Although the National Park Service began in 1916, the idea to create national parks started long before then. As early as 1832, artist George Catlin worried about how America’s westward expansion would affect the country’s wildlife and wilderness areas. He hoped these things might be preserved by the government in “a nation's park."
The idea of setting aside large pieces of land for everyone to enjoy was unheard of at the time. Most pioneers wanted to own new land that they could develop for its natural resources.
The idea of preserving land slowly gained momentum, though. In 1864, Congress donated Yosemite Valley to California to preserve as a state park. Yosemite soon inspired others to seek protection for other areas.
On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant established Yellowstone National Park as the country’s first national park. This critical milestone was the first time public land had been set aside by the federal government "for the benefit and enjoyment of the people."
Over the next 40 years, additional areas of land were set aside. There was no coordinated system of national parks, though, until President Woodrow Wilson signed the Organic Act on August 25, 1916, which created the National Park Service.
Today, the National Park Service oversees a large national system of areas of cultural, scientific, scenic and historic importance. In total, the National Park Service oversees 394 areas that total more 84 million acres.
Although these areas may be known as “national parks” in a general sense, they are not all national parks like Yellowstone National Park or Glacier National Park. Some of these areas fall into one of the other 19 categories the National Park Service uses to describe its properties.
In addition to actual national parks, these areas include monuments, battlefields, military parks, historical parks, historic sites, lakeshores, seashores, recreation areas, scenic rivers and trails, and even the White House!
These many different types of areas overseen by the National Park Service can be found in every state but one: Delaware. That may soon change, though, as Delaware currently is seeking national recognition for several different areas.
But Delaware is not alone in lacking a true “national park” like Yellowstone or Glacier. Only about half the states have such a large, traditional national park.
Some interesting facts about national parks:
- The largest national park is Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska (13.2 million acres).
- The smallest national park is Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial in Pennsylvania (0.02 acres).
- In 2010, there were more than 281 million recreational visitors to the national parks.
- The official emblem of the National Park Service contains a lot of important symbolism. The Sequoia tree and bison represent vegetation and wildlife. The mountains and water represent scenic and recreational values. The arrowhead represents historical and archeological values.