Turning 100: Major Milestones in the National Park Service

For a century, the National Park Service has protected our nation’s treasures. Every day, it works to ensure that current and future generations can enjoy national parks -- places that belong to all Americans. As we celebrate the National Park Service’s 100th birthday, check out the top moments in the National Park Service’s history. 

 

1864: The birth of the national park idea.

The origin of the National Park Service can be traced back to 1864 when Congress and President Lincoln set aside Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias -- land that would later become Yosemite National Park in California.This was the first time the federal government protected land because of its natural beauty so that people could enjoy it. 

granite cliffs form a valley
First protected in 1864, Yosemite National Park is best known for its waterfalls, but within its nearly 1,200 square miles, you can find deep valleys, grand meadows, ancient giant sequoias, a vast wilderness area, and much more. Photo by Lesli Cohan (www.sharetheexperience.org).

1872: The world’s first national park.

Eight years after Congress protected Yosemite, they drew upon the same precedent to preserve the natural and historic features of Yellowstone. Unable to grant Yellowstone to any state (the land was still federal territory), Congress put Yellowstone under federal protection March 1, 1872, creating the first national park and what many have called America’s Best Idea. The founding of Yellowstone National Park began a worldwide national park movement that today includes some 1,200 national parks or preserves in more than 100 nations.

woman with an umbrella walks on a boardwalk at sunset rain storm
When President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act into law, it protected more than 2 million acres of mountain wilderness, amazing geysers and vibrant landscapes for future generations to enjoy. Photo by Manish Mamtani (www.sharetheexperience.org).

 

1906: The first national park to preserve our culture.

In the southwest corner of what is today Colorado, Ancestral Pueblo peoples lived and flourished from about A.D. 550 to 1300. Fast forward to June 29, 1906, when President Theodore Roosevelt established Mesa Verde National Park to preserve the nearly 5,000 known archeological sites of this ancient culture. It was the first time a national park was created to conserve man-made objects and established the importance of protecting America’s history.

stars over ancient building in the cliffs
Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park was the first park to preserve the “works of man.” The park’s famous structures include cliff dwellings and the mesa top sites of pithouses, pueblos, masonry towers, and farming structures. Photo of the Milky Way rising over Cliff Palace by Thomas Piekunka (www.sharetheexperience.org).

 

1916: National Park Service is born.

On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the into law the “Organic Act,” creating the National Park Service. This new bureau was responsible for protecting America’s 35 already existing national parks and monuments and those yet to be established. The National Park Service became the first federal bureau dedicated to conserving landscapes for future generations and connecting Americans to nature.

snow-capped mountain with a hiking trail through green forest with purple flowers
The 5th national park, Mount Rainier National Park in Washington includes 235,625 acres, 260 miles of maintained trails and 147 miles of roads. It was one of the 35 existing national parks that the National Park Service was created to protect. Photo by Sam Braverman (www.sharetheexperience.org).

 

1916: Bringing national parks to the East Coast.

National parks bring to mind the rugged wilderness of the American West, but there are breathtakingly beautiful landscapes throughout the country worth conserving. Around the same time that the National Park Service was created in 1916, there was a growing movement to preserve Maine’s Acadian landscape of forests and seashore. Eventually it became Acadia National Park, the first east coast national park. 

pond with rocks in the foreground surrounded by green hills and blue sky
The first eastern national park, Acadia’s rugged coast has beckoned visitors for ages. Today people from all over the world come to Acadia to hike granite peaks, bike historic carriage roads, or relax and enjoy the scenery. Photo by Kristopher Schoenleber (www.sharetheexperience.org).

 

1933: Becoming America’s storyteller.

Before there was a National Park Service, monuments and natural and historical areas were managed by the War and Agriculture Departments. That changed in 1933 when 56 national monuments and military sites like Pennsylvania's Gettysburg National Military Park were transferred to the National Park Service. It was a major step in the development of what is today's national park system, which includes areas of historical, scenic and scientific importance.

red skies over a grassy meadow with two cannons
Fought over the first three days of July 1863, the Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania was one of the most crucial battles of the Civil War. On those hills and fields, over 160,000 soldiers struggled to survive. Today preserved as Gettysburg National Military Park, visitors can hear their stories and walk in their footsteps. Photo by Doug Shearer (www.sharetheexperience.org).

 

1933-1942: Putting people to work in national parks.

In 1933, the U.S. was in the depths of the Great Depression. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sought to change that by putting the unemployed to work through the Civilian Conservation Corps, while also conserving the country’s national resources. Groups of men fanned out across the country, planting billions of trees, fighting wildfires and building roads and trails at places like Shenandoah and Glacier national parks. Today, parks continue to be economic powerhouses by driving travel and tourism to the surrounding communities. For every $1 invested in the National Park Service, it returns $10 to the U.S. economy.

sun rays stream through clouds into a valley
Called the Crown of the Continent, Glacier National Park is a sight to behold with pristine forests, alpine meadows, rugged mountains, and spectacular lakes. During the 1930s and 40s, the Civilian Conservation Corps constructed buildings, trails and roads, but most importantly, they helped suppress forest fires in the area. Photo by National Park Service.

 

2016: From 35 to more than 400 national parks.

A century after the National Park Service was created, it is now responsible for more than 400 park locations covering more than 84 million acres in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, Saipan and the Virgin Islands. One of the newest additions is Stonewall National Monument -- the first national monument that honors the history of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community. It’s another step in telling America’s story and making sure every American sees her or himself reflected in national parks.

sidewalk through a tree-filled park
On June 24, 2016, President Obama designated Stonewall National Monument, the first national monument that honors the history of LGBT Americans. The monument includes Christopher Park, the Stonewall Inn, and the surrounding streets and sidewalks that were the site of the 1969 Stonewall Uprising, an event that inspired the modern LGBT civil rights movement. Photo by National Park Service.

As we celebrate 100 years of the National Park Service, we encourage you to get out there and discover (or rediscover) the amazing destinations that tell America’s story. #FindYourPark today! 

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