National Parks 101

As we gear up to celebrate the 100th anniversary of our National Park Service, let’s take a look at how it all came to be. 

Yosemite Falls

Yosemite Falls

The desire for protection of California's Yosemite Valley led directly to the establishment of our National Park System. Learn how. 

Photo by: Thinkstock


Our National Park Service is so much more than outdoorsy types jumping off cliffs, Boy Scouts pitching tents and cartoon bears stealing picnic baskets. The NPS isn’t just about the A-listers (you know who you are, Yosemite). The familiar arrowhead logo covers a sprawling network of over 400 units that includes parks, rivers, monuments, battlefields, cemeteries, beaches and all manner of natural and historic sites. Who started it all? How did we get to this 100th birthday, and will there be cake?

Fourscore & Something

While many of his predecessors certainly saw the need for conservation, it was Pres. Abraham Lincoln who used the power of the office to kick-start our nation’s conservation campaign when he gave Californians the right to protect Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove from commercial use. In spite of this act, a prospector named James Mason Hutchings squatted in Yosemite Valley and immediately began exploiting it, buying a hotel and making plans for a sawmill, the trees' worst nightmare.

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.
John Muir

Lucky for us, he hired John Muir to run the mill. The original Lorax, tree whisperer Muir loved the land and (probably) ascertained that Hutchings’ interests were purely for profit.

Get Off My Lawn

The government began proceedings to evict Hutchings, who consequently took his appeal all the way to the Supreme Court. While all this was going down, in 1872 Pres. Ulysses S. Grant signed a bill making Yellowstone our first national park.

A few months later, Muir and Hutchings parted company and Hutchings was finally dispossessed about two years later. Pres. Benjamin Harrison then signed a bill making Yosemite a national park. A year later, he enacted the Forest Reserve Act (1891), which gave presidents the power to set aside public land as protected national forests, creating the framework for the Park Service as well as the Forest Service.

West Thumb Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

West Thumb Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Yellowstone, with its phenomenal geologic features, was the first official national park. 

Photo by: Paola Moschitto-Assenmacher/EyeEm/Getty Images

Paola Moschitto-Assenmacher/EyeEm/Getty Images

Teddy Bear

Pres. Theodore Roosevelt did not rest on (or trod upon) any laurels while in office. He established the U. S. Forest Service, which yielded 150 National Forests; five National Parks, and he signed the 1906 Antiquities Act, which resulted in 18 new U.S. National Monuments. His administration also saw the creation of 51 Bird Reserves and four Game Preserves. The result: 230 million protected acres.

On August 25, 1916, Pres. Woodrow Wilson signed the bill that established the National Park Service as a new bureau of the Department of the Interior.

So, what’s the difference between a National Park, National Forest, a National Memorial, etc.?

There Will Be Cake

Okay, just three more minutes and we can all have cake.

The National Park Service (part of the Dept. of Interior) is mandated to preserve resources unimpaired, while the National Forest Service (part of the Dept. of Agriculture) is authorized to wisely manage resources for many sustainable uses. So parks are about preservation solely, while forests are about multiple uses, including commodities like lumber. Get it? Memorials, historical parks, cemeteries and sites are protected under the NPS umbrella because something significant to America’s fabric occurred there and needs to be preserved, like Ft. Sumter where the first shots of the Civil War were fired.

Districts can be protected by the NPS as well, like Independence Hall and the surrounding neighborhood in Philadelphia, as well as a slice of the Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans, which was designated as the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park.

This Land is Your Land

Following in the footsteps of Lincoln, Roosevelt, Carter and yes, Nixon, Pres. Barack Obama has protected more than 265 million acres of land and water, more than any other administration in America’s history.

There is nothing so American as our national parks .... The fundamental idea behind the parks ... is that the country belongs to the people, that it is in process of making for the enrichment of the lives of all of us.
Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt

Today, the NPS covers a staggering 84 million acres — your land. If you feel like you have nothing, just walk outside. Now, consider yourself a little smarter than the average bear.

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