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Our National Parks: The Idea

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Ben Minteer
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Six million-acre Gates of the Arctic National Park was established in 1980.

There were national parks even before there was a National Park Service. Yellowstone National Park was the first in 1872. More big western parks followed in the next few decades. These parks were expressions of nationalism, celebrating the monumental landscapes that helped define America.

The Antiquities Act of 1906 gave rise to more parks, this time based on cultural and scientific values – places like Mesa Verde and Grand Canyon. The National Park Service was established in 1916 to manage this growing list of parks.

During the Great Depression the historic military parks of the War Department – places like Gettysburg –  and the monuments and memorials in Washington, DC were transferred to the national park system. These form the core of what are now hundreds of national parks that help celebrate American history and culture.

Establishment of Everglades National Park in 1947 extended the national park system in another direction: ecology. This park was set aside not for its beauty, but to preserve its astonishing biodiversity.

The post-World War II period saw more emphasis on recreation, building new trails, campgrounds, and visitor centers in existing parks and adding national seashores and lakeshores. Cape Cod is an icon of this period.

Beginning in the 1970s, national parks were established in some of the country’s great cities, designed to enhance the quality of life where most people live and make national parks accessible to a more diverse population. Examples include Gateway in New York City and Golden Gate in San Francisco.

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Credit Rolf Diamant
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Golden Gate National Recreation Area, San Francisco, California. Starting in the 1970s, national parks were established in many American cities.

The great national debate over the extensive public lands in Alaska was settled in 1980, adding several new wilderness parks – Gates of the Arctic and others – more than doubling the size of the national park system.

The last few decades have included a focus on our continuing struggle with civil rights and social justice, adding many parks such as those that honor Martin Luther King Jr, Cesar Chavez, and the nine brave African-American teenagers who helped integrate Little Rock Central High School.

The national park idea has clearly evolved and expanded in response to a changing environment and society. Today, there are more than 400 national parks found in all 50 states.

They go by a bewildering array of names – national parks, national monuments, national historic sites, and so on. They all add diversity and synergy to the national park system that now totals 84 million acres, nearly twice the size of New England. 

In this process, the national park system is becoming nearly as diverse as America itself.

Now that’s worthy of a Centennial celebration!

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