National Parks: An American Heritage

Apr 26, 2013 By Anita R
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Did you know that national parks are one of the most popular tourist destinations in the United States? Last year, nearly 283 million people visited one of 401 national parks across the country. Referred to as 'America's Best Idea', they are so deeply woven into the American fabric of life that it is hard to imagine the nation without them.

April 20-28 is set aside as a week to celebrate this national heritage and visitors admitted without a fee. 

Creation Of National Parks

The decision to create these national parks was not obvious. No such places existed anywhere in the world. The idea of National Parks is credited to George Catlin, an artist. Once on a trip to the Dakotas in 1832, Catlin worried about the impact of America’s westward expansion on Indian civilization, wildlife and wilderness. His vision was partly realized in 1864, when Congress donated the Yosemite Valley to California for preservation as a State Park.

In a few years Yellowstone followed. But Montana and Wyoming did not have a state government at that time to receive and manage the property, Yellowstone came under the custody of the US Department of Interior. This arrangement set the stage for other parks including Sequoia, Mount Rainier, Crater Lake  and Glacier Parks to be brought under the National Parks umbrella.

For many Americans, the country's natural wonders rivaled the great castles and cathedrals of Europe. President Theodore Roosevelt was one of the park system’s greatest patrons. During his administration (1901-09) five new parks were created, as well as 18 national monuments, four national game refuges, 51 bird sanctuaries, and over 100 million acres of national forest.

The National Parks Service

The impulse to preserve nature was followed by the desire to promote tourism. Over time, roads were built and parks and motels developed to accommodate tourists. The new national parks extended the emphasis of preservation of prehistoric Indian ruins, as well as objects of historic and scientific interests. 

But as the number of national parks grew, no central organization existed to manage them. Private companies, including hotels, railroads, ranches, and sawmills, saw great profit potential in the parks and began to exploit their resources. The led the U.S government to create the National Parks Service in August 1916.

The legacy of the National Parks is truly unique and unparalleled. It gives us all an opportunity to get away from the monotony of life, and revel in the great outdoors -- hiking, biking and adventure sports. It is our responsibility to preserve it for the future generations. Right now, that appears to be in jeopardy as funds for National Parks have been cut due to sequestration.