In the past month, I have visited more National Parks than in any other time of my life. I have seen some of the most beautiful places in the world under incredible conditions, and I managed to take photos of landscapes that I had heard of since I was a young child. That’s why I am happy to say that today, August 25th, marks the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service in the United States.
(First, a quick point — today is not the anniversary of National Parks in general. Instead, it is the anniversary of the National Park Service in the United States. Technically, before the National Park Service was established in 1916, Yellowstone National Park already had existed for 44 years; it simply was under local management rather than a National Park Service.)
Created in 1872, Yellowstone National Park was the first National Park to exist in the United States — and, in fact, the world. Other parks existed before the creation of Yellowstone National Park, but they were State Parks and other nature preserves. The area of Yosemite, for example, was transferred to the state of California for preservation in 1864, eight years before Yellowstone. However, Yosemite fit entirely within the bounds of a single state — Yellowstone fit within three. Perhaps due to this geographical accident, Congress federalized Yellowstone, creating the world’s first National Park. Yellowstone is a beautiful place to preserve, but, more importantly, it set a precedent. Since 1872, 58 other National Parks have been created in the United States alone, and countless others worldwide.
For decades, control over the National Parks in the United States was localized, which worked well in the early days of administration. As the number of parks continued to grow, though, conservationists and environmentalists put pressure on the government to form an overarching service to supervise all parks in the United States. In 1911, Canada created “Parks Canada,” the world’s first national park service. A few years later, this day in 1916, then-President Woodrow Wilson signed a bill into law to create the United States National Parks Service.
Today, more than 300 million people visit National Parks in the United States every year, and the number is always increasing. Yes, this means that our beautiful places are getting more crowded, but it also means that more people are finding enjoyment in some of the world’s most magnificent natural areas.
From August 25 through August 28, all land operated by the National Parks Service (including National Monuments, National Recreation Areas, and every other branch) is free to the public. Everything will get very crowded, so you can take this advice as you will, but I recommend getting out and enjoying a nearby park over the weekend. It’s amazing that this land is set up to preserve our beautiful places, and there is never a bad time to visit a slice of nature.
In reading about the National Parks System, I came across a Time article with a few quotes from one of the early promoters of the National Park Service: journalist Robert Sterling Yard. He has quite a few quotes explaining the beauty of the United States’s parks, in language more elegant than I can muster:
The Grand Canyon: “The wanderer upon the rim overlooks a thousand square miles of pyramids and minarets carved from the painted depths. Many miles away, and more than a mile below the level of his feet, he sees a tiny silver thread which he knows is the giant Colorado. He is numbed by the spectacle. At first he cannot comprehend it. There is no measure, nothing which the eye can grasp, the mind fathom.”
Crater Lake: “A gem of wonderful color in a setting of pearly lavas relieved by patches of pine green and snow white – a gem which changes hue with every atmospheric change and every shift of light.”
Rocky Mountain National Park: “Just to live in the valleys in the eloquent and ever-changing presence of these carved and tinted peaks is itself satisfaction. But to climb into their embrace, to know them in the intimacy of their bare summits and their flowered, glaciated gorges, is to turn a new and unforgettable page in experience.”
For all of these beautiful words, though, I prefer to describe our National Parks in simpler terms, as people have called them for decades: “America’s Best Idea.”