NPS 100th: we have national parks because of cars, and other interesting things that happened in NPS history

Couple at Glacier Point in Yosemite in 1902. Photo credit: Geo. W. Griffith.

The National Park Service (NPS) is turning 100 this month, and that got me curious about its history: if Yellowstone was established in 1872, why is 2016 the centennial? How did it all start anyway? How many parks are there exactly?

PBS has a great website complete with an interactive timeline and video clips to help answer some of these questions. Turns out parks like Yellowstone (the first official national park ever) were established before the NPS was actually formed and Wikipedia has a list of all parks (link at the end of the post). How it all started is kind of a long and fascinating story that seems well summarized on the PBS website, but the main takeaway from PBS and elsewhere for me was that the story of the NPS involves presidents spanning from Lincoln to Obama; iconic naturalists like John Muir and Aldo Leopold; and extraordinary artists like Frederick Law Olmsted, Thomas Moran, Chiura Obata, and Ansel Adams. From telegrams to Instagram, NPS lands have been the backdrop to everything from war to major scientific discoveries to historic moments that have indelibly transformed how we view our world and interact with it.

One of the most interesting things I learned from the PBS website is that Adolph Murie (1899-1974) is largely the reason wolves still exist in America. By 1924, there were no wolves left in Yellowstone at all. Murie studied Yellowstone coyotes in the 1930s and wanted to see the end of predator hunting in the park. An unpopular idea at the time, he got relocated to Denali and started studying wolves. He published The Wolves of Mt. McKinley (McKinley was eventually renamed Denali), which showed that because wolves cull weaker animals, the resulting sheep and caribou herds were actually better off. Wolves are now recognized as a keystone species and have been reintroduced at Yellowstone.

Sequoia National Park in 1957 by Matson Photo Service.

I also never knew how cars were such a game-changer for the NPS. Before cars, only the wealthy were able to visit national parks, travelling by train. In the early days of the national parks, a large effort seems to have been focused on increasing visitor numbers as the success of the national park concept was measured in visitors. Cars made the parks more accessible and provided drivers with the freedom to determine their own itinerary rather than follow a pre-determined railway route. By 1918, seven times more people visited the national parks by car than by train. Visitor numbers hit a record one million two years later in 1920, and by 1925 they doubled to two million.

Because of the NPS centennial, I'm reading Ethan Carr's book Wilderness by Design: Landscape Architecture and the National Park Service right now. (Side note: I can't believe used copies of this book and Murie's (reprint) are each less than $4 right now on Amazon. My library doesn't have either, so I may have to also pick up Murie's at some point.) Chapter 1 confirms my long-standing theory that our appreciation of scenic landscapes here in the US derives from British influence. People say the concept of a national park was birthed in America, and it's true - President Ulysses S. Grant made Yellowstone the first national park in the world in 1872 - but Carr (1998) argues that the reason we began to see "land as landscape" at all was because of British picturesque theory dating back to the eighteenth century. Carr's book bears the weight and aesthetics of a planning document so it may take me a while to get through it, but I hope to discuss it in more detail in the future.

Land as scenery: falls of St. Anthony on the Mississippi ca. 1819. Image credit: Painted by J. Shaw and engraved by J. Hill via Library of Congress (LOC) (cropped and rotated image).

Another interesting fact I came across is that there is one national park in the southern hemisphere. The National Park of American Samoa was established in 1988, although the land was not secured until 1993. What makes this park stand out to me is that a third of it is underwater. The park is also known for its tropical rainforest, which the NPS says is the "finest left in the U.S. possessions."

Photo of Ofu Island beach in the National Park of American Samoa by U.S. Department of the Interior.

Finally, here is a quick plot showing how the number of visitors has increased over the last century, and how the acreage has increased (limited data points). The dip in the 1940s is due to World War II. The numbers are primarily from the PBS and NPS websites (links below), although the 1911 data point is from Carr (1998). With over 300 million visitors in 2015, it's hard to imagine a time when visitor numbers fell short of expectations and efforts were intensely focused on increasing them. The PBS website says President Jimmy Carter doubled the NPS acreage with the addition of Alaskan lands. It would have been interesting to see this in the data, but acreage data was not available that far back.

You can view a list of national parks by date of establishment on Wikipedia. Parks established after the 1980s seem to have been converted from monument status. Read about what all these designations (park, monument, preserve) mean on the NPS website. I was surprised to learn that oil extraction is one of the activities that serves to define a "preserve" in the US. Compared to monument and preserve, national park is the highest NPS designation an area can have. The other designations generally seem to refer to areas smaller in scale.

Stephen Mather (1867-1930) was the first NPS director, and his favorite park was Yosemite. Do you have a favorite? Have you visited any recently?


Sources and more information:

PBS website

NPS website

List of US national parks

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