NPS History


The National Park System:
Caring for the American Legacy

The National Park Service (NPS) preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations. NPS cooperates with partners to extend the benefits of natural and cultural resource conservation and outdoor recreation throughout this country and around the world.

To achieve this mission, the National Park Service adheres to the following guiding principles:

Excellent Service: providing the best possible service to park visitors and partners.

Productive Partnerships: collaborating with federal, state, tribal, and local governments, private organizations, and businesses to work toward common goals.

Citizen Involvement: providing opportunities for citizens to participate in the decisions and actions of the National Park Service.

Heritage Education: educating park visitors and the general public about their history and common heritage.

Outstanding Employees: empowering a diverse workforce committed to excellence, integrity, and quality work.

Employee Development: providing developmental opportunities and training so employees have the “tools to do the job” safely and efficiently.

Wise Decisions: integrating social, economic, environmental, and ethical considerations into the decision-making process.

Effective Management: instilling a performance management philosophy that fosters creativity, focuses on results and requires accountability at all levels.

Research and Technology: incorporating research findings and new technologies to improve work practices, products, and services.

Shared Capabilities: sharing technical information and expertise with public and private land managers.

On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the act creating the National Park Service, a new federal bureau in the Department of the Interior responsible for protecting the 40 national parks and monuments then in existence and those yet to be established.

This “Organic Act” of August 25, 1916, states that “The Service thus established shall promote and regulate the use of 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.”

The National Park Service still strives to meet those original goals, while filling many other roles as well: guardian of our diverse cultural and recreational resources; environmental advocate; world leader in the parks and preservation community; and pioneer in the drive to protect America’s open space.

The national park system of the United States comprises over 400 areas covering more than 84 million acres in 49 States, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, Saipan, and the Virgin Islands. These areas are of such national significance as to justify special recognition and protection in accordance with various acts of Congress.

By Act of March 1, 1872, Congress established Yellowstone National Park in the Territories of Montana and Wyoming “as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people” and placed it “under exclusive control of the Secretary of the Interior.” The founding of Yellowstone National Park began a worldwide national park movement. Today more than 100 nations contain some 1,200 national parks or equivalent preserves.

In the years following the establishment of Yellowstone, the United States authorized additional national parks and monuments, most of them carved from the federal lands of the West. The Department of the Interior also administered these areas, while the War Department and the Forest Service of the Department of Agriculture administered other monuments and natural and historical areas as separate units. No single agency provided unified management of the varied federal parklands.

An Executive Order in 1933 transferred 63 national monuments and military sites from the Forest Service and the War Department to the National Park Service. This action was a major step in the development of today’s truly national system of parks—a system that includes areas of historical as well as scenic and scientific importance.

Congress declared in the General Authorities Act of 1970 “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….”

Additions to the national park system are now generally made through acts of Congress, and national parks can be created only through such acts. But the president has authority, under the Antiquities Act of 1906, to proclaim national monuments on lands already under federal jurisdiction. Congress usually asks the Secretary of the Interior for recommendations on proposed additions to the system. The secretary is counseled by the National Park System Advisory Board, composed of private citizens, which advises on possible additions to the system and policies for its management.

Last revised 26-May-22

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