National Park Quilts

History of the National Park Service

National Park Service Centennial 1916 – 2016

The National Park Service was established The Organic Act on August 25, 1916. The Organic Act states that the purpose of the National Park Service is “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

The new National Park Service authorized the use of motorized transportation in the national parks. Prior to that horse-drawn transportation was the main form of transportation in the national parks. Prior to 1916 the tourists who visited the national parks were primarily wealthy travelers who were referred to as “The Carriage Class.” They traveled to the national parks on the railways and toured the parks in buggies and stagecoaches.

The automobile clubs lobbied for the improvement of highways and the legal right to travel in the national parks. The common man and woman could not travel to and through the national parks in their own vehicle. This was a fundamental change and the parks became accessible to the general public at large.

National Park Service Act (1916)

On December 19, 1913, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Raker Act, which authorized San Francisco to construct a dam at the mouth of Hetch Hetchy Valley in the Tuolumne River watershed of Yosemite National Park. The Raker Act was preceded by more than a decade of detailed analysis of the city’s need for a supplemental supply of water as well as an exhaustive analysis of the alternative sources. Congress passed the act following six months of bitter debate. On one side were progressives, who favored municipal control of water and electric utilities, and conservationists, who believed that the public lands should be used to produce the greatest good for the greatest number of people. On the other side were the preservationists, a new environmental constituency led by John Muir and the Sierra Club. Preservationists argued that the national parks should be preserved and protected for the public’s enjoyment and appreciation of scenic beauty and natural wonders. The Hetch Hetchy controversy was the last battle of John Muir’s life, and he was devastated by the loss. Friends described him as isolated and despondent. From his home in Martinez, California, Muir wrote to Vernon Kellogg of Palo Alto on December 27, 1913: “As to the loss of the Sierra Park Valley it’s hard to bear. The destruction of the charming groves and gardens, the finest in all California, goes to my heart. But in spite of Satan & Co. some sort of compensation must surely come out of this dark damn-dam-damnation.” Muir died the following December.

The Need for a National Park Policy

The Hetch Hetchy debate highlighted two flaws in the prevailing philosophy of national park management. First, although Congress had reserved several million acres of land from the public domain to create fourteen national parks—including Yellowstone (1872), Yosemite (1890), Sequoia and General Grant (1890), Mount Rainier (1899), Crater Lake (1902), Mesa Verde (1906), Glacier (1910), and Rocky Mountain (1915)—it had not set forth a coherent national park policy. For example, Congress established Yellowstone National Park to protect its geothermal resources and wildlife; Yosemite to preserve its granite valleys, meadows, and high peaks; Sequoia to protect its redwood forests; and Mesa Verde for its archaeological resources.

Second, Congress had failed to answer a variety of important questions about national park management and use:

  • Hotels and roads were constructed in Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Glacier, whereas other parks remained relatively undeveloped. Should the special features of the parks be preserved in their natural state or improved for the benefit of tourists?
  • Hunting was authorized in Yellowstone. In Mount Rainier National Park, prospectors could stake new mining claims and were allowed to cut timber as needed to supply operations. Sheep and cattle were driven from the San Joaquin Valley each summer to feast on the meadows and other forage in Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows. Does the reservation of land for use as a national park necessarily rule out other uses?
  • The Hetch Hetchy controversy had focused Congress’s attention on the tension between preservation and conservation more than had any previous conflict. Is it possible to protect the scenic wonders for which the national parks were created while also putting the resources of the parks to use to produce the greatest good for the greatest number?

Creation of the National Park System

In an effort to answer at least some of these questions, Congress enacted the National Park Service Act of 1916 (39 Stat. 535), which created the national park system. Although Muir did not live to see it, this act partly compensated for the loss of Hetch Hetchy Valley and turned his vision of protected lands into reality. The act gathered into a single system the fourteen national parks and twenty-one national monuments and created a National Park Service to manage that system. In defining the land and resource management responsibilities of the Park Service, Congress adopted the preservationists’ vision for the national parks, declaring that the fundamental purpose of the national park system is “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

Over the next two decades, Congress significantly expanded the national park system, adding, among others, Mount McKinley (now Denali National Park, 1917); the Grand Canyon, Acadia, and Zion (1919); Bryce Canyon (1924); the Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah (1926); Grand Teton (1929); Carlsbad Caverns (1930); Isle Royale (1931); the Everglades (1934); Big Bend (1935); and Olympic (1938). Under the leadership of its first directors, Stephen Mather and Horace Albright, the National Park Service managed its lands for the protection and preservation of the unique features that caused the lands to be set aside in the first place. Although many parks remained open to preexisting activities such as grazing and mining, neither the Park Service nor Congress was willing to authorize new uses that would be inconsistent with the preservationists’ goals.

The Park Service Today

Today, the National Park Service manages 383 parks, monuments, recreation areas, battlefield preserves, memorials, historic sites, lakeshores, seashores, scenic trails, and wild and scenic river corridors—more than 80 million acres of land. The national park system extends from the islands of Acadia National Park in Maine to the Hawaii Volcanoes in the Pacific, and from the Gates of the Arctic in Alaska to Florida’s Everglades. It includes North America’s highest peak (Denali) and its lowest elevation (Death Valley). The system embraces the vast and remote wilderness of the Alaska parks and preserves; the summer crowds of Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon; the urban refuges of the Golden Gate and New York Gateway recreation areas; the still waters of Crater Lake; the powerboats of Lake Mead and Lake Powell; the monoliths of Mount Rainier and Devil’s Tower; the remnants of the Anasazi; the symbols of the Revolution at Valley Forge and Philadelphia; and the solemn memorials of Gettysburg, Arlington, and the Capitol Mall.

The National Park Service has not yet resolved the tensions that were present at its creation. Traffic jams in Yosemite Valley and the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, snowmobiles in Yellowstone and Grand Teton, and stresses on fragile ecosystems in Mesa Verde and Carlsbad increasingly pose conflicts between the twin goals of the National Park Service Act—to preserve the parks and their natural resources while also providing for their use and enjoyment. Clear cuts on national forest land along the edge of Redwood National Park, oil exploration adjacent to Arches, and pollution flowing into the Everglades expose the parks as “helpless giants”—affected by human activities outside their borders but lacking clear legal authority to protect their lands and resources. And the Park Service has struggled with the question of whether the national parks should provide accommodations and entertainment similar to those found in the communities from which their visitors have come (hotels, fast food, and structured recreational activities, for example) or instead offer a unique wilderness (or at least quasi-wilderness) experience—what Professor Joseph Sax, a national park scholar, has called “Mountains without Handrails.”

Yet despite these tensions and management conflicts, the national parks system is an essential American institution, evoking and preserving our grandest mountains, most majestic canyons, verdant forests, and cherished cultural artifacts. To quote Wallace Stegner, one of the American West’s greatest writers, our national parks remain “the best idea we ever had.”