The National Park Service Turns 100
by Steve Desroches
On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Organic Act, which created the National Park Service (NPS). National Park Service sites around the country celebrated this centennial this past week, including special events within the Cape Cod National Seashore. The stated purpose of the National Park Service upon its inception was “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life 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.”
National parks are a uniquely American creation, one that filmmaker Ken Burns called “America’s best idea” in his documentary film of the same name. And that idea has inspired 100 countries around the world to create more than 6,000 national parks. The very first national park was Yellowstone, 44 years before the National Park Service was created to manage the growing number of protected sites. Now the National Park Service manages not only national parks, but also national monuments, historic sites, and other “national treasures of the United States.”
The list of those protected areas and sites keeps growing. If you attended this year’s Carnival Parade you may have noticed a contingency from the National Park Service marching in honor of one of the newest national monuments, the Stonewall Inn, now known as the Stonewall National Monument, in New York City. It became the first U.S. National Monument dedicated to LGBT rights and history when President Obama created it on June 24, 2016. And just a day before the centennial celebration, President Obama established the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in north central Maine adding 87,500 acres adjacent to Baxter State Park to the National Park Service’s sites. And two days later the president more than quadrupled the size of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, originally created by President George W. Bush, to 582,578 square miles of land and sea in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
Of course those of us who live on the Outer Cape visit the Cape Cod National Seashore almost daily, as it is quite literally our backyard. It can be all too easy to take all that gorgeous undeveloped land for granted. And while it is sad that Provincetown suffered a great loss with the passing of Josephine Del Deo last week, perhaps it provides some comfort that she did so at the time of the centennial celebration, considering her passionate support for the creation of the National Seashore. She told many who didn’t remember that time that the construction of a giant amusement park almost happened in the Province Lands, something that seems absurd today, but in fact was almost a reality. As we celebrate the National Parks Service, and honor visionaries from John Muir, whose writings led to the protection of Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, and other sites now under the purview of the NPS, to Del Deo, here are a few interesting factoids about this branch of the federal government that preserves our nation’s crown jewels.
• The National Park System covers more than 84 million acres and is comprised of 410 sites with 28 different designations that include 128 historical parks or sites, 81 national monuments, 59 national parks, 25 battlefields, 19 preserves, 18 recreation areas, 10 seashores, four parkways, four lakeshores, and two reserves.
• Yellowstone National Park, primarily in Wyoming extending into Montana and Idaho, was established by Congress and signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant as the country’s, and the world’s, first national park on March 1, 1872.
• Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska is the largest park, with 13.2 million acres. The smallest site is the Thaddeus Kosciusko National Memorial in Philadelphia at 0.02 acres.
• In 2015, 307.2 million people visited National Park Service sites across the country.
• The budget for fiscal year 2014 was $2.6 billion. Annual visitors to communities within 60 miles of National Park Service sites support more than 240,000 jobs and contribute about $27 billion into the US economy.
• In our country’s National Parks there are 247 species of threatened or endangered plants or animals; the world’s largest carnivore, the Alaskan brown bear; the world’s largest living things, the Giant Sequoias; more than 75,000 archeological sites; nearly 27,000 historic and prehistoric structures; more than 167 million museum items, including George Washington’s inaugural coat and Carl Sandburg’s typewriter; the highest point in North America, Denali; the longest cave system known to the world, Mammoth Cave National Park; America’s deepest lake, Crater Lake; and the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park.
• The Cape Cod National Seashore was created on August 7, 1961 by President John F. Kennedy, encompassing 43,607 acres in the towns of Provincetown, Truro, Wellfleet, Eastham, Orleans, and Chatham, and includes 40 miles of coastline along the eastern shore of Cape Cod.
• The Cape Cod National Seashore is the 10th most visited National Park Service site in America