America's National Park Service

By Davies, Alan I. | Contemporary Review, March 2001 | Go to article overview

America's National Park Service


Davies, Alan I., Contemporary Review


POLITICIANS, particularly at the national level, are increasingly viewed with disdain by a significant percentage of the American public. Ordinary men and women are wearied and disgusted by their political representatives. They feel powerless before, and distant from, self-serving, non-responsive legislators. Poll after poll attests to this widespread cynicism.

Yet despite this pervasive public perception of career functionaries responsible for government incompetence and gridlock, at least one federal activity enjoys broad, genuine acclaim, even affection, from the American people. The National Park Service shines like a lighthouse on a night-blackened shoreline.

An act of Congress, signed by President Woodrow Wilson, created the National Park Service (NPS) in August 1916 as a Bureau of the Department of the Interior. Today NPS manages and operates 383 individual areas covering more than 83 million acres in 49 states. Only Delaware, the smallest geographic state in the union, is without a single NPS area. It also oversees activities in the District of Columbia and the U.S.-affiliated territories of Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa and the Virgin Islands.

As explorers and then settlers moved westward across the American continent they reported rapturously the grandeur of many landscapes encountered. President Grant had the foresight to create America's, and the world's, first national park, Yellowstone, in 1872 in the then Wyoming territory. Between that year and the establishment of the NPS, another 34 parks and monuments were designated for protection as federal properties. Primarily because of their distance from population centres, until 1916 these areas were placed under the care of the U.S. Army. (Grant, of course, had been a celebrated general.)

There are 19 different categories of managed areas. Among the more numerous of these are the national historic sites, monuments, parks, historical parks, and recreation areas. The area comprising the largest acreage is Wrangell-St. Elias NP in Alaska with 13.2 million; the smallest is the Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with less than one quarter acre, which commemorates the life and work of a Polish patriot and hero of the American Revolution.

The NPS had a fiscal year 2000 budget of $1.4 billion compared with approximately $300 billion for the Department of Defence. It operates with some 14,100 permanent employees reinforced by 9,400 temporary and seasonal salaried staff. About 85,000 volunteers (predominantly retirees) work in the parks during the most active summer school vacation months (June, July, August). Some volunteers get room and board, and a few receive a modest stipend, but the majority devote their time and energy without pay.

No less than 651 concessionaires, varying from small, family-owned businesses to large corporations, provide visitors with lodging, transportation, food, shops and other services. Gross sales totaled $772.1 million in 1998, the latest full year available. These concessions pay back to the U.S. Treasury about 5 per cent of sales either in the form of renovation or construction of facilities they occupy or as cash for use within the NPS.

The diversity of the 19 area categories is reflected in the variety of their titles. They are as varied as the Statue of Liberty National Monument at the mouth of the Hudson River across from New York's Manhattan Island; the Ford Theater National Historic Site in Washington D.C., scene of President Lincoln's assassination; the U.S. Arizona Memorial which lies submerged in Pearl Harbor, the eternal tomb of more than 1,500 sailors, when the Japanese bombed Oahu Island on 7 December 1941.

One 1999 addition to the inventory is the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, a U.S. Air Force former long-range ballistic missile silo and control bunker in South Dakota. A permanent reminder of the costly Cold War. …

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