Saturday, July 17, 2021

A quick primer on U.S. National Parks

As frequents visitors to and avid supporters of our national parks we contribute to several organizations whose missions involve improving the park system as well as individual parks in the U.S. In recent years funds have been cut which means staffs are smaller and maintenance issues must often wait for years.

Jackson Lake at Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming

But U.S. National Parks have become even more necessary and more visited in 2021 as families re-emerge into tourist mode. National parks are seeing an influx of people arriving this summer, which has resulted they saying that we are “loving the parks to death.” The resulting creation of a reservation system has provided an additional layer of protection in some of the most popular parks.

Having enjoyed these parks without such restrictions, I wanted to understand how the parks came to be and how future parks might be created.

History of the National Park System

In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant, and for the first time, the federal government set aside parkland for preservation and public use. Protecting Yosemite Valley paved the way for the creation of all our national parks.

Old Faithful in Yellowstone NP

The movement then took off with establishment of  Yellowstone National Park, the first national park, which was established by an act of Congress in 1872 "for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” You’ll see that phrase carved in Roosevelt Arch at Yellowstone. The park was placed under control of the Secretary of the Interior.

And in 1890, largely due to community activism, the Yosemite Valley was officially protected as Yosemite National Park. Amazingly, these acts began a worldwide national park movement. Today more than 100 nations have established 1200 national parks or equivalent preserved.

Half Dome at night in Yosemite NP

By 1916, Congress had designated numerous national parks and monuments, many of them carved from the federal lands of the West. The Department of the Interior was managing a large portfolio of protected landscapes across the country but had no official or unified leadership. Other natural and historical sites were still managed by the War Department and the Forest Service.

President Woodrow Wilson signed the act creating the National Park Service, which would have the responsibility to protect the 35 parks and monuments then managed by the Interior Department as well as any yet to be established. The National Park Service was given the charge to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life" in these special places.


In 1933, by Executive Order, 56 sites were transferred from the Forest Service and the War Department to the National Park Service, expanding the park system in recognition of the historical, scenic, and scientific significance of these areas, deserving of special protection.

Rafting on the Colorado River in Grand Canyon NP

Additions to the National Park System are now generally made through acts of Congress, and national parks can be created only through such acts. But any president has authority, under the Antiquities Act of 1906, to proclaim national monuments on lands already under federal jurisdiction. 
Moose and bears are among the wildlife you can see in 
Glacier National Park

The National Park Service still strives to meet its original goals, while filling many other roles as well: guardian of our diverse cultural and recreational resources; environmental advocate; partner in community revitalization, world leader in the parks and preservation community; and pioneer in the drive to protect America's open space.

Mission Concepcion in San Antonio, Texas is one of 
 the National Park Service historic sites.

 America’s National Park System is huge—including more than 400 sites and spanning 85 million acres across 50 states, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, Saipan, and the Virgin Islands. Today more than 20,000 National Park Service employees care for the parks and work with communities to increase recreational opportunities.

Looking into the crater at Volcanic NP in Hawaii

Parts of this article were reprinted from National Park Foundation site, and Quick History of the National Park Service (U.S. National Park Service) (

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier



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