The National Park System: America’s Best Idea

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Podcast Transcript

In 19th century America, a movement began to take areas of exceptional natural beauty and preserve them.

This idea of setting aside land for the purpose of preservation is something that was never really taken seriously before. 

These areas became known as national parks, and they spawned a movement of land preservation that spread around the world and continues to this day. 

Learn more about National Parks, America’s best idea, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The idea of a national park is something that was a new world phenomenon and really only could have come from the new world. 

In the old world, that being the massive Afro-Eurasian landmass, people had lived everywhere pretty much all the time. 

There weren’t really any areas that were considered to be untouched or unspoiled. There were just places where people didn’t live, and if people didn’t live there, no one was aware of it, given the difficulties in transportation.

When Europeans arrived in the New World, they found a land unlike where they came from. 

In some parts of the New World, there were advanced civilizations with agriculture. However, other parts of the New World were populated by nomadic peoples who didn’t have as much of an impact on the land. 

The first Europeans in North America settled on the east coast of the continent. They started farms and towns, different but not too dissimilar to what they had back in Europe. 

As in Europe, they was really no movement to protect and preserve land in the east.

It was only when explorers started to go west in the 19th century that they found something unlike what they had seen before, and the seeds were planted for what eventually became the national park system. 

The first person to raise the idea of setting aside areas for preservation was the artist George Catlin. He took a trip to the northern Great Plains in 1832 and could see what the future held in store for this region. 

He saw a future of settlers moving west, setting up farms, and destroying the wildlife and the culture of the Indians who lived in the region. He proposed setting aside land to preserve this area before it was lost.

He proposed creating a park, “by some great protecting policy of government… in a magnificent park… a nation’s park, containing man and beast, in all the wild[ness] and freshness of their nature’s beauty!”

No action was taken on his proposal. 

However, soon after, there began an artistic movement of American Transcendentalism where artists such as Thomas Cole and writers such as Henry David Thoreau began to elevate the natural world. To them, nature was something to be appreciated, not something to be overcome.

As western expansion continued, there was more and more pressure to protect some of the outstanding locations before they were overrun. 

The first action toward the protection of a park was taken in 1864, in the middle of the Civil War. 

The State of California made a request to congress to transfer ownership of Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Giant Sequoia Grove to the state to “be used and preserved for the benefit of mankind.”

On June 30, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed a law to transfer the land on the condition that the land “be held for public use, resort, and recreation…inalienable for all time.”

There was one other particular area in the west that gathered a great deal of attention. It was known as the Yellowstone. 

For decades reports from trappers and mountain men dribbled back east about this amazing place where steam came out of the ground and shot into the air. 

It wasn’t until 1869 that an official expedition to the Yellowstone took place, known as the Cook–Folsom–Peterson Expedition. This was followed by several other expeditions in the years immediately following, which mapped the region and documented the wildlife found there. 

This led to the passage of the Act of Dedication, which was signed by President Ulysses S Grant on march 1, 1872.  It created Yellowstone as the world’s first national park. 

The act read, “Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the tract of land in the Territories of Montana and Wyoming … is hereby reserved and withdrawn from settlement, occupancy, or sale under the laws of the United States, and dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people; and all persons who shall locate, or settle upon, or occupy the same or any part thereof, except as hereinafter provided, shall be considered trespassers and removed there from …

Yellowstone is worthy of an episode of its own, but suffice it to say that it is one of the most amazing places in the world. The geysers, hot springs, waterfalls, elk, and bison all set Yellowstone apart.

By 1886, it became necessary for the park to be administered and protected, so the US Army was commissioned to manage the park. 

Once Yellowstone was set aside as a park, it opened the door to other areas being declared a park as well. 

The second national park was declared just three years later, in 1875. Mackinac Island is an island in Lake Huron between the northern and southern peninsulas of Michigan. It was the location of an army base and saw activity during the War of 1812.

Mackinac Island National Park, however, was reverted to the state of Michigan in 1895 and taken off the roster of national parks. 

It wasn’t until 15 years later that the next national parks were created. On September 25, 1890, Sequoia National Park was established, and just six days later, Yosemite National Park and General Grant National Parks came into existence.

General Grant National Park was later expanded and renamed Kings Canyon National Park. 

As with Yellowstone, Yosemite and Sequoia were administered by the US Army. In fact, from 1899 to 1913, the park was administered in part by the US 9th Cavalry, who was also known as Buffalo Soldiers. 

In 1903, Captain Charles Young, one of the only black officers serving with the Buffalo Soldiers, was named the superintendent of Sequoia National Park. 

These cavalry soldiers who served in the park, most of whom were veterans of the Spanish-American War, creased their hats in a style that was called a Montana Peak. That is the same style that the park ranger hats are today.

Over the next 15 years, there were several new national parks established.

Mount Rainier National Park in 1899, 

Crater Lake National Park in 1902,

And Wind Cave National Park in 1903.

In the early 20th century, a movement began to extend protection beyond natural sites to cultural ones. In particular, the pueblos and cliff dwellings found throughout the southwest.  Thieves would often enter these sites to hunt for artifacts to sell them to collectors. 

This resulted in the passage of The Antiquities Act of 1906.

The Antiquities Act allowed the president “to declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest.”

These public lands, which were protected by presidential proclamation, were called National Monuments. 

The distinction between a national park and a national monument has more to do with how it was established than anything else. Sites with a national park designation are created by an act of Congress. Sites with a national monument designation can be created by presidential decree, assuming it was already federal land. Many current national parks were once national monuments. 

The first national monument was declared on September 24, 1906, by President Theodore Roosevelt: Devil’s Tower, Wyoming. 

As the number of national parks and monuments started to proliferate, there was a problem. The administration of the parks was split between the Army, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of the Interior. 

There was no coherent strategy for the administration of the national parks. There were demands in congress and among executive departments for a single organization that would be responsible for park management. 

On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed into law an act that created the National Park Service. The first director of the National Park Service was Stephen Mather.

There are still plaques you can find at 59 park service locations dedicated to Stephen Mather, although you often have to know where to look.

The National Park Service was a unit of the Department of the Interior. It was given control of all parks and monuments, which were controlled by the Department of the Interior, and all future parks and monuments. 

However, despite the creation of a Park Service, there still wasn’t a coherent park system because of all the legacy parks which were still under different departments. 

This was rectified in 1933 when President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 6166, which placed all federal parks, monuments, battlefields, cemeteries, and memorials under the purview of the National Park Service. A total of 56 sites were transferred.

This expanded the park service by placing many things, such as the Washington Monument and the Statue of Liberty, under their administration.

This reorganization also included all of the parks in the District of Columbia, as the district was under direct federal control at the time. 

The Great Depression dramatically expanded the number of sites as many monuments and parks were established as make-work programs.

One particular issue which was addressed in the 1930s was a lack of parks in the eastern United States. Almost all of them were in the west, where most of the land was under federal ownership. East of the Mississippi, most land was privately held. 

This led to the establishment of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Unlike other parks, which were already federal, Shenandoah required the forced eviction of over 450 families, most of whom were subsistence farmers.

There was an expansion of types of sites in the park system, including national seashores, lakeshores, parkways, historic sites, and recreation areas.

In the 100 years since the National Park Service was established, the park system has grown significantly. 

As of the time of recording, there are now 424 individual units in the National Park System, 63 of which are designated as ‘national parks’ proper.  Every president since William McKinley has added at least one unit to the National Park System. 

One president, Gerald Ford, was a former park ranger at Yellowstone National Park. 

Every state and territory has at least one national park service unit, ranging from Delaware with one to California with 28. 

The parks also have a wide range of visitors. The Blue Ridge National Parkway had 15.7 million visitors in 2022. The least visited unit is Aniakchak National Monument which claims fewer than 300 visitors per year. 

Having spoken to the bush plane service that flies to Aniakchak, I believe 300 visitors per year is greatly overestimated. 

In 1986, the Park Service established the National Park Passport program. You can buy a passport book which can then be stamped at every unit in the park service.  I am personally on my third book. 

National Parks are some of the biggest attractions for foreign tourists to the United States, in particular the big three parks, Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon. 

The national parks have been a big part of my travels. Whenever I have to make a trip, I will always try to make a side trip to visit a national park unit if there is one nearby. To date, I have visited 226 of the 242 units in the system and 57 of the 63 national parks proper. 

The national park system is almost always rated as the most popular government agency, regardless of political orientation. It is the one part of the US Government which has been emulated by more countries than any other. 

It should come as no surprise that the National Park Service has been called America’s Best idea.

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

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History & Then Some Made Fun

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