From the founding of the United States until well into the nineteenth century, words like “expansion,” “settlement,” and “development” were at the core of the American psyche. Laws ranging from the Northwest Ordinance to the Homestead Acts encouraged the people to expand across the continent, conquer the wilderness, and develop American industry. During that time the bountiful resources of the land seemed inexhaustible.
Within a few short decades, however, public attitudes began to change. People were beginning to wonder if we should really exploit every square inch of the country, or if we should maybe preserve at least a small part of it in its natural state for posterity. Conservationists like John Muir gained popularity for writing that promoted the ideals of unspoiled wilderness.
When conservationists convinced Congress to establish Yellowstone National Park in 1872, the idea of preserving land solely “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people” was a new and novel concept. Although the idea of a “national park” seemed unsure, growing concern for conservation among the American people quickly turned it into a wildly popular idea. Within the next four decades ten new national parks were created by Congress, each attracting an increasing share of tourists along with those wanting to exploit the resources.
During that time management of the parks was in disarray. A variety of federal agencies oversaw different parks, and there was no cohesive plan for their administration. In some parks vandals and thieves were such a problem that the US Army was charged with protecting the land.
That all changed in 1916 when Stephen Mather and Horace Albright spearheaded the formation of the National Park Service through the Organic Act. The NPS created a centralized, coherent agency within the Department of the Interior to oversee all aspects of America’s growing number of national parks. Since then the NPS has carefully balanced the protection of our most spectacular natural and historic places with the needs of the people who want to experience them.
Today the NPS manages 59 official “national parks” as well as over 300 other sites of superlative natural, historical, and cultural importance. The popularity of these places continues to grow to this day.
2016 marks the centennial of the National Park Service, and public interest in experiencing these amazing locations is at an all-time high. If you’ve never seen it, I strongly recommend watching the 2009 Ken Burns documentary “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.” At approximately twelve hours in length, this series goes into considerable detail about the history of the parks, their magnificent features, and more importantly the colorful people and the dramatic political battles that made their preservation possible.