A Century of Stewardship


The National Park Service celebrates 100 years of caring for the country’s most iconic sites.

By Joe Yogerst

“Garden and park making goes on with civilization over all the world, for everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.” In 1912 Scottish-American naturalist John Muir penned those words in “The Yosemite,” one of many publications in which he campaigned for America’s national parks.

Thanks to outspoken advocates like Muir, the National Park Service (NPS) was established in 1916. Throughout 2016, its centennial is being marked by special events, celebrity visits and media productions at NPS sites across the country.

When the system initially launched, the nation boasted about 15 national parks; a hundred years later that number has grown to more than 400 units in all 50 states. The list includes iconic parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone, as well as national monuments, memorials, historic sites, battlefield parks and more.

These areas contain approximately 18,000 miles of trails, 75,000 archeological sites and hundreds of species of threatened or endangered plants and animals. From the Statue of Liberty and Mount Rushmore to the Lincoln Memorial and Gateway Arch, many of America’s most recognizable symbols also fall under the stewardship of the NPS.

In addition to caring for the nation’s natural and historic treasures, today the park service and its 20,000-plus employees help revitalize urban neighborhoods and rural communities, celebrate local heritage and create fun, educational and recreational opportunities for more than 300 million people who visit the parks each year. In honor of its anniversary, we take a look back at how the organization got started, how it has evolved and its plans for the next century of stewardship.

In the Beginning

The roots of the National Park Service stretch back to the early 19th century when writers, artists and nature lovers on both sides of the Atlantic called for some sort of formal protection for outstanding natural wonders.

President Andrew Jackson created the country’s first government-protected environmental area in 1832 by signing legislation that created a reservation around the bubbling pools of Hot Springs, Ark. But it wasn’t until 1872 that the first official national park was declared—a massive expanse of geysers and grizzly bears called Yellowstone. With advocates like Muir and President Teddy Roosevelt, the number of national parks, monuments and historic sites grew steadily through the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

By 1916, there were about 35 national parks and protected monuments scattered from coast to coast, managed by different governmental entities. As the number of such units grew, so did the outcry for a central authority to oversee them. “The idea of the national parks enjoyed broad, popular congressional support by the start of the 20th century,” explains Barclay Trimble, acting regional director for the NPS Southeast Region. “But there was probably some resistance in converting the reserves and monuments into a national park system. Most of this was probably due to the lack of a coordinated policy and leadership, and financial and administration for the parks that already existed, because they had kind of been bounced around to several different entities like the War Department, the Department of Agriculture and Department of [the] Interior.”

Yellowstone became the world’s first national park in 1872.

Speaking to the House Committee on the Public Lands in 1916, conservationist J. Horace McFarland made a plea that helped tip the balance: “The parks are the Nation’s pleasure grounds and the Nation’s restoring places, recreation grounds. . . . The national parks, Mr. Chairman, are an American idea; it is one thing we have that has not been imported. . . . These parks did not just happen; they came about because earnest men and women became violently excited at the possibility of these great assets passing from public control. . . . These great parks are, in the highest degree, as they stand today, a sheer expression of democracy, the separation of these lands from the public domain, to be held for the public, instead of being opened to private settlement.”

In August of that year, President Woodrow Wilson signed the act creating the National Park Service, with Stephen T. Mather as its first director. Trimble credits Mather with laying the foundation of the agency we know today. “Director Mather was the leader in transforming the poorly managed and underfinanced national parks and monuments into the centrally administered national park system starting in 1916,” he explains. “Under his dynamic leadership several national parks were established including Grand Canyon, Acadia, Zion, Bryce [Canyon], Lassen Volcano and Mount McKinley [Denali National Park]. He was also very successful in lobbying and enabling legislation for a lot of parks in the east that included the purchase of personal and private property. That included Smokey Mountain, Shenandoah and Mammoth Caves.”

During Mather’s tenure (1916 to 1929) many cornerstones of the National Park Service were also born, like uniformed rangers and interpretive programs. Visitation to the parks also grew steadily after creation of the NPS, from around 1 million people in 1920 to 17 million in 1940 and 79 million in 1960. Boosted by America’s booming middle class and the new interstate highway system, the parks became increasingly more popular in the 1960s and 1970s, reaching nearly 200 million visitors by Jimmy Carter’s presidency.

In 1980, President Carter doubled the size of the country’s national park and refuge system when he signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) into law. The act automatically created more than 43 million acres of new national parkland in Alaska including some of the largest and most dramatic parks, such as the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.

Today’s Parks

The number of parks continues to increase consistently. During the past few years, the NPS has undergone its biggest expansion since ANILCA. Among the new parks established during this flourish are Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace in Kentucky, Tule Springs Fossil Beds in the desert near Las Vegas and Valles Caldera supervolcano in New Mexico.

Other newly designated areas demonstrate how the NPS has evolved in modern times, such as Paterson Great Falls in New Jersey, the country’s first planned industral city, and the Blackstone River Valley, the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution, which spans Rhode Island and Massachusetts. A unique new addition, the Manhattan Project National Historical Park includes sites Los Alamos, N.M., Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Hanford, Wis., all of which are associated with the development of the first atomic bombs and nuclear energy.

Once visited by only a handful of people who could afford the train journey and stagecoach passage to remote areas—and outfit their own expeditions to stay overnight—America’s national parks have become some of the world’s leading tourist attractions. More than 305 million people visited them in 2015, and the centennial is expected to shatter previous attendance records.

Grand Canyon National Park was established in 1919.

Special events in honor of the anniversary are sure to contribute to the increased number of visitors. From free entrance days to limited-time exhibits, the NPS is celebrating with a wide variety of exciting oppotunities across the country throughout 2016. In Georgia, Fort Pulaski National Monument is holding a Centennial Series on the third Sunday of each month, encouraging both travelers and locals to come experience the park. It will also host a living history event during Veterans Day weekend, and a family-friendly festival following Thanksgiving. For those who are inspired to assist with the park service’s mission, Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park, which preserves a Civil War battleground, seeks volunteers to help maintain the area’s 20-plus miles of trails during Trail Work Days each month. Details for all of the special events can be found at findyourpark.com.

While an ever-increasing number of visitors is certainly welcome, popularity creates challenges that were never imagined in bygone days. In addition to cameras and camping equipment, the mass influx of people has brought along issues like traffic congestion and pollution that were virtually nonexistent in the parks 40 years ago. Parks such as Yosemite have already started addressing traffic concerns with solutions like shuttle buses.

Budget constraints hamper faster action on many of the current issues facing the national parks. Federal appropriations, while essential, only sustain basic operations. The NPS must rely on other funding sources to enhance and expand efforts to protect the parks, improve the visitor experience, offer innovative programs and engage younger generations. Those sources include the National Park Foundation (NPF) and hundreds of community-based nonprofit national park “friends” groups scattered across the country. In recognition of the centennial, the NPF is currently in the midst of its largest-ever fundraising drive, aiming to raise $350 million by September 2018.

Looking to the Future

“The National Park Service as a whole and the centennial is about inspiring our younger generations, and individuals from all walks of life to get out, love the great outdoors, and be part of that rich history and cultural aspects the park service tells,” Trimble says. “One of our main challenges is getting youth outdoors and realizing their ownership and the value of public lands while fostering them as our future stewards. Without their enjoyment and buy-in, I think it’s going to be very problematic for the park service.”

Paterson Great Falls National Historic Park

When the NPS was established in 1916, some observers figured the system couldn’t possibly grow much more—there were already almost 40 units, how many parks did the nation really need? In the century that followed, that number increased 10 times. And while that growth rate is not expected to repeat again over the next hundred years, the system continues to expand in new and interesting ways.

Looking forward, Trimble says one of the major thrusts of the NPS over the next century will be “telling stories that reflect the diversity of our nation.” Several new national parks are already in the works including Maine Woods, a proposed 3.2-million-acre preserve that would protect that largest tract of undeveloped forest east of the Rocky Mountains. Meanwhile, conservation and citizen groups are lobbying the park service and Congress for the establishment of other new parks; among these are the Ocmulgee River region in Georgia, the Mobile-Tensaw Delta in Alabama and the Atchafalaya Basin in Louisiana.

“The next hundred years could prove challenging,” Trimble says. “Climate change and funding are going to be two main issues we face moving forward; [for example, Montana’s] Glacier park possibly not having any glaciers and sea level rising in coastal parks. It really gets back to finding that ownership and that people understand the benefit of the parks. But the heart and soul of our agency—which is to preserve and protect the parks for future generations—that’s not going to be changing.” 

Find Your Park

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service (NPS), the organization worked with nonprofit partner National Park Foundation to launch Find Your Park, a movement to encourage people of all ages—but in particular young people—to explore the parks and support the community-based programs that sustain them. The heart of the campaign is the interactive website findyourpark.com, an easily navigable way for people to find parks and other NPS sites according to a specific interest or location. It invites everyone to discover and share their own unique connections to our nation’s natural landscapes, culture and history.

Xanterra Parks & Resorts, which operates many of the lodges, restaurants and other concessions in national parks, has created microsite (xanterra.com/findyourpark) to promote the campaign. Through tour operator Austin Adventures, Xanterra offers a number of unique experiences in the famous western national parks, including:


Roaming across scenic northern Arizona, this six-day, kid-friendly adventure includes visits to Bearizona Wildlife Park and a train ride to the South Rim, where everyone can gaze down into the legendary canyon.


With snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and dog sledding across the park’s snow-covered meadows by day, and regional cuisine beside a roaring fireplace by night, this six-day trip is perfect for adventure lovers.


This journey in and around the famous Oregon park includes a hike into the caldera to see the nation’s deepest lake, as well as rafting the wild and scenic Rogue River and opportunities to sample local produce, cheese, wine and beer.

Centennial Spin-Offs

The National Park Service and other agencies have created a number of ways to celebrate the anniversary.

NATIONAL PARKS ADVENTURE is a new IMAX movie from MacGillivray Freeman Films. Narrated by actor Robert Redford, it follows three American adventurers exploring multiple picturesque parks during different seasons.

The United States Mint is marking the anniversary with a series of COMMEMORATIVE COINS including a $5 gold piece that features John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt with Yosemite’s Half Dome in the background, and a silver dollar with Yellowstone’s Old Faithful geyser.

The United States Postal Service released 16 NATIONAL PARK FOREVER STAMPS, each highlighting a national park or an associated plant, animal, object or structure. Featured parks include Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Everglades National Park and Grand Canyon National Park.


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