The National Park Service, or NPS, is a federal agency within the U.S. Department of the Interior. The U.S. Congress made Yellowstone America’s first national park in 1872. In the years that followed, environmentalists including John Muir lobbied for wilderness preservation throughout the American West with the creation of several more national parks and monuments. President Woodrow Wilson established the National Park Service in 1916 to consolidate management of America’s federal parklands under one agency. The National Park Service today manages 84 million acres across all U.S. states and territories, and has served as a model for countries around the world.
Prior to the nineteenth century, most Europeans and Americans viewed nature solely as a resource for food, clothing and shelter. In Europe, early attempts at nature preservation centered upon the efforts of wealthy landowners to conserve trees for timber and wildlife for game hunting.
While America’s national parks drew upon earlier examples of European woodland preservation, they were a uniquely American idea rooted in democracy, philosophy and art.
Popular 19th-century writers, including transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman drew inspiration from nature, while artists of the era—including Thomas Cole, Asher Durand and Albert Bierstadt—depicted the sublime beauty of the American landscape. These writers and artists influenced the ideals of the American conservation movement.
Many Americans at the time also believed in Manifest Destiny, or America’s moral mission to expand westward. As settlers and explorers traveled the West, they discovered awe-inspiring scenery in places such as California’s Yosemite Valley and along Wyoming’s Yellowstone River.
Early travelers and writers, including naturalist John Muir, brought the wonders of the West’s wild places to those who had never seen them. Americans, in turn, began to develop a sense of national pride in these wilderness areas. Prominent citizens advocated for the protection of such areas from commercial interest and development.
In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln responded to their pressure by creating the Yosemite Grant Act to protect land in the Yosemite Valley.
The Yosemite Act set a precedent for the creation of the national parks. It was the first time the U.S. federal government had set aside land specifically for preservation and public use.
Yellowstone: America’s First National Park
The United States Congress established the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act in 1872. The bill’s creators envisioned a “pleasuring ground” for the enjoyment of all Americans—except for Native Americans, who would be effectively excluded from park land.
President Ulysses S. Grant signed the landmark bill into law on March 1, making Yellowstone America’s—and the world’s—first national park.
The Act, which set aside 1,221,773 acres of public land in the future states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, broke with the established policy of transferring public lands in the West to private ownership.
In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act, which gave presidents the authority to create national monuments to preserve areas of natural or historic interest on public lands. The purpose of the Act was largely to protect prehistoric Native American ruins and artifacts.
Roosevelt used the Act to declare Devil’s Tower in Wyoming the first national monument, though he wasn’t the first president to set aside public land for cultural preservation.
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National Park Service Created
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, each national park and monument was independently managed, with varying degrees of success.
In Yellowstone, for instance, explorer Nathaniel Langford was appointed the park’s first superintendent. He was provided no salary, funding or staff and lacked the resources to protect the park against poachers and vandals. The U.S. Army assumed control of the park in 1886.
Between 1908 and 1913, the U.S. Congress debated whether to dam the Hetch Hetchy Valley to provide a steady supply of drinking water to the growing city of San Francisco.
But the Hetch Hetchy Valley was within the confines of Yosemite National Park. Preservationists led by John Muir and the Sierra Club argued that the valley should be protected against human interference, though Congress eventually allowed the building of the dam.
After the Hetch Hetchy controversy, the Sierra Club and its environmental allies petitioned the government for stronger protection of national parkland through the creation of a unified federal service to manage the parks.
The new agency’s mission was to conserve the scenery, natural and historic objects and wildlife within the parks 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.”
American industrialist Stephen Mather became the first head of the NPS. Mather introduced concession operations into the National Parks where tourists could purchase food and other basic necessities. He also promoted the creation of a highway system that would make national parks more accessible by automobile.
National Park Service Today
The National Park Service today oversees 417 parks and monuments covering more than 84 million acres. In 2016, roughly 331 million people visited sites within the National Park System.
The NPS estimates that these sites contribute about $35 million a year to the U.S. economy.
Alt National Park Service
In recent years, the National Park Service has faced severe funding cuts. Between 2011 and 2018, the NPS decreased its workforce by 11 percent, despite the fact that visitation to parks climbed to record high levels during that period.
The House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee passed an act in late 2017 that would make it harder to create new national monuments under the Antiquities Act and would give presidents the authority to reduce the size of existing national monuments.
As a result of these changes, a protest movement known as Alt National Park Service has sprung up. The group is composed of NPS employees as well as federal government officials from other departments, state park administrators, environmental scientists and others.
The stated mission of the Alt National Park Service is to “stand up for the National Park Service to help protect and preserve the environment for future generations to come.”
National Park Service Overview; National Park Service.
Hetch Hetchy Environmental Debates; National Archives.
Act Establishing Yellowstone National Park; U.S. Library of Congress.
Alt National Park Service; altnps.org.