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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Rich Landers: National parks evolved to embrace more than bears, peaks and waterfalls

While about 29,000 people raft the Colorado River through Grand Canyon National Park each year, most of the park's 4.4 million annual visitors enjoy the developed attractions based from the South and North Rim villages. (Rich Landers / The Spokesman-Review)
While about 29,000 people raft the Colorado River through Grand Canyon National Park each year, most of the park's 4.4 million annual visitors enjoy the developed attractions based from the South and North Rim villages. (Rich Landers / The Spokesman-Review) Buy this photo

The National Park Service celebrated its 100th anniversary Thursday, and it’s safe to say “You’ve come a long way, baby,” with significant milestones along the way.

Train cars of tourists were coming to see fabled western landscapes such as Yellowstone and Glacier national parks years before the Park Service was created. Glacier attracted 4,000 visitors in 1911 and interest continues to grow. A record 2.36 million people visited Glacier Park alone last year.

The seed for the National Park Service was planted in 1864 when Congress and President Abraham Lincoln protected Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias in California. This was the first time the federal government conserved land for public enjoyment because of its natural beauty.

Yosemite was finally designated a national park in 1890 after a prolonged campaign fueled by Scottish-born naturalist John Muir.

Yellowstone, known especially for its wildlife and unique geothermal features, was designated by Congress as the world’s first national park in 1872. Since the Park Service was not yet created and the land was still federal territory, the park was protected under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Cavalry.

In 1906, still a decade before there would be a National Park Service, President Theodore Roosevelt established Mesa Verde National Park as a precedent to preserve human culture and history in addition to nature. Mesa Verde protected nearly 5,000 known archeological sites – the first time a national park was created to conserve manmade objects.

America had 35 national parks and monuments by Aug. 25, 1916, when President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the “Organic Act,” creating the National Park Service. The new bureau was responsible for conserving special places and landscapes and connecting the public to natural history.

Other milestone years in national park system’s history include:

1919: The creation of a coastal national park in Maine, eventually renamed Acadia, the first protected landscape on the East Coast and first American national park east of the Mississippi River.

1933: Fifty-six national monuments and military sites managed by the War and Agriculture departments were transferred to the National Park Service. Parks were gaining more stature for including areas of historical and scientific importance as well as scenic gems.

1933-1942: During the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps to put unemployed people to work protecting and enhancing the country’s national resources. Men in the corps planted billions of trees across the country, carved roads, fought wildfires and built infrastructure that enabled national parks to become economic drivers for surrounding communities.

As of Aug. 15, 2016, the national park system included 412 official units, only 59 of which are labeled national parks.

The units bear a wide range of other titles, more than 20 in all, such as national monument, battlefield, military park, historical park, historic site, lakeshore, seashore, recreation area, scenic river and trail, and the White House.

Congress bestows the names when creating the units and the criteria can vary.

The “national park” title is unique to the National Park Service, while others such as “national recreation area” can be managed by other federal agencies. For example, Hells Canyon National Recreation Area is managed by the Forest Service while Lake Roosevelt is a National Park Service unit.

The total number of park units can be misleading. For example, Denali National Park and Preserve are counted as two units, since the same name applies to a national park and an adjacent national preserve. Yet Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve is counted as one unit.

The largest in the system is 13.2-million-acre Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska. The smallest is Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial, Pennsylvania, at .02 acres

The national parks, such as Mount Rainier and Grand Canyon, are often called the system’s “crown jewels.” They encompass some of the country’s best-known natural attractions such as Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Geyser and Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest peak.

National monuments, which can be designated by the president as well as by Congress, usually are large diverse areas with outstanding natural features and could be open to more human activities such as development and hunting.

National parks are perhaps best known as celebrations of nature. But the National Mall and Memorial Parks unit in Washington, D.C., celebrates the achievement, and sacrifice, of men and women. The Lincoln Memorial is the most-visited single National Park Service site in the country.

In its centennial year, the National Park Service has become responsible for 413 units covering more than 84 million acres in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, Saipan and the Virgin Islands.

The most recent addition was announced Thursday: Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, the first national monument to preserve preserve and honor the history, culture and landscape of Maine’s North Woods. The designation was made by President Barack Obama through the Antiquities Act of 1906.

Obama has used the Antiquities Act, so far, to establish or expand 25 national monuments. Altogether, he has protected more than 265 million acres of public lands and waters – more than any other president.

National parks have been called “America’s best idea.” While the protected status was contentious and hard fought, even for gems such as Yosemite, the idea of national parks rocked, and the world caught on.

Since Yellowstone’s designation, about 6,000 national parks or preserves have been established in more than 100 nations. But the United States is still leading the way.

America’s 412th park unit is Stonewall National Monument in New York City. It’s the first national monument that honors the history of the LGBT community.

The National Park Service is a bureau of the Department of the Interior. Directly overseeing its operation is Interior’s assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, giving critters high management priority.

But National Park Service officials say Stonewall fits into the mix as another step in telling America’s story and making sure all American’s can see themselves reflected in national parks.

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