National Park Service Is Created Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A new philosophy of natural resource conservation spawned a federal program of park management in the United States.

Summary of Event

Many of the national parks, national monuments, and other areas in the United States that eventually became parts of the national park system predate the creation of the National Park Service. They were created on an ad hoc basis without any clear plan for their management. Yellowstone National Park Yellowstone National Park was created in 1872 because the area’s scenic wonders had impressed those who had visited it, some of those visitors were politically influential and agitated for creation of the park, local officials supported the idea, and the area was considered to have little economic value. Yellowstone was not a part of any state, so if it were to be a park, it would necessarily be a national park. In the years following passage of the Yellowstone Act, the U.S. Congress reserved other areas of superlative scenery, and—although their legal descriptions differed—the Department of the Interior treated them as national parks. Prominent early parks included Yosemite, Sequoia, and General Grant (now Kings Canyon), created in 1890; Mount Rainier, established in 1899; Crater Lake, 1902; Mesa Verde, 1906; Glacier, 1910; and Hawaii (now Haleakala and Hawaii Volcanoes) and Lassen Volcanic, 1916. These early parks were created because particular individuals or organizations promoted their creation and there was no organized opposition. National Park Service, U.S. Wildlife conservation Wilderness preservation Conservation;wilderness National Park Service Act (1916) Organic Act (1916) [kw]National Park Service Is Created (Aug. 25, 1916) [kw]Park Service Is Created, National (Aug. 25, 1916) National Park Service, U.S. Wildlife conservation Wilderness preservation Conservation;wilderness National Park Service Act (1916) Organic Act (1916) [g]United States;Aug. 25, 1916: National Park Service Is Created[04040] [c]Environmental issues;Aug. 25, 1916: National Park Service Is Created[04040] [c]Organizations and institutions;Aug. 25, 1916: National Park Service Is Created[04040] [c]Natural resources;Aug. 25, 1916: National Park Service Is Created[04040] Mather, Stephen T. Albright, Horace M. Lane, Franklin K. Muir, John Pinchot, Gifford Colby, William E. Kent, William Smoot, Reed Lacey, John F. McFarland, J.Horace Olmsted, Frederick Law, Jr. Wilson, Woodrow [p]Wilson, Woodrow;National Park Service

Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall (left) and Stephen T. Mather, first director of the National Park Service, at Glacier Point, Yosemite Valley, in 1921.

(National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection)

Other areas that eventually became national parks were declared to be objects of historic or scientific interest and set aside as national monuments by the president under authority of the 1906 Antiquities Act. Antiquities Act (1906) Prominent examples are the Petrified Forest, 1906; the Grand Canyon, 1908; Mount Olympus (now Olympic) and Mukuntuweap (now Zion), 1909; and Sieur de Monts (now Acadia), 1916. Some national monuments were managed by the Department of the Interior, others by the Department of Agriculture or the War Department.

These parks and monuments enjoyed some legal protection, but practical protection was another matter. Park management was minimal and unsystematic. The Department of the Interior was able to do little to prevent wholesale trespassing and looting; for that reason, between 1883 and 1918 some of the nation’s premier parks were administered by the U.S. Army. Furthermore, even the legal protections proved to be undependable. In 1913, the city of San Francisco received congressional approval to have the Hetch Hetchy Valley Hetch Hetchy Valley of Yosemite National Park dammed for a municipal water supply. Two years later, President Woodrow Wilson cut the size of Mount Olympus National Monument Mount Olympus National Monument National monuments;Mount Olympus in half to make more lumber available for harvest. Gifford Pinchot, director of the U.S. Forest Service until 1910, had expressed the wish to have the national parks transferred to his agency for management. The precariousness of legal and practical protections enjoyed by the parks convinced many preservationists that the parks needed an organic act providing a firm legal foundation and an agency of the federal government dedicated to their protection and management.

The campaign for a national park service was waged simultaneously inside and outside the government. At the center of the private effort was a coalition of conservationists, headed in the East by J. Horace McFarland, president of the American Civic Association, and in the West by William E. Colby and John Muir of the Sierra Club. Colby and others organized the Society for the Preservation of National Parks, Society for the Preservation of National Parks with Muir as president and a number of prominent preservationists, including McFarland, on the group’s advisory council. Many of those active in the effort were prolific writers, and their advocacy of the parks appeared frequently in popular magazines, including The Atlantic Monthly, Ladies’ Home Journal, National Geographic, Outlook, and the Saturday Evening Post.

Inside the government, the effort was led by Stephen T. Mather and Horace M. Albright. Both were recruited to work for Franklin K. Lane, who had become secretary of the interior in March, 1913. Mather worked tirelessly to make the parks accessible and popular with the traveling public, often using private funds, including his own, when governmental appropriations were insufficient. He forged alliances with interested railroads and worked effectively with the leaders of the American Civic Association, the Sierra Club, Sierra Club and the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, General Federation of Women’s Clubs all of whom were active in promoting a parks bureau.

In 1910, Congressman John F. Lacey of Iowa, author of the 1906 Antiquities Act, introduced a bill to create a national park bureau, but it was not acted upon. Thereafter, bills proposing some sort of management agency for the parks were introduced regularly, but there was significant opposition. Much of it came from the Forest Service, Forest Service, U.S. which reflected Pinchot’s commitment to a multiple-use management philosophy for all the federal lands, and from legislators opposed to bureaucratic growth.

By 1915, McFarland and his associates outside the government were working closely with Mather, Albright, and selected members of Congress. Early in 1916, this informal group drafted a bill that was introduced by William Kent in the House and Reed Smoot in the Senate. Somewhat different bills were passed by the two houses of Congress, and it appeared that the session would end yet again without a park service bill being passed. Albright intervened to facilitate an agreement between the House and Senate committee chairs, and that agreement eventually was ratified by the conference committee. The bill was approved by Congress and signed by President Wilson on August 25, 1916.

The act of August 25 has no formal title, but it is often called the National Park Service Act or, in park circles, the Organic Act. It created the National Park Service in the Department of the Interior and gave that department control over all national parks and over those national monuments already administered by the department. In its most important sentence, believed to have been written by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., the act charged the National Park Service “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife . . . 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.”


The creation of a park service did not produce immediate results, but between 1916 and 1933, first Mather and then Albright led the agency through an era of growth, consolidation, improved infrastructure, and increasingly professional management. After World War II, Americans’ interest in the parks grew, and visitation mushroomed. By the mid-1990’s, park visits numbered about three hundred million per year, and the National Park Service supervised a system comprising eighty million acres, including some fifty national parks and approximately three hundred other natural, historic, and cultural sites. The U.S. National Park Service’s practice of employing management experts in a variety of fields was emulated widely by park managers around the world.

With increased popularity came a multitude of new problems, however, including crime, overcrowding, and inadequate infrastructure. Contentious debates began concerning how to handle these issues, pitting those in favor of preservation against those who argued for greater public access. These debates continued into the twenty-first century, as the National Park Service appeared at times to be increasingly influenced by the vagaries of electoral politics. National Park Service, U.S. Wildlife conservation Wilderness preservation Conservation;wilderness National Park Service Act (1916) Organic Act (1916)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Albright, Horace M. The Birth of the National Park Service: The Founding Years, 1913-33. Salt Lake City: Howe Brothers, 1985. Account of the foundation and early years of the National Park Service by one of the most important participants in the events.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Allin, Craig W. The Politics of Wilderness Preservation. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1982. A political scientist presents the story of the national parks as part of the movement to preserve wilderness in the United States. Examines the motivations of those involved and the political compromises made.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Everhart, William C. The National Park Service. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1983. Readable account begins with a history of the establishment of the agency and continues through the early 1980’s. The author served as adviser to two directors of the National Park Service.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Foresta, Ronald A. America’s National Parks and Their Keepers. Washington, D.C.: Resources for the Future, 1984. Analysis of modern park policies and issues, informed by a sense of history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lowry, William R. The Capacity for Wonder: Preserving National Parks. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1994. Discusses how the political compromises that have shaped the structure of the National Park Service from the beginning have shaped its ability to meet the modern problems of overcrowding, crime, inadequate infrastructure, and environmental pollution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mackintosh, Barry. The National Park Service Administrative History: A Guide. Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, 1991. Bibliographic guide contains annotated entries on the administrative and topical histories of the national parks, books contained in the park service’s history collection, and records on the parks held in the National Archives. Invaluable resource for anyone researching any U.S. national park or the history of the service.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The National Parks: Shaping the System. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1985. Provides a good history of the National Park Service. Includes maps.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rettie, Dwight F. Our National Park System: Caring for America’s Greatest Natural and Historic Treasures. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995. A tour of the modern national park system and the agency that manages it, presented by a longtime employee of the National Park Service.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Runte, Alfred. National Parks: The American Experience. 3d ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997. Interpretive history of the national parks and what they mean to Americans. Argues that park creation and maintenance has had more to do with nationalism and commercialism than with environmentalism. Includes maps, illustrations, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shankland, Robert. Steve Mather of the National Parks. 3d ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970. Popular biography of the National Park Service’s charismatic first director.

Roosevelt and Muir Visit Yosemite

Roosevelt Withdraws the Grand Canyon from Mining Claims

Mount McKinley National Park Is Created

Indiana Dunes Are Preserved as a State Park

Darling Founds the National Wildlife Federation

Adams Lobbies Congress to Preserve Kings Canyon

John Muir Trail Is Completed

Categories: History