In the beginning, Congress created Yellowstone National Park. President Grant signed into law an Act of Congress in 1872 that established the first national park in the United States (and the world) as a “pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”
This was not the first time, nor will it be the last, that Congress established something but then failed to fund it adequately. Yellowstone was under the nominal jurisdiction of the Secretary of the Interior (there being no National Park Service yet), but he had no money to actually do anything with it. In 1883, vandalism and other rampant despoliations caused Congress to authorize the Secretary of the Army—at the request of the Interior Secretary—to detail troops to protect the park. (The law is still on the books and may still come in handy.) The U.S. Cavalry occupied and protected Yellowstone for the next thirty years, during which Congress designated eleven other national parks (see Table 1).
Then, on August 25, 1916, Congress established the National Park System and the National Park Service. The legislation stated that the purpose of the National Park System “is to conserve the scenery, natural and historic objects, and wild life in the System units and to provide for the enjoyment of the scenery, natural and historic objects, and wild life in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” Congress intentionally set up a tension for the National Park Service to manage: to simultaneously “conserve” and “provide for the enjoyment of” the natural wonders.
In 1970, Congress elaborated on the purposes of the National Park System by noting that the system “has since grown to include superlative natural, historic, and recreation areas in every major region of the United States and its territories and possessions”; that “these areas, though distinct in character, are united through their interrelated purposes and resources into one National Park System as cumulative expressions of a single national heritage”; and that “individually and collectively, these areas derive increased national dignity and recognition of their superb environmental quality through their inclusion jointly with each other in one System preserved and managed for the benefit and inspiration of all the people of the United States.”
In 1978, Congress reaffirmed that the National Park System is for “the common benefit of all the people of the United States.” It further stated that “the authorization of activities shall be construed and the protection, management, and administration of the System units shall be conducted in light of the high public value and integrity of the System and shall not be exercised in derogation of the values and purposes for which the System units have been established, except as directly and specifically provided by Congress.”
While the National Park System has generally led to improvement in the conservation and interpretation of nature, culture, and history, the National Park Service has had its unwise episodes. These include, but are certainly not limited to, allowing bears to eat human garbage for the enjoyment of the tourists, killing wolves to favor game species, attempting to suppress/prevent all wildfires, condoning the Yosemite firefall, and tolerating sexual harassment in the ranks. These are/were problems with the National Park Service, not the National Park System.
National parks are commonly called our nation’s best idea. (Actually, public lands, which include the national parks, are America’s best idea.) Today the National Park System has 413 units (which you can see in a map that is interactive or one that is suitable for framing), all established by or through an Act of Congress. Besides the 59 national parks, there are 84 national monuments, 19 national preserves, 50 national historic parks, 78 national historic sites, 1 international historic site, 4 national battlefield parks, 9 national military parks, 11 national battlefields, 1 national battlefield site, 30 national memorials, 18 national recreation areas, 10 national seashores, 4 national lakeshores, 15 national rivers, 2 national reserves, 4 national parkways, 3 national trails, and 11 sundry other units. The diversity of designations reflects the diversity of natural, historical, and cultural features being protected for this and future generations.
Headwaters Economics has an interactive webpage where you can see the number of visitors, total visitor spending, jobs created, and local income produced for each of the 413 units. Nationally in 2015, there were 307,247,267 visits to the National Park System, where visitors spent $16,894,838,000, creating 251,997 jobs, with local income from visitor spending being $8,113,790,000. Meanwhile, the fact of Congress not adequately funding the National Park System has resulted in a severe maintenance backlog, which the Pew Charitable Trusts has pegged at nearly $12 billion.
Our National Park System is not complete. To fully conserve and restore the natural values associated with the national parks and monuments, it would be a good idea to expand some of the units. And as we continue to make history and increase our appreciation of nature’s wonders, new units will be added to the system. In fact, Congress is overdue to establish a sixtieth national park. I have a favorite nomination (of course it is in Oregon). What’s yours for the next iteration of America’s greatest idea?