Mission 66 Plan Is Implemented

The Mission 66 plan rehabilitated and expanded America’s national parks in anticipation of the fiftieth anniversary of the National Park Service in 1966. It greatly increased the number of visitors that the parks could comfortably accommodate each year.

Summary of Event

The National Park Service National Park Service, U.S. (NPS) received more than 54 million visitors to the nation’s federal parks historic sites in 1954. This was more than three times the 16.75 million visitors received in 1940, before U.S. entry into World War II. During this fourteen-year period, more than 7 million acres in eighteen new areas had been added to the NPS system. This represented a 45 percent increase in area, while capital improvement funds were cut $5 million to $15,416,000. World War II, the Korean War, and the Cold War had taken their toll on funds available for recreation in the nation’s parks. The National Park Service was operating on a meager budget. [kw]Mission 66 Plan Is Implemented (Jan. 27, 1956-1966)[Mission Sixty six Plan Is Implemented]
Mission 66 Plan[Mission Sixty six Plan]
National parks, U.S.;Mission 66 Plan
Environmental policy, U.S.;federal land
Mission 66 Plan[Mission Sixty six Plan]
National parks, U.S.;Mission 66 Plan
Environmental policy, U.S.;federal land
[g]North America;Jan. 27, 1956-1966: Mission 66 Plan Is Implemented[05120]
[g]United States;Jan. 27, 1956-1966: Mission 66 Plan Is Implemented[05120]
[c]Government and politics;Jan. 27, 1956-1966: Mission 66 Plan Is Implemented[05120]
[c]Environmental issues;Jan. 27, 1956-1966: Mission 66 Plan Is Implemented[05120]
Wirth, Conrad Louis
Hartzog, George Benjamin, Jr.
McKay, Douglas
Udall, Stewart L.
Eisenhower, Dwight D.
[p]Eisenhower, Dwight D.;environmental policy

A new visitor center under construction at the Gettysburg National Military Park in 1961 as part of Mission 66. The modernist structure will house a panoramic painting of the battle, adding a new attraction to the park.

(National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection)

The Depression years of the 1930’s found many unemployed men in the Civilian Conservation Corps Civilian Conservation Corps, U.S. working to improve conditions in state and national parks. Many miles of hiking trails and roads were improved for recreation purposes. Shelters, cabins, and fireplaces were built to accommodate the many visitors to the parks each year. These improvements proved inadequate, however, for the number of visitors flocking to the national scenic wonderlands in post-World War II America. Little had been done to the nation’s parks since the 1930’s, and the neglect was obvious. Repairs to equipment, buildings, trails, roads, and bridges were done on a piecemeal basis. Patchwork repairs were the rule rather than the exception.

The lack of adequate facilities meant hopelessly overcrowded campgrounds and cabins. Broken equipment irritated visitors. In some areas, unrepaired and unsafe roads and bridges discouraged visitors from making the trip. Some visitors had to sleep in their cars, and long lines formed at comfort stations. It was a demoralizing situation, and pressures were mounting to close down some of the parks until they could be improved, in the interest of protecting both the parks and the people. Vendors and concessionaires used cumbersome formulas for determining what the parks were owed for services rendered and merchandise sold, and usage fees were inadequate. The national park system was on the verge of a crisis.

The lack of trained park personnel, low salaries, and inadequate housing facilities contributed to the problem. Many park employees were living in tents, cabins, shacks, trailers, and other primitive shelters. The employee housing problem was considered to be so great that the plan about to be implemented would give first consideration to this area over all others. Employee morale was extremely low, and understaffed parks often had overwhelming numbers of visitors. Also, there was no means of protecting the parks from vandalism and other crimes; the beauty of the parks was deteriorating.

Programs such as the National Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings National Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings, U.S. , created to identify the nation’s significant places in history and prehistory and preserve them from destruction (which was suspended with World War II), and the Historic American Building Survey Historic American Building Survey , which identified and preserved buildings of outstanding historic value, needed to be restarted. Other projects, such as the development of NPS personnel training centers and visitor interpretation centers, needed to be completed to train park rangers properly and to provide the public with information about the areas they were visiting. A large-scale plan was needed to see all of these programs through to completion.

Conrad Louis Wirth, the director of the National Park Service since 1951, devised a plan in 1955 that would prepare the parks for the future and for the millions of visitors the parks would receive each year. This plan had to address all the trouble spots and had to include the upgrading and expansion of all the recreation areas. Physical improvements, new lands, and visitor protection were needed. Training facilities and better housing units were needed for the employees.

Wirth presented his plan at a full cabinet meeting held with President Dwight D. Eisenhower at the White House on January 27, 1956. The plan would be named Mission 66 in preparation for the many visitors who would visit the national parks in 1966, the fiftieth anniversary of the National Park Service Act. After the presentation was made, Eisenhower asked why the plan had not been introduced three years earlier when he first came into office. The plan had the full support of the administration and was assured the funding necessary to make the needed changes.

The eight broad objectives for the National Park Service under Mission 66 were to provide additional accommodations and related services adapted to modern recreational needs within and near the parks through greater participation of private enterprise; to provide the government-operated facilities needed to serve the public, to protect the park resources, and to maintain the physical plant; to provide services to make the parks more usable, more enjoyable, and more meaningful, and thereby improve the protection of the parks through visitor cooperation; to provide the operating funds and field staff required to manage the areas, protect the resources, and provide a high standard of maintenance for all developments; to provide adequate living quarters for the field employees of the National Park Service; to acquire lands within the parks and other lands for protection and/or use, to acquire the water rights needed to ensure adequate water supplies, and to extinguish grazing rights and other competing uses; to institute a coordinated nationwide system of recreational developments by each level of government—federal, state, and local—with each bearing its proper share; and to provide for the protection and preservation of the wilderness areas within the national park system and encourage their appreciation and enjoyment in ways that will leave them unimpaired.

These initiatives would guide the National Park Service into the greatest rehabilitation and expansion program in its short history. Innovative programs were developed that would make the history and natural beauty of America’s parks meaningful to the millions of visitors who would come in future generations.


The impact of Mission 66 on the national parks of America and the people who staff them was considerable. The administrations of three presidents—Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson—backed the initiative set by the National Park Service. Adequate budget funding provided the means to complete the objectives set a decade earlier.

George Benjamin Hartzog, Jr., succeeded Wirth as director of the National Park Service in January, 1964. Mission 66 was well on its way to completion. The goals and objectives of Mission 66 were receiving their final touches. More visitors were coming to the parks than the estimates predicted. The 121 million visitors in 1965 surpassed the estimate of 80 million for 1966. Visitors encountered a modern park system, modern facilities, and professional staffs.

Mission 66 proved to be a huge success. The $786 million projected budget grew to slightly more than $1 billion over ten years. During the program, the national park system grew from 181 areas to 258 areas, and the acreage grew from 24,397,985 to 26,551,434, an increase of more than 2 million acres.

Old parks such as Yosemite, Yellowstone, Sequoia, Crater Lake, and others received long-needed upgrading and rehabilitation, while new parks such as City of Refuge National Historic Park in Hawaii and Canyonlands National Park in Utah were incorporated into the system. Independence National Historic Park Independence National Historic Park
National parks, U.S.;Independence Hall in Philadelphia was assigned to the federal government for the purposes of restoration, preservation, interpretation, and management. Independence Hall was in such bad condition that it was unsafe for public visitation. Mission 66 made renovation of the hall possible so that visitors could once again view inside one of the most important structures in American history.

The National Park Service, as a whole, inspired a new approach to and an understanding of the value and need of good conservation, preservation, and recreation policies among other federal agencies and state and local governments. There was a new awareness of the importance of the nation’s natural and historic areas.

Other important needs were met. More than two thousand new, modern residences, dormitories, and apartments were provided for park personnel, and many older structures were demolished. The staff was expanded to assist adequately the growing number of visitors. The number of administrative and service buildings was increased to 2,081. Utility buildings increased to 1,152.

New interpretation centers were provided to help visitors understand and enjoy the parks. Interpretive programs were combined in 130 new visitor centers to provide visitors with necessary information about the park. Slide shows and filmstrips provided historical and other information in museum rooms and displays. Rangers were on hand to answer questions and provide assistance. Interpretive roadside and trailside exhibits were built or replaced to provide direction and information to park users.

Living history programs, ranging from military demonstrations to farming, became popular attractions at many areas. Interpreting the environment and ecology relationships promoted the nation’s growing environmental awareness.

Two training centers for rangers were also constructed during Mission 66. The Stephen T. Mather Research and Interpretive Ranger School Stephen T. Mather Research and Interpretive Ranger School at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, for ranger historians and naturalists was an outgrowth of the natural history school started in Yosemite Valley by Mather, the first director of the National Park Service. The Horace M. Albright Ranger School Horace M. Albright Ranger School at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon is for those assigned to ranger protective services. Both schools train park rangers in preparing interpretive materials, researching parks and historic areas, handling search-and-rescue missions, dealing with large crowds, fire fighting, and managing daily problems.

Public facilities were also improved. Camping areas that were worn out were rehabilitated, and 575 new campgrounds were created with a total of 17,782 new campsites. Seven hundred forty-two picnic areas, including 12,393 new sites, were added, and thousands of old sites were improved. Five hundred eighty-four new comfort stations were built. It became necessary to limit the length of a stay at a campsite to two weeks because of the increase in number of visits.

Lodges were constructed by private enterprises to provide more luxurious accommodations for those not camping in the parks. Concessionaires invested more than $33 million of private funds in new lodges, motels, stores, shops, service stations, marinas, and other installations.

Construction on new or improved roads, totaling 4,337 miles, was a major part of the Mission 66 plan. The 452-mile Blue Ridge Parkway, begun in the 1930’s and less than one-third done, was completed under Mission 66. Three hundred fifty-nine miles of reconstructed trails and 577 miles of new trails were constructed to provide a total of 936 miles of usable hiking trails.

More than seventy new areas were added to the national park system. National parks, national historic sites and parks, monuments, memorials, national seashores, scenic riverways, and recreation areas were added. National recreation areas such as Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in Utah and Arizona (1958) and the Delaware Water Gap in Pennsylvania and New Jersey (1965) added recreation sites that were based on artificial features rather than on natural or historic resources. All these sites expanded and improved the park system of the United States.

Mission 66 developed the national park system into a modern network of recreation areas with a trained professional staff. All Americans and visitors from around the world benefit from the vision of pioneers such as Wirth and Hartzog. Their determination and foresight have provided generations to come with places of scenic beauty and historical value. Mission 66 had such a significant impact on the conservation movement that other federal agencies considered it a model for their own programs. Mission 66 Plan[Mission Sixty six Plan]
National parks, U.S.;Mission 66 Plan
Environmental policy, U.S.;federal land

Further Reading

  • Allaback, Sarah. Mission 66 Visitor Centers: The History of a Building Type. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 2000. Official government study of the architectural design of the visitor centers constructed under the Mission 66 plan. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Foresta, Ronald A. America’s National Parks and Their Keepers. Washington, D.C.: Resources for the Future, 1984. The author examines the National Park Service and the decisions that have shaped it.
  • Ise, John. Our National Park Policy: A Critical History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1961. Presents the history of the National Park Service in chapters dealing with each period in its history. Defines criticisms and problems in context.
  • Kim, Jeannie. “Mission 66.” In Cold War Hothouses: Inventing Postwar Culture from Cockpit to “Playboy,” edited by Beatriz Colomina, AnnMarie Brennan, and Jeannie Kim. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2004. Discusses Mission 66 from the point of view of Cold War cultural history and architecture, as well as the role of the program in shaping and responding to public perceptions of America’s national parks.
  • Mackintosh, Barry. The National Parks: Shaping the System. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, 1984. The author tells the story of the National Park Service, explains significant periods, and provides a listing of new additions to the park service.
  • Shankland, Robert. Steve Mather of the National Parks. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970. The author gives the history of the first fifty years of the National Park Service and describes its first director. Park service pioneers had visions of creating a national system of parks to benefit the public and the parks themselves.
  • Wirth, Conrad L. “The Mission Called 66.” National Geographic 130 (July, 1966): 8-47. The author presents a historical account of the accomplishments of Mission 66, the project he started as director of the National Park Service, on the fiftieth anniversary of the creation of the National Park Service.
  • _______. Parks, Politics, and the People. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980. The author was the director of the National Park Service and the inventor of Mission 66. He presents a firsthand account of the development of the national park system from the early days of the service to the 1980’s. A factual and interesting book.

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