This is National Park Week (April 21-29), and it is a perfect time to pause and consider how fortunate we are for the Park Service and for the lands and monuments that Congress has designated to be national treasures. Whether you are interested in preserving parklands, maintaining areas that depict geological changes or saving monuments and lands that tell our American story, the National Park Service provides an enormous service to the American people by safeguarding these lands as part of our national heritage.
And if you can possibly sneak away this week to visit one of the parks nearly 400 properties, you should: those that charge admission are waiving fees for the week.
The Original Concept
The concept for a national park system is generally credited to George Catlin (1796-1872), an artist who traveled the West painting Native Americans. He traveled extensively, eventually visiting more than 50 different tribes. While visiting the Dakotas in 1832 he worried about the encroachment of westward expansion. Catlin is quoted as having written that the lands should be preserved "by some great protecting policy of government ... in a magnificent park ... A nation's park, containing man and beast in all the wild and freshness of their nature's beauty!"
The first step in this direction was taken in 1864 when Congress donated Yosemite Valley to the state of California for preservation. But then in 1872, Congress wanted to do something similar for Yellowstone, and there was not yet a state entity that could take charge of so vast a land. For that reason, Congress determined that Yellowstone would be reserved as a "public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people." Yellowstone was placed in the custody of the U.S. Department of the Interior and thus became the first national park.
In the 1890s and early 1900s, Congress added other parks to this collection: Sequoia, Yosemite and Mount Rainer as well as Crater and Glacier Lakes. The preservation of prehistoric Indian ruins also became part of this movement with the 1889 protection of Arizona's Casa Grande Ruin; then in 1906 Mesa Verde National Park was created. Theodore Roosevelt also took the opportunity to place 18 national monuments under the protection of the Department of the Interior.
In the mid-1910s there were more issues -- and a lot of properties -- requiring better management, so in 1916 President Woodrow Wilson approved legislation to create a National Park Service within the Department of the Interior.
By the 1920s, the lack of preservation of properties in the east was becoming notable; the movement had begun in the West, so the efforts had been largely focused in that area. Only Acacia National Park in Maine lay east of the Mississippi. But over time, the Park Service began to look eastward, absorbing the Shenandoah, the Great Smoky Mountains, and Mammoth Cave among other properties. The next big expansion came in the 1930s when the Park Service took over the management of the national military parks and monuments. Whether you are visiting the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, the Henry House Museum at Manassas or the Gettysburg Battlefield, those properties are now under the Park Service umbrella.
Public and Private Partnerships
While the original intent was preservation, American business soon caught wind of the possibility of tourism, and today preservation and tourism go hand in hand with the government entering into compatible public and private partnerships. (Journey Through Hallowed Ground along the eastern seaboard is a great example of a private group creating an umbrella organization to link and create appreciation for national sites.)
In the last 40 years, the Park system has brought focus to the importance of educating the public, and each site has re-evaluated the interpretation of each site's domain. A location like Custer Battlefield, once a monument to white man's "last stand" has been reinterpreted to tell the story from both sides: Custer and his men have their moment but the story of the Native Americans is presented as well. Scholarship is ongoing.
This week or anytime this year give yourself a treat and visit just one of the nearly 400 properties managed by the National Park Service. They are true treasures, and we are fortunate that the land and the monuments are being held for all Americans to enjoy.
For another story about one of our national parks, see "War Communication Before Modern Technology", an article about the Signal Corps at Gettysburg.