The National Park Service preserves hundreds of natural and historical wonders of the United States for generations to come.
The scenic Going-to-the-Sun Road, a popular area among visitors to Glacier National Park in Montana. (Jacob W. Frank/National Park Service)
More than 75,000 archaeological sites. Nearly 27,000 prehistoric and historic landmarks. The longest cave system known in the world. More than 29,000 kilometers of trails. At least 247 species of threatened or endangered plants and animals. The world’s largest carnivore, the Alaskan brown bear, and the largest living things, Giant Sequoia trees.
The United States’ 417 national parks contain all of the above and much more across their 34 million hectares.
They not only reveal natural wonders, but also commemorate the country’s history. They tell the stories of the fight for civil rights in the United States through César E. Chávez National Monument in California and Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site in Arkansas, for example; the first Transcontinental Railroad through Golden Spike National Historic Site in Utah; and the nation’s founding history at Independence National Historic Park in Pennsylvania, among other important events.
To ensure access to these marvels and their preservation, the United States has the National Park Service.
It all started with the establishment of Yellowstone National Park by the U.S. Congress in 1872, “as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” It was placed under the control of the Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior.
In the following years, the United States went on to authorize more national parks and monuments. These, too, were administered by the Department of the Interior, while other monuments and natural and historical areas were administered by the War Department and the Forest Service of the Department of Agriculture. No single agency provided unified management of the federal parklands.
On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Organic Act and created the National Park Service. The law mandated that it would “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife” in these protected spaces, while also providing for the enjoyment of park visitors and ensuring those visitors leave the parks “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” The service was a new federal bureau in the Department of the Interior.
The shore at Gateway National Recreation Area’s Sandy Hook Unit in Monmouth County, New Jersey. Gateway preserves nearly 11,000 hectares of land and sea across New York and New Jersey, and three New York City boroughs. (Volunteer-in-Park Stan Kosinski/National Park Service)
Parks expanded in number and type as the years progressed, and with their expansion came more responsibility for the National Park Service. In the 1930’s, military parks and national monuments joined the register of national parks. Then, in the late 1960’s and 1970’s, came national parkways, seashores and urban parks. In 1980, Alaska’s national monuments, totaling over 19 million hectares, were added to the National Park System, nearly doubling its size.
The National Park System now includes 417 national parks, 150 related areas and numerous programs that assist in conserving the nation’s cultural and natural heritage.
The National Park Service helps administer the National Register of Historic Places, National Heritage Areas, the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Program, National Historic Landmarks Program, and National Scenic Trails. The enacted budget for fiscal year 2018 was $3.2 billion (Rs. 22,000 crores approximately). It currently employs more than 22,000 permanent, temporary and seasonal workers. More than 339,000 Volunteers-In-Parks also donate about eight million hours of time annually to support its efforts. In 2017, this team made it possible for nearly 331 million people to visit U.S. national parks.
The efforts of the National Park Service extend beyond park borders to American communities. It helps build trails and playgrounds, make available more affordable housing, protect watersheds, promote local history, return historic buildings to use, bring new life to neighborhoods and create stewardship opportunities for young people.
A park ranger leads visitors through a narrow ledge in the Fiery Furnace at Arches National Park in Utah. It is known for its red rocks and over 2,000 natural stone arches. (Andrew Kuhn/National Park Service)
The National Park Service ensures that visitors get a firsthand experience of nature and natural and social histories of the United States. As American author Wallace Stegner described the National Park Service in 1983: “National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”
Carrie Loewenthal Massey is a New York City-based freelance writer.