million visitors to experience the beauty and wonder of America’s protected landmarks.

The National Archives will be displaying the Organic Act of 1916 in the East Rotunda Gallery from June 30 through August 31, 2016. Plan your visit and see the origins of the National Park Service for yourself!

An Act to Establish a National Park Service, 8/25/1916. (General Records of the U.S. Government, National Archives)
An Act to Establish a National Park Service, 8/25/1916. (General Records of the U.S. Government, National Archives)


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