Law Review Article: The National Park Service at 100

By Donald J. Hellmann, Coalition Executive Council Member

This article was originally published in the Akron Law Review in their June 2017 edition


The evening of August 25, 1916, a twenty-six-year-old law student and legal assistant at the U.S. Department of the Interior, Horace Albright, went to the Capitol to meet with the congressional enrolling clerk. As the clerk was preparing to send the army appropriations bill to the White House for the president’s signature, Albright persuaded him to, “Be a good fellow and stick the Parks Act in the same envelope.” Around 9 p.m. that evening, the legislative clerk at the White House, whom Albright had befriended, called to inform him that President Woodrow Wilson had signed the bill to create the National Park Service. The White House clerk secured the pen the president used in signing the bill so Albright could present it to Stephen Mather, for whom Albright was working at the time in the department, and who would later agree to be the first director of the National Park Service.

That evening 100 years ago was the start of a federal agency that would be changed over the next century from one that managed a small number of natural areas in the western United States to one with responsibility for over 410 diverse parks in all 50 states and several territories, along with many grant and technical assistance programs that would touch communities in every corner of the nation. This article will examine the key moments in our history as Congress developed and expanded the mission of the National Park Service, beginning with the first efforts to protect lands within Yosemite Valley in California, and including the actions of several of our presidents through the use of the Antiquities Act to create new parks. This Article also will highlight the contributions made by significant individuals in our legislative and executive branches of government who helped make the agency a leader in the protection of our country’s natural and cultural resources.

The Article traces the evolution of the National Park Service over its first 100 years, as the number of sites included in the national park system increased and as new responsibilities beyond the parks were assigned to the Park Service. It does so in a way that permits a detailed view of the legislative struggles and compromises that led to the enactment of the many bills that contributed to the growth of the national park system and that allowed the Park Service to work outside of the parks to help states and local communities preserve their historic fabric. It is clear that Congress will continue to authorize inclusion of more areas in the national park system and will continue to ask the Park Service to be the leader in preserving our nation’s natural, historic, and cultural resources.

In its first century, management of the parks has varied with some sites being managed solely by the National Park Service and with others being managed through partnerships with local communities or non- profit organizations. There also have been times where Congress has directed specific ways to manage these parks. Further, the Park Service has been asked to share this management expertise by assisting state and local governments with resource preservation and the creation of recreational opportunities in neighborhoods where people live. Additionally, the Park Service is providing a leadership role in helping other countries in their efforts to preserve their natural and cultural resources through the creation of protected areas modeled on our national parks.

The Article concludes with observations on the two primary challenges facing the National Park Service as it moves into its second century—providing funding for the national park system and keeping the national parks relevant to succeeding generations of Americans.

The significant legislative and executive milestones of the history of the National Park Service are organized as follows: Sections II and III look at some of the initial areas Congress and our presidents set aside for preservation and the difficulties in managing those lands that led to the creation of the National Park Service. Section IV discusses the growth of the national park system in its first 50 years of the National Park Service to include areas beyond the great western parks. Sections V and VI show how the nation’s new environmental awareness contributed to the expansion of the national park system, along with efforts to protect nationally significant rivers, trails, and wilderness area. This awareness also led to new laws to protect our air, water, plants, and wildlife and a declaration by Congress that united all parks and their resources into one national park system. Section VII discusses the efforts of Congress to create parks in urban areas and to provide new ways to preserve our nation’s historic resources while increasing the profile of some of the parks internationally through their nomination to the World Heritage Convention. Section VIII delves into the controversial and protracted effort to establish national parks in the state of Alaska, which doubled the size of the national park system. Sections IX and X discuss, beginning with President Ronald Reagan’s Administration, the attempts made to limit the expansion of the national park system and the authorities by which some park units could be created, at the same time Congress was adding parks to the system, including wide expanses of the California desert. Section XI focuses on the conflicting efforts by Congress in the past couple of decades to consider closing some parks at the same time others were being created. Section XII will discuss how the management of national parks was affected by actions of Congress and various political appointees of President George W. Bush’s Administration. Section XIII analyzes legislation passed by Congress during the administration of President Barack Obama as the National Park Service moved toward its Centennial in 2016. Finally, Section XIV discusses the challenges that await the National Park Service as it embarks on its second century of existence and continues to evolve.

To read the full law review article as a PDF, please click here.

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This page last modified: July 24, 2017 @ 7:47 pm