The United States National Park Service will turn 100 this summer.
On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the National Park Service Organic Act. The law created a new agency under the Department of the Interior to manage the national parks that had been established beginning in the previous century.
The Act set the salary of the Director of the National Park Service at $4,500 annually. It also designated one Messenger, to be paid $600 a year.
If that wasn’t enough to live on comfortably, the Messenger (or the Director) could, like anyone else, be granted “the privilege to graze live stock within any national park, monument, or reservation herein referred to [except Yellowstone] when in his judgment such use is not detrimental to the primary purpose for which such park, monument, or reservation was created.”
Today the NPS employs some 21,000 people, including permanent, temporary, and seasonal workers. It also benefits from the efforts of 221,000 volunteers.
They oversee 411 areas totaling 84 million acres. Sites include, according to the agency’s website, “national parks, monuments, battlefields, military parks, historical parks, historic sites, lakeshores, seashores, recreation areas, scenic rivers and trails, and the White House.”
The White House isn’t the only NPS site located in a city. When we hear the phrase “national parks” we think of wide-open spaces and natural wonders – Yellowstone, Yosemite, Death Valley, the Everglades, the Grand Canyon, Joshua Tree. But the Service runs a great many urban sites as well.
The White House is also not the only one connected to a president. In New York State alone, for example, the agency manages Grant’s Tomb, FDR’s home, Eleanor Roosevelt’s home, and not one but three sites associated with Theodore Roosevelt.
Without TR’s activism – and his sheer force of personality – we might not have national parks at all, so it’s only fitting that the National Park Service manages Sagamore Hill, the 26th President’s estate on Long Island; the site of his frantic inauguration in 1901, in Buffalo; and the brownstone where he was born, just a few blocks from where I live in New York City.
Other NPS sites in Gotham include Hamilton Grange, the home of Alexander Hamilton, located inside St. Nicholas Park; the General Grant National Memorial (commonly known as Grant’s Tomb); Federal Hall on Wall Street, where George Washington took his first oath of office; Castle Clinton on the southern tip of Manhattan; the Statue of Liberty; and – speaking of liberty and the lack thereof – the African Burial Ground.
The Obama Administration has made an effort to reverse years of inadequate funding for the national parks. Maintenance of roads and other infrastructure has suffered and therefore so has visitors’ experience. The Service says it would need $12 billion to make up for the accumulated deferred maintenance.
The President’s proposed budget took a step in this direction, including $135 million for a “Centennial Challenge” program to match private donations with federal funds.
Like everything in the federal budget, the National Park Service is a slave to politics. But liberals, conservatives, and moderates alike are fans of our national parks. So there’s hope for the U.S. park system – that grand enterprise that Ken Burns’s 2009 film called “American’s Best Idea.”