Did you know that you are the owner of millions of acres of prime real estate scattered across the United States? Did you know that your vast holdings include beaches, lakes, rivers, prairies, forests, canyons, mountains, and deserts? Did you know that Yellowstone, Denali, the Grand Canyon, Acadia and other marvels protected by the U.S. National Park system, belong to you? Just what is a national park? For many people the word "park" brings to mind nicely groomed gardens and lawns, complete with swings and slides. But national parks are very different! They are our country's greatest natural and cultural treasures. The fact that they belong to every American citizen is not just a good deal; it's a great one! It wasn't always this way, however...
Imagine that you could step back through time to the year 1872. The United States has recently been torn apart by civil war. Towns have been ruined, the countryside trampled, and many people have lost friends or family members. The President is the most famous general of the Union Army, Ulysses S. Grant. This is a country with serious problems, a country struggling to rebuild itself and somehow restore the spirit of its divided people. This is a country that has turned tired eyes toward the west and, amidst its troubles and concerns, given birth to a wonderful concept-the creation of the world's first national park.
The thought of having national parks is so familiar to us, that sometimes it's hard to realize that at one time this idea was fresh and different. Who came up with the idea in the first place and how did it happen? The United States was far from the first country to set aside special places-in fact there had been preserves in Asia and Europe for thousands of years. "Commons", for instance, existed for public use. These were less appealing, even "waste" lands, set aside for common needs such as livestock grazing and the gathering of fuel and building materials. Other more desirable areas, like game preserves, were privileged and private places and not for use by everyone.
The United States, however, was founded on the notion of a country that was "for the people, by the people and of the people." In keeping with this idea, the young federal government reserved seventeen public sites for our nation's capital in 1791. Nearly forty years later, in 1832, an area around Hot Springs, Arkansas was set aside to insure that it would be protected and that its resources would be distributed fairly. Another reserve was established in 1864, when Congress granted the Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Big Tree Grove to the state of California for public use and recreation. With these examples to draw upon, the stage had been set and the idea of a national park was waiting in the wings...
By the mid 1800's, Americans were hungry to open up the west. Many people regarded it as their mission, indeed their duty, to tame the wilderness. Others were looking for new financial opportunities after the devastation of the war. Maybe there was promising land to settle! Maybe there were fortunes to be made! The possibilities were endless...
The tales of explorers, trappers, and prospectors sparked curiosity in the Yellowstone area. What was fact and what was fiction? Legends told of trees made of stone, mountains made of glass and boiling pools on the shore of a dazzling lake where you could catch a fish and cook it while it was still on the line! Interesting stories, even if they were pretty difficult to swallow! Eventually scientific expeditions set forth to learn the truth. Their reports were equally amazing-and they were backed by hard proof in the form of maps, photographs and paintings! Yellowstone had succeeded in capturing the imagination and heart of a nation and a movement began to preserve it for the people of the United States!
On March 1, 1872, a lot of hard work and many years of developing ideas came together as Congress declared that "the tract of land in the territories of Montana and Wyoming, lying near the headwater of the Yellowstone river is hereby reserved and withdrawn from settlement, occupancy, or sale under the laws of the United States, and dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people." The world's first national park had been born! Soon after its start, the national park idea was frequently attacked by special interests, and equally hotly defended. If you could have peered through a keyhole into the United States Senate exactly eleven years after Yellowstone's establishment, you would have heard stirring speeches in its support, like this one by Senator Vest:
"I am not ashamed to say that I think its existence answers a great purpose in our national life. There should be to a nation that will have a hundred million people a park like this as a great breathing place for the national lungs!"
Yellowstone was just the beginning! By 1890 three more United States national parks had been established: Sequoia with its massive trees, General Grant (which is now a part of Kings Canyon) and Yosemite. At the same time, other people were trying to preserve the cliff dwellings, pueblo ruins and early missions in the Southwest. Theodore Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act in 1906. This act allowed the president to appoint special places of historical or cultural interest as national monuments. Do you know the first one? It was Devil's Tower, Wyoming, a massive stone column that stretches 867 feet high. For centuries it has served as a landmark for Native Americans, settlers, explorers and visitors.
By 1914, there were thirty national parks and monuments and it was becoming obvious that a separate agency was needed to manage them. Enter the National Park Service, authorized by Congress and approved by President Woodrow Wilson on August 25, 1916! The Organic Act charged the new agency "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the 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". That's a fancy way of saying that the National Park Service has two big jobs. The first is to preserve its special areas in their natural state (or, in the case of an historical area, to preserve it as nearly as it appeared on a certain date) and the second is to make these areas available for people to use and enjoy. And that's a tall order!
Today the National Park Service is in charge of more than national parks and monuments. There are also battlefields, military parks, historical parks, historical sites, lakeshores, seashores, recreation areas, scenic rivers and trails and the White House! Do you live near one of these areas? Chances are you do, since every state except Delaware has at least one site, and there are also units in the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands! The National Park System is made up of over 83 million acres and has more than 380 sites! How many can you list?
President Franklin D. Roosevelt once said: "There is nothing so American as our national parks. The scenery and wildlife are native. The fundamental idea behind the parks is native. It is, in brief, that the country belongs to the people, that it is in process of making for the enrichment of the lives of all of us. The parks stand as the outward symbol of this great human principle." It's exciting that so American an idea has spread around the world. Today there are more than 1200 national parks in over one hundred different countries! Many of these nations still look to the United States for guidance in managing their own national treasures.
Have you ever been to the world's first national park? What is so special about Yellowstone? Maybe you're fascinated by its hot springs and geysers. Half of the planet's thermal features are here, including the world's tallest active geyser, Steamboat, which erupts to more than 300 feet! Or maybe you enjoy Yellowstone's wildlife. There are over 50 different types of mammals, including the gray wolf, lynx, bison and grizzly bear and more than 300 different species of birds, such as the bald eagle, trumpeter swan and whooping crane. Maybe you're excited by the fact that Yellowstone holds the largest lake above 7000 feet in North America, or that the Yellowstone River is the longest free-flowing river in the United States. Maybe you're thrilled by the knowledge that Yellowstone is an active volcano, has approximately 290 waterfalls and is visited by nearly 3 million visitors every year. Perhaps you love the idea of such a large natural area set aside, just waiting to be explored. After all, Yellowstone is now 2.2 million acres, larger than the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined! Or maybe you're just stunned by its sheer physical beauty.
Whatever your particular interest, Yellowstone has a treat in store for you! So fasten your seatbelts and get ready to explore this amazing national park! Ready? Get Set! Let's go!