An Outsider’s Quick History of the National Park Service

by Jon D. B.
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From the creation of Yellowstone National Park to the president who signed the National Park Service into existence and beyond, Outsider’s quick timelines and breakdown of the history of the National Park Service hits everything you need to know.

John Muir. President Theodore Roosevelt. So many titans of American history had a hand in preserving our precious lands and creating the National Park Service. Yet as much as both of these ‘Fathers of National Parks’ did, neither was responsible for bringing the NPS into existence.

It wouldn’t be until August 25, 1916, well after Roosevelt left office, that President Woodrow Wilson would sign the act creating the National Park Service. That year, NPS would become a new federal bureau in the Department of the Interior. It’s purpose? Protecting the 35 national parks and monuments then managed by the department and those yet to be established.

Timeline: History of the National Park Service

  • 1872: Congress establishes Yellowstone National Park, world’s first national park
  • 1890: Sequoia National Park & Yosemite National Park are born, more follow in decades to come
  • 1906:  Antiquities Act of 1906 gives U.S. President authority to proclaim national monuments on lands under federal jurisdiction
  • 1916: President Woodrow Wilson signs act creating the National Park Service (NPS)
  • 1933: An Executive Order transfers 56 national monuments, military sites from the Forest Service and War Department to the National Park Service
  • 1970: General Authorities Act of 1970 declares “that the National Park System, which began with the establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1872, has since grown to include superlative natural, historic, and recreation areas in every region…and that it is the purpose of this Act to include all such areas in the System.”
  • Today: The U.S. NPS now comprises more than 400 areas, 84 million acres in all 50 states

1916’s so-called Organic Act that President Wilson signed to create the NPS states that:

“The Service thus established shall promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks, monuments and reservations…by such means and measures as conform to the fundamental purpose of the said parks, monuments and reservations, which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein 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.”

Organic Act of 1916

The Beginning: Yellowstone National Park

But the history of the U.S. National Park Service begins much further back. It would be the Act of March 1, 1872 that would establish the world’s very first national park: Yellowstone National Park (YELL). Congress would establish YELL in both the Territories of Montana and Wyoming.

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The Roosevelt Arch at Yellowstone National Park. (Photo via Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images).

Yellowstone’s original, government-stated purpose, however, was as “as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people” – as the Roosevelt Arch states at the park’s north entrance.

A forming United States would take notice, however, and begin serious consideration of the conservation of American lands (something President Theodore Roosevelt was instrumental in). The world at large would take notice, too. Yellowstone’s founding began a worldwide national park movement. Today, more than 100 nations contain around 1,200 national parks.

Timeline: The First National Parks

It would take almost two decades, however, for the U.S. Government to declare another national park. And not one, but two would come into existence in 1890.

  • 1872: Yellowstone National Park
  • 1890: Sequoia National Park & Yosemite National Park
  • 1899: Mount Rainier National Park
  • 1902: Crater Lake National Park
  • 1903: Wind Cave National Park
  • 1906: Mesa Verde National Park
  • 1910: Glacier National Park
  • 1915: Rocky Mountain National Park
  • 1916: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Nearly another decade would pass before the fourth, Mount Rainier, came about, too. But the 20th century would host a national parks boom, leading to the 423 National Park Service sites we know today.

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