A Brief History of the United States National Park System
The United States National Park System, often hailed as “America’s greatest idea,” began with just one park in 1872; today it oversees more than 400 areas, covering 84 million acres across all 50 states. This makes it an incredible success story in the history of environmental conservation. But how did it all come about?
The Concept: A National Park
The concept of a national park is largely credited to George Catlin, an American painter. In 1832, Catlin traveled across the Great Plains to document Native American tribes, which were rapidly disappearing.
He envisioned a space that was both a sanctuary for nature and a testament to the primitive beauty of America. Catlin argued for the establishment of a “magnificent park, a nation’s park containing man and beast in all the wildness and freshness of their nature’s beauty,” under the protective policy of the government. His vision was realized four decades later when Yellowstone National Park was established.
The First Official National Park
In 1872, a natural wonderland spanning Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho became the world’s first official National Park – Yellowstone. This initiated the United States National Park System, adding a new dimension to the nature conservation movement.
Expanding To California’s Yosemite Valley
Further west in California’s Yosemite Valley, a controversy was set in motion in the late Nineteenth century. While the state had laid claim to this region, sections remained under federal control. John Muir, a prominent naturalist, argued that the state-managed areas were being exploited and lobbied congress to design the entire valley as a national park under total federal control.
Escalation Towards the Federal Control
In 1903, after an influential camping trip in Yosemite with John Muir, President Theodore Roosevelt became an avid supporter of the National Park concept. Three years later, Yosemite became the second national park under complete federal control.
The Antiquities Act
President Roosevelt, with the help of Congress, expanded the scope of the park system in 1906 through the Antiquities Act. This granted the president the authority to designate historic landmarks on public lands as national monuments.
Establishment of the National Park Service
For over 40 years, the nation’s parks were managed by different departments, including War, Agriculture, and the Interior. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson resolved this bureaucratic impasse by creating the National Park Service. This solidified the management and conservation efforts of these priceless reserves.
Executive Order 6166
Further evolution of the National Park System was brought about by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933. Through Executive Order 6166, he consolidated all national parks, monuments, memorials, and cemeteries into a single National Park System.
New Era in Conservation
Three decades later, President Lyndon B. Johnson ushered in a new era of conservation, emphasizing a “parks-for-the-people” ideology. This sought to make National Parks more accessible to the public, especially in urban areas. Since Johnson, the list of national parks has grown steadily.
The Current State
At present, California boasts the most national parks with nine, while Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park holds the title for the largest park. This unique system of National Parks showcases America’s natural diversity, from Everglades’ rivers of grass to Hawaii’s volcanoes.
Appreciation and Conservation
Imagining America without its National Parks is unthinkable. The US National Park System reflects how far Americans have come in their appreciation for the natural world. Today, the system stands as an example of successful conservation, a testament to the country’s commitment to preserving its natural beauty for generations to come.