Agency Spotlight-History of the National Park Service

Jun 6, 2017


History of the National Park Service

Originally, national parks and monuments were individually managed under the Department of Labor. A movement for an independent agency to oversee federal lands was led by a businessman and conservationist, Stephen Mather, and J. Horace McFarland. With the help of journalist Robert Sterling Yard, they ran a publicity campaign for the Department of the Interior. They wrote numerous articles praising the scenic and historic qualities of the parks and their possibilities for educational, inspirational, and recreational benefits.

Their campaign resulted in the creation of the National Park Service. On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed a bill that mandated the agency “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wildlife therein, and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such a manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations”. Since then, NPS has managed each of the national parks.

The First National Park

Yellowstone National Park was the first national park. California state leaders sought to protect Yosemite Valley. In 1864, CA Senator John Carness sponsored an act to transfer the valley to the state so it might “be used and preserved for the benefit of mankind”. President Abraham Lincoln signed this act of Congress on June 30, 1864. The state of California was granted the valley on the condition it would “be held for public use, resort, and recreation…. inalienable for all time”.

There was no state government in 1872 to manage it, so the federal government assumed direct control. In the beginning, each park was managed independently. However, due to irregularities managing these national parks, Stephen Mather (Director of NPS) petitioned the federal government for improvement. In response, the Secretary of the Interior, Franklin K. Lane, challenged him to lobby for creating a new agency, the National Park Service, to manage all national parks and some national monuments.

He was successful with the ratification of the National Park Service Organic Act of 1916. This is the U.S. federal law that established the National Park Service. At first, bills submitted to establish the NPS were opposed by the Director of the U.S. Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, and his supporters. The Forest Service believed the NPS would be a threat to continued Forest Service control of public lands that had been set aside for the timber trade.


On March 3, 1933, President Herbert Hoover signed the Reorganization Act of 1933. This allowed the President to reorganize the executive branch of the government. Later that summer, it was suggested to President Roosevelt that the historic sites from the Civil War should be managed by the NPS, not the War Department. He agreed and issued two executive orders. These two orders transferred all War Department historic sites to NPS, all national monuments managed by the Department of Agriculture, and parks in and around the capital, which had been run by an independent office.

In 1952, the Director of NPS, Conrad Wirth, with the support of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, began Mission 66. This was a 10-year effort to upgrade and expand park facilities for the 50th anniversary of the park service. Therefore, new parks were added to preserve unique resources and existing park facilities were upgraded and expanded.

The NPS turned 50 in 1966. The emphasis then turned to making parks accessible to the public from simply saving scenery and natural features. Today, the NPS oversees over 400 units, 59 of which are designated as national parks.

Later this month, we’ll look at some national parks.


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