Birthdays are always fun to celebrate, and some milestones hold more weight than others. This year, the National Park Service celebrates its centennial. While the agency has undergone its share of change over the past century, its fundamental mission remains the same. On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Organic Act into law, creating an agency to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wildlife 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 idea of national parks and protected spaces was hardly a new concept at this time, but the creation of a single agency to oversee these lands was indeed a breakthrough. Many parks already existed in some form at this time (Yellowstone, the first national park in the world, was already 44 years old), but the management of the parks often fell to groups such as the US Army. Now a dedicated agency, the National Park Service began to expand its mission and create new areas such as national historic parks, battlefields, and seashores to protect the natural, historical, and cultural diversity of this country.
Today, there are 409 units in the National Park Service system, and 59 of these are designated as National Parks. Writer and historian Wallace Stegner proclaimed that America’s national parks were “the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” Last year, over 300 million people experienced our national parks, from hiking the Grand Canyon to marveling at the monuments on the National Mall. We have the foresight of early conservationists such as John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, and Stephen Mather to thank for the creation and protection of these incredible parks, but it’s largely up to us now, all of us that believe in the ideals of the National Park Service, to continue to protect these places for future generations.
On a personal level, the National Park Service and America’s national parks mean an incredible amount to me. I can think back to family vacations packing the car to drive to Acadia National Park or flying across the country to the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone. The excitement of visiting places I had only previously seen on television or in an issue of National Geographic stays with me to this day. For me, even these short visits sparked a lifelong passion for exploration and conservation, inspiring me to pursue a life of preserving and protecting these public lands. I am lucky to have worked in several parks as a National Park Service ranger, including right here in Grand Teton National Park. Those of us who have had the honor of wearing the green and grey and the iconic ranger hat enjoy a front row seat to the joy and wonderment our national parks bring to visitors from around the world. Sharing our parks and the recreational opportunities they provide is rewarding work and could very well inspire the next great conservationist.
For me, the words of Teddy Roosevelt loom large each and every day I spend in a national park: “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” This phrase is carved into eternity on the northern entrance arch of Yellowstone National Park, the park and idea that started it all. These parks are for us to enjoy, to recreate in, and to reflect upon our past and future in. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate America’s national parks than to get out and explore them as much as possible in the coming year. It’s been a great 100 years for the National Park Service; here’s to the next 100!