Last year, more than 305 million people visited a national park or monument across the U.S. Made up of a collective 84 million acres, they are the National Park Service (NPS), a federal agency tasked with both preserving the land and making it accessible to visitors. In honor of its 100 years, we take a closer look at these extraordinary places we call our own.
America the Beautiful
Developing a way to protect lands deemed “significant” began with the Antiquities Act of 1906. This piece of legislation, signed into law by Theodore Roosevelt, was further expanded in 1916 when President Woodrow Wilson officially created the National Park Service. In 1933, Franklin Roosevelt signed legislation that consolidated the parks, monuments, cemeteries and memorials into a single organization—the National Park System.
Of the nearly 400 “units” that make up the NPS, 59 of them are designated as national parks. Here are a few of the most noteworthy:
- Devil’s Tower – This 600-foot rock formation located in Wyoming was deemed the first official National Monument. (Your parents might remember it as the source of obsession for the main character in the 1977 film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.)
- Grand Canyon – One of the most well known of the sites, the Grand Canyon is located in Flagstaff, Arizona. Its cliffs plummet nearly 5,000 to the Colorado River that flows below.
- Wrangell-St. Elias – At 13,200,000 acres in Alaska, this is the largest “unit” of the Parks, making up over 16 percent of the whole system.
- Yellowstone – Considered the first national park, Yellowstone opened in 1872 (prior to the existence of the NPS) and features Old Faithful, an erupting geyser that shoots up to 8,000 gallons of water an average of 145 feet nearly every hour.
- Yosemite – While scouting out land during the California Gold Rush, armed men came upon the breathtaking landscape and named “Yosemite” after mistakenly thought it was the name of a Native American tribe.
- Zion – Located in southern Utah, this 6-mile-long canyon is famous for it’s gorgeous red sandstone cliffs and panoramic views.
Challenges and Concerns
Much of the money received by the National Park Service comes from the federal budget. The allocated nearly $3 billion, however, (in addition to entrance fees donations and concession sales), is hardly enough to cover the cost of running the parks, which includes maintenance and preservation. There is currently a $500 million collective backlog of needed repairs, many of them considered critical. The parks are also greatly affected by air pollution as well as wear and tear from the massive number of visitors.
There are some proposed solutions, however. One is to redistribute federal funds based on need and popularity of the site. Another includes shifting the day-to-day operations to privately-owned companies. To deal with crowd control, some parks are considering requiring reservations, staggered entry for cars and daily caps on the number of visitors.
To mark the NPS Centennial, the Obama Administration launched an initiative called Every Kid in a Park. Its goal is to encourage kids of all ages (and fourth graders in particular) to visit one of our public lands, waters or memorials. Fourth graders, targeted because that is the year that most schools introduce state history into their curriculum, qualify for free passes.