You stand at the North Entrance to Yellowstone National Park. To enter, you pass under a huge brick archway that bears a stone inscription: “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People.”
This simple notice sends a towering message. It says that this park–one of the most magnificent and pristine environments on Earth–is for everyone. Not just the wealthy, not only the powerful, but for every member of our national community. No matter your background, your education, your income, or your age, you own this place. It is yours.
This is democracy at its best—preserving and protecting some of America’s most stunning scenery and special places so they can be appreciated by all.
The National Park System was not envisioned by America’s Founders, and it wasn’t created all at once. The idea of government protecting national land originated with President Andrew Jackson who, in 1832, signed a law to set aside the Hot Springs Reservation in the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas. The thermal waters there were to be “reserved” for public use and preserved for future generations.
It was Abraham Lincoln and members of the 38th Congress, however, who were the first to set aside and cede land directly to a state government for the purpose of preserving it as a park. The year was 1864, the land was Yosemite Valley, and the state was California. The language of the law was clear: The land was for everyone.
… the said State shall accept this grant upon the express conditions that the premises shall be held for public use…[and] shall be inalienable [absolute] for all time….
Approximately 40 years later, California returned the land to the federal government and it later became part of Yosemite National Park.
In the meantime Congress and President Ulysses S. Grant established Yellowstone National Park. With over 2 million acres in Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana, no single state had jurisdiction over the land. As a result, Yellowstone became the first truly national park. The year was 1872, but a National Park Service was still decades away from existence.
In the intervening years President Theodore Roosevelt, well-known as a conservationist, established five national parks and signed into law the Antiquities Act of 1906. The Antiquities Act enables presidents to identify placesand landmarks of historic or scientific interest and then set them aside as national monuments. Recent uses of the Act include President Barack Obama’s declaring California’s Fort Ord a national monument in April 2012.
Finally, in 1916 President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the National Park Service Organic Act. The Act established a National Park Service, whose mission, in the words of the law is “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.”
Today, the National Park System comprises some 397 areas, including parks, monuments, memorials, and historic sites, including the White House and the Statue of Liberty. Let’s have a look at some of these amazing places.
Grand Canyon National Park
Carved by the flow of the Colorado River over millions of years, the Grand Canyon has some of the most spectacular vistas in the world. The canyon is 277 “river” miles long, 18 miles across at its widest point, and about one mile deep. If you plan to descend to the river, dress in layers. Temperatures at the top of the canyon may be 25 or more degrees cooler than at the bottom.
Yellowstone National Park
The oldest of all national parks, Yellowstone is home to more geysers and hot springs than any other area in the world. You’ll also find thundering waterfalls and unspoiled lakes among its more than two million acres. Yellowstone is home to one of the largest concentrations of wildlife and some of the most diverse ecosystems in the United States. Here bears, elk, and bison roam freely.
Sequoia National Park
Established in 1890, California’s Sequoia National Park is home to some of the oldest and tallest trees on Earth—the rare and beautiful sequoias. Millions of years ago, these towering trees grew in large forests throughout the world, and there were many different species. Now only three types remain and two of them–redwoods and giant sequoias–are found mainly in California. The redwoods are known for their height, some over 300 feet tall—about the same as a 30-story building. The giant sequoia, known for the girth of its trunk, may be more than 100 feet around at the base.
Unlike other national parks, which were established for their scenic beauty, the Everglades National Park in southern Florida was created in 1947 to protect its diverse plant and animal life. With an enormous variety of subtropical habitats–from swamps to coastal lowlands to freshwater marshes—the Everglades supports an array of wildlife not found elsewhere on the planet. Delicate orchids. Towering mangrove trees. Species of pine and cypress trees. Alligators. Crocodiles. Huge turtles. Tiny frogs. Storks. Geese. Hummingbirds. Even deer and bobcats call this park home.
We’ve barely touched the surface of this country’s national park system. With over 120,000 square miles of parkland and a site in almost every state, you’re never far from one of your greatest assets. And if you decide to see for yourself, you won’t be alone. Millions visit these parks each year. And why not? They are among the owners…. And so are you.Written by Marjorie Frank.