In 1916 President Woodrow Wilson signed the Act creating the National Park Service, a new Federal bureau in the Department of the Interior responsible for protecting the 40 national parks and monuments then in existence and those yet to be established. This "Organic Act" of August 25, 1916, states that "the Service thus established shall promote and regulate the use of Federal areas known as national parks, monuments and reservations . . . to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."
Yosemite National Park, California. Credit: National Park Service.
The National Park Service still strives to meet those original goals, while filling many other roles as well: guardian of our diverse cultural and recreational resources; environmental advocate; world leader in the parks and preservation community; and pioneer in the drive to protect America's open space.
The National Park System of the United States comprises 388 areas covering more than 80 million acres in every State, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, The Northern Mariana Islands, and the Virgin Islands. These areas are of such national significance as to justify special recognition and protection in accordance with various Acts of Congress.
U.S. Virgin Islands National Park Credit: National Park Service.
By Act of March 1, 1872, Congress established Yellowstone National Park in the Territories of Montana and Wyoming "as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people" and placed it "under exclusive control of the Secretary of the Interior." The founding of Yellowstone National Park began a worldwide national park movement. Today more than 100 nations contain some 1,200 national parks or equivalent preserves.
In the years following the establishment of Yellowstone, the United States authorized additional national parks and monuments, most of them carved from the Federal lands of the West. These, also, were administered by the Department of the Interior, while other monuments and natural and historical areas were administered as separate units by the War Department and the Forest Service of the Department of Agriculture. No single agency provided unified management of the varied Federal parklands.
Yellowstone National Park, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming Credit: National Park Service.
An Executive Order in 1933 transferred 63 national monuments and military sites from the Forest Service and the War Department to the National Park Service. This action was a major step in the development of today's truly national system of parks—a system that includes areas of historical as well as scenic and scientific importance.
Congress declared in the General Authorities Act of 1970 "that the National Park System, which began with the establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1872, has since grown to include superlative natural, historic, and recreation areas in every region . . . and that it is the purpose of this Act to include all such areas in the System. . . ."
Additions to the National Park System are now generally made through Acts of Congress, and national parks can be created only through such Acts. But the President has authority, under the Antiquities Act of 1906, to proclaim national monuments on lands already under Federal jurisdiction. The Secretary of the Interior is usually asked by Congress for other recommendations on proposed additions to the System. The Secretary is counseled by the National Park System Advisory Board, composed of private citizens, which advises the Secretary on possible additions to the System and policies for its management.
Longfellow National Historic Site, Massachusetts Credit: National Park Service.
The diversity of the parks is reflected in the variety of titles given to them. These include such designations as national park, national preserve, national monument, national memorial, national historic site, national seashore, and national battlefield park.
Although some titles are self-explanatory, others have been used in many different ways. For example, the title "national monument" has been given to great natural reservations, historic military fortifications, prehistoric ruins, fossil sites, and to the Statue of Liberty.
In recent years, Congress and the National Park Service have attempted, with some success, to simplify the nomenclature and to establish basic criteria for use of the different official titles. Brief definitions of the most common titles follow.
Areas added to the National Park System for their natural values are expanses or features of land or water of great scenic and scientific quality and are usually designated as national parks, monuments, preserves, seashores, lakeshores, or riverways. Such areas contain one or more distinctive attributes such as forest, grassland, tundra, desert, estuary, or river systems; they may contain "windows" on the past for a view of geological history, imposing landforms such as mountains, mesas, thermal areas, and caverns, and they may be habitats of abundant or rare wildlife and plantlife.
Generally, a national park contains a variety of resources and encompasses large land or water areas to help provide adequate protection of the resources. Hunting, mining and consumptive activities like logging and grazing are not authorized.
A national monument is intended to preserve at least one nationally significant resource. It is usually smaller than a national park and lacks its diversity of attractions. As directed by the Secretary of the Interior, many national monuments established in recent years are managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The Antiquities Act of 1906 authorized the President to declare by public proclamation landmarks, structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest situated on lands owned or controlled by the government to be national monuments.
In 1974, Big Cypress and Big Thicket were authorized as the first national preserves. This category is established primarily for the protection of certain resources. Activities such as hunting and fishing or the extraction of minerals and fuels may be permitted if they do not jeopardize the natural values. Many existing national preserves, without sport hunting, would qualify for national park designation. National reserves are similar to the preserves. Management, however, is by local or State authorities. The first reserve, City of Rocks, was established in 1988.
Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Wisconsin Credit: National Park Service.
Preserving shoreline areas and off-shore islands, the national lakeshores and national seashores focus on the preservation of natural values while at the same time providing water-oriented recreation. Some of these areas are developed while others are relatively primitive. Hunting is allowed at many of these sites. Although national lakeshores can be established on any natural freshwater lake, the existing four are all located on the Great Lakes. The national seashores are on the Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific coasts.
National rivers and wild and scenic riverways preserve ribbons of land bordering on free-flowing streams which have not been dammed, channelized, or otherwise altered by man. Besides preserving rivers in their natural state, these areas provide opportunities for outdoor activities such as hiking, canoeing, and hunting. More information can be found towards the end of this article.
National scenic trails, are generally long-distance footpaths winding through areas of natural beauty. More information can be found at the end of this article.
Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, New Mexico Credit: National Park Service.
Although best known for its great scenic parks, more than half the areas of the National Park System preserve places and commemorate persons, events, and activities important in the Nation's history. These range from archeological sites associated with prehistoric Indian civilizations to sites related to the lives of modern Americans. Historical areas are customarily preserved or restored to reflect their appearance during the period of their greatest historical significance. In recent years, national historic site has been the title most commonly applied by Congress in authorizing the addition of such areas to the National Park System.
Usually, a national historic site contains a single historical feature that was directly associated with its subject. Derived from the Historic Sites Act of 1935, a number of historic sites were established by secretaries of the Interior, but most have been authorized by Acts of Congress. National historical parks are commonly areas of greater physical extent and complexity than national historic sites. The only international historic site, Saint Croix Island, is a site relevant to both U.S. and Canadian history.
Various titles—national military park, national battlefield park, national battlefield site, and national battlefield—have been used for areas associated with American military history. In 1958, a National Park Service committee recommended national battlefield as the single title for all such park lands. But other areas such as national monuments and national historical parks may include features associated with military history.
Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Montana Credit: National Park Service.
There are presently 14 national cemeteries in the National Park System.
The title national memorial is most often used for areas that are primarily commemorative. But they need not be sites or structures historically associated with their subjects. For example, the home of Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois, is a national historic site, but the Lincoln Memorial in the District of Columbia is a national memorial.
Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington, D.C. Credit: National Park Service.
Several areas administered by National Capital Region whose titles do not include the words national memorial are nevertheless classified as memorials. These are the Lincoln Memorial, Lyndon Baines Johnson Memorial Grove on the Potomac, Theodore Roosevelt Island, Thomas Jefferson Memorial, and the Washington Monument. All are in the District of Columbia.
As the Nation's Capital, Washington, D.C., has a unique park system. Most of the public parks are administered by the Federal Government through the National Capital Region of the National Park Service.
National Capital Region has inherited duties originally assigned to three Federal Commissioners appointed by President George Washington in 1790. The city's parks were administered by a variety of Federal agencies until this responsibility was assigned to the National Park Service under the Reorganization Act of 1933. Most parklands in the city are included in the Federal holdings, although the District of Columbia also operates parks, playgrounds, and recreational facilities. National Capital Region also administers several National Park System units in Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia.
Originally, national recreation areas in the Park System were units surrounding reservoirs impounded by dams built by other Federal agencies. The National Park Service manages many of these 12 areas under cooperative agreements. These areas primarily emphasize water-based recreation. The concept of recreational areas has grown to encompass other lands and waters set aside for recreational use by Acts of Congress and now includes 5 major areas in urban centers. Such urban parks combine scarce open spaces with the preservation of significant historic resources and important natural areas in locations that can provide outdoor recreation for large numbers of people. There are also national recreation areas outside the National Park System that are administered by the Forest Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area, Washington Credit: National Park Service.
National parkways encompass the roads and the ribbons of land flanking the roadways. Providing the opportunity for leisurely driving through areas of scenic interest, these protected corridors often connect cultural sites. They are not designed for high speed travel. Besides the areas set aside as parkways, other units of the National Park System include parkways within their boundaries.
One area of the National Park System, Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, Virginia, has been set aside as America's first national park for the performing arts. Two historical areas, Ford's Theatre National Historic Site, D.C., and Chamizal National Memorial, Texas, also provide facilities for the performing arts.
In the Wilderness Act of 1964, Congress directed three Federal agencies, including the National Park Service, to study certain lands within their jurisdiction to determine the suitability of these lands for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System.
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia Credit: National Park Service.
By subsequent legislation, Congress has designated wilderness areas in many units of the National Park System. This designation does not remove wilderness lands from the parks, but it does ensure that they will be managed to retain their "primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation. . . ."
The Act provides, generally, that "there shall be no commercial enterprise and no permanent road within any wilderness area . . . and (except for emergency uses) no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation." Wilderness areas are open to hiking and, in some cases, horseback riding, primitive camping, and similar pursuits.
Besides the National Park System three groups of areas exist—Affiliated Areas, the Wild and Scenic Rivers System, and the National Trails System—that are closely linked in importance and purpose to those areas managed by the National Park Service. Except for those wild and scenic rivers administered by the National Park Service, these areas are not units of the National Park System, yet they preserve important segments of the Nation's heritage.
Kitchen, Levine Apartment Credit: Lower East Side Tenement Museum, National Park Service Affiliated Area, New York
In an Act of August 18, 1970, the National Park System was defined in law as "any area of land and water now or hereafter administered by the Secretary of the Interior through the National Park Service for park, monument, historic, parkway, recreational or other purposes." The same law specifically excludes "miscellaneous areas administered in connection therewith," that is, those properties that are neither Federally owned nor directly administered by the National Park Service but which utilize its assistance.
The Affiliated Areas comprise a variety of locations in the United States and Canada that preserve significant properties outside the National Park System. Some of these have been recognized by Acts of Congress, others have been designated national historic sites by the Secretary of the Interior under authority of the Historic Sites Act of 1935. All draw on technical or financial aid from the National Park Service.
Public Law 90-542, of October 2, 1968, provides for the establishment of a system of rivers to be preserved as free-flowing streams accessible for public use and enjoyment. Components of the system, or portions of component rivers, may be designated as wild, scenic, or recreational rivers. Rivers are classified according to the natural qualities they possess and the evidence, as viewed from the river, of man's presence in the area. Thus, in a wild river there is little evidence of man's presence, the river is free of impoundments (dams), and it is generally inaccessible except by trail. A scenic river is one with relatively primitive shorelines, largely undeveloped, but accessible in places by road. A recreational river has more development, is accessible by road or railroad, and may have been dammed.
Ozark National Scenic Riverways, Missouri Credit: National Park Service
Once a river area is designated a component of the Wild and Scenic Rivers System, the objective of the managing agency—local, State, or Federal—is to preserve or enhance the qualities which qualified the river for inclusion within the system. Recreational use must be compatible with preservation. Rivers administered by the National Park Service are units of the National Park System. Those administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are components of the National Wildlife Refuge System.
State rivers and streams may become units of the Wild and Scenic Rivers System when established under state laws and developed with river management plans acceptable to the Secretary of the Interior. The Secretary may then designate the appropriate river area as a unit of the system. Federally managed components of the system are designated by Acts of Congress. Usually, Congress first requires, by law, a detailed study to determine the qualification of a river area for the system and then makes the decision.
The National Trails System Act of 1968, as amended, calls for establishing trails in both urban and rural settings for persons of all ages, interests, skills, and physical abilities. The Act promotes the enjoyment and appreciation of trails while encouraging greater public access. It establishes four classes of trails: national scenic trails, national historic trails, national recreation trails, and side and connecting trails.
North Country National Scenic Trail, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota Credit: North Country Trail Association
National scenic trails are to be continuous, extended routes of outdoor recreation within protected corridors. The first two established under the National Trails System Act were the Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails. They wind through some of the Nation's most striking natural beauty. National historic trails recognize past routes of exploration, migration, and military action.
The term national recreation trail is given to an existing trail by the Federal Government, upon application, in recognition of its role as a component of the National Trails System. Today more than 780 of these trails have been designated throughout the country. They are located in every State, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, totaling more than 9,000 miles in length. There are 513 trails on Federal lands. For the other trails in the system, 147 are State trails, 82 are local, 31 are on private lands, and 12 are managed by two or more entities.
Side and connecting trails provide additional access to and between components of the National Trails System. To date, two have been designated.
Since 1963, 33 long-distance trails have been studied for inclusion in the system, and 24 have been designated. The National Park Service administers 17 of them, the Bureau of Land Management administers one (together they jointly administer 2), and the Forest Service administers four.
The National Trails System is administered by the National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior. The National Park Service encourages other public and private agencies to develop, maintain, and protect trails. With the cooperation and support of a nationwide trails community, the vision of an interconnected, crosscountry trail system will become a reality.
Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota Credit: National Park Service