National Park Service (NPS) Essay

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Created in 1916 by an act of Congress, the National Park Service (NPS) is a federal agency within the Department of the Interior that manages all U.S. national parks, many national monuments, and historic and conservation areas of various designations. The NPS employs over 20,000 people and extends over 84.4 million acres of land in 49 States, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, Saipan, and the Virgin Islands.

The stated goal of the NPS 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.” From the outset, the NPS was charged with a true paradox: To find a balance between preservation and public enjoyment.

In 2006 the national park system controlled 390 park units, 58 of which are designated as national parks. The remaining units include national historical parks, monuments, memorials, preserves, historic trails, outdoor recreation areas, wild and scenic rivers, lakeshores, seashores, battlefields, and cemeteries. The national park system is the oldest in the world and is often called “America’s best idea.” It has served as a model for national park designation and protection worldwide, as the success of the U.S. national park system spurred other countries to follow suit.

It was concern about the impact of development on the native people, wildlife, and wilderness of the American West that prompted the concept of national parks; artist George Catlin is often credited with the idea. Two of the cornerstones of the early park system were those crown jewels of the West, Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks. Yosemite was first designated a state park in 1864 and made a national park in 1906; Yellowstone became the first national park in 1872.

Many national park and national monument designations soon followed. However, national parks were established before a system to manage them was formed. This caused numerous problems at the outset, as there were no funds to maintain, enforce, and protect the parks from looters, vandals, poachers, and unruly tourists. Some of the first park superintendents worked without pay or used their own funds to finance management of parks. Congress continued to create parks without securing funds to manage or protect them-causing problems for park managers for years.

Without a management system, competing interests caused further debates. Utilitarians, who believed lands should be used for irrigation, urban water supplies, and hydroelectric dams, clashed with preservationists, who wished to protect the aesthetic beauty of these places. Finally, in 1916 President Woodrow Wilson signed legislation creating the NPS, and Stephen Mather was named the first director.

Over the next several decades the NPS continued to expand, acquiring lands primarily in the western United States. Reorganization of the system in the 1930s expanded NPS further, allowing for the service to take over the management of all present and future national monuments and the War Department’s historic parks and monuments. The NPS now managed both historic and natural sites across the United States and increased its presence in the east. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The CCC employed thousands of jobless young men during the Great Depression in conservation, rehabilitation, and construction projects in both national and state parks. Today many of the structures that they built remain among the most impressive in the system.

Park visitation and developmental pressures continued to increase during the 1950s through 1970s. Americans were becoming more attached to their automobiles and wanted to experience the beauty of the parks by car. Rampant road building prompted the passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964. This act created additional protection from roads, vehicles, and other forms of human disturbance on federal lands. From the 1970s through the 1990s the expansion and growth of the NPS outpaced any previous time period. Ninety-seven new parks were created during this period alone. Park visitation also has steadily increased, with 4.6 million visitors in 2004. A steady stream of visitors and encroaching urban areas take their toll on park lands. Since 1980 the service has focused on improving protection of the parks’ natural and cultural resources while continuing to accommodate increasing numbers of visitors.

As with any social institution, the NPS’s objectives are often dynamic, guided by the values, ideals, and concerns of society. Over the years, the NPS has expanded its role from park enforcement and management to a wider range of goals. A recent mandate involves increasing ethnographic research to document cultural, religious, or subsistence connections of Native Americans and other diverse cultural groups to park land. The NPS is also emphasizing education and interpretation activities, using parks as classrooms to help increase public understanding of the importance of ecosystem health and protection. By educating the public about land stewardship and conservation, the NPS hopes to ensure that the next generation will be able to experience the beauty of this country’s public lands.


  1. Barry Mackintosh, The First 75 Years: Preserving Our Past for the Future (Eastern National Park and Monument Association, 1990);
  2. Barry Mackintosh, The National Parks: Shaping the System (National Park Service, 1991);
  3. National Park Service,;
  4. Hal Rothman, America’s National Monuments: The Politics of Preservation (University Press of Kansas, 1989);
  5. Dyan Zaslowsky and the Wilderness Society, These American Lands (Henry Holt, 1986).

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