Is it national?

How national parks are created and their history

Arches National Park with blue sky behind the rocky landscape.
North Window Arch in Arches National Park.

Maybe you’ve found yourself staying up at night contemplating all aspects of life and the question of how a national park becomes a national park has crossed your mind. Or maybe you’re normal. Anyway, it turns out it’s a bit more complicated and a whole lot more formal than you might think. Also meaning that The Boneyard does not, in fact, meet the requirements to become federally protected land. 

National Park – Large places of historical significance with a wide variety of other natural and/or cultural aspects, with a big no-no on hunting, mining or any other harmful activities. 

the boneyard fence with hand painted sign that says "the boneyard"
The Boneyard, not a national park.

Before growing up to be a national park, the young land, referred to as a unit, first has to ask itself four questions. Oh, and it also needs a letter of recommendation from the Secretary of the Interior and an act of Congress to enact the study. Casual. 

  1. Does it have national significance? Basically, does it contain a solid amount of natural, cultural or recreational resources?
  2. Is it a suitable addition to the system? Is it going to protect something that isn’t already highly protected somewhere else or are we going to protect a new aspect of significance with this park?
  3. Is it a feasible addition to the system? Gotta make sure it’s big enough to be worth it in the long run. Big enough for significant protection and public use, but also not a money pit. 
  4. Is this something that will be best managed by the National Park Service, or would another organization be a better fit to manage and protect the land?

The study is done with input from the public, Indigenous tribes, and any federal, state or local agencies that feel like getting involved. Once they decide that the land is of significance, suitable and feasible, and the best management would be the NPS, the land still does not yet become a national park. That’d be far too simple. 

Next, the boundaries of the park have to be determined. It’s gotta make sense, ya know, the whole feasibility of it all, so they have to take into account the size, ownership, cost, etc. 

Then, at last, Congress makes its decision on whether or not the young, spectacular land will, against all odds, come out of this whole thing as a national park. The National Park Service presents the study and the boundaries and the very important decision of question number four. They then probably go into a back little room and talk amongst themselves and then come back out dramatically breaking the what-has-felt-like-an-hour silence to announce that by act of Congress, we have ourselves a brand new national park. Badda bing badda boom. 

Arches National Park landscape with big rock pillars in the distance.
Park Avenue at Arches National Park.
Arches National Park with person looking out to the vast canyon.
Views from the other side of Delicate Arch.

The different types of national “parks”

National Park – Large places of historical significance with a wide variety of other natural and/or cultural aspects, with a big no-no on hunting, mining or any other harmful activities. 

National Monument – Any sort of historically or scientifically significant landmark, structure or object on government-owned or controlled land as proclaimed by the President of the United States.

National Preserve – Like a national park but you are still allowed to hunt, fish, trap, extract. 

National Historic Site – A site containing an individual feature of historic significance that is directly related to the subject, e.g. the Clara Barton House, honoring her foundation of The American Red Cross in Glen Echo, Maryland, which acted as the headquarters of the Red Cross in its early days. 

National Historic Park – Covers multiple buildings or properties of historical significance. 

National Memorial – A memorial honoring a specific person or event. Unlike the historic site, memorials do not need to be placed in a location that correlates with what it is commemorating. 

National Battlefield – This one is pretty self-explanatory, though it also includes national battlefield parks, national battlefield sites, and national military parks under its umbrella. 

National Cemetery – Also pretty self-explanatory. 

National Recreation Area – An area that allows ample outdoor recreation for the masses, while combining the preservation of historic resources and natural lands. 

National Seashore – Protected coastlines, but you can still hunt and fish. 

National Lakeshore – Same as the national seashore but on a lake instead. 

National Parkway – Roadways and those little parking lots that usually go through protected areas and/or connect sites of cultural importance.

The Arch from Arches National Park with 3 tiny people in the corner.
Delicate Arch at Arches National Park.

The History of Trail Blazin’

1831 • George Catlin

An American artist who specialized in portrait painting of Old West Native Americans, George had a pretty grand idea in the year 1831 while on a trip to the Dakotas—”a nation’s park, containing man and beast, in all wildness and freshness of their nature’s beauty!” Not a bad idea, George. 

1864 • America’s best idea

America’s best idea was actually coming to fruition thanks to Abe Lincoln and his trusty top hat when he and Congress set aside the land in Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias as federally protected land. Not to mention this is one year after he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, just casually continuing to change the country for the better. 

1872 • The world’s first national park

Yellowstone becomes the world’s first National Park thanks to a very passionate Ferdinand Hayden, who was appointed by Congress to run an expedition to learn more about the geology. Formally known as the Yellowstone National Park Act. 

1899 • From national forest to national park

Mount Rainier becomes a National Park, the first park established from what was previously a National Forest. 

1903 • Buffalo Soldier

Soldier, civil rights leader, and diplomat Charles Young becomes the first African American National Park Superintendent, protecting Sequoia and [now] Kings Canyon National Parks with his command of Buffalo Soldiers. 

1906 • Antiquities Act

After spending time on a three-day camping trip in Yosemite with John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act of 1906, which allowed presidents to declare and preserve land and other landmarks or structures of historic or scientific significance and interest. A solid step in the right direction. 
January 1, 2021

1916 • The Organic Act

The Organic Act is passed by Congress and signed into U.S. law by Woodrow Wilson, establishing the National Park Service, and providing leadership for the 14 National Parks that already existed at this time. 
January 1, 2021

1918 • First female park rangers

Clare Marie Hodges and Helene Wilson are hired as two of the first female park rangers. They had all the same duties as the men. Introducing the badass outdoor-women series.
January 1, 2021

1920 • Over 1 million visitors

The popularity of National Parks continued to increase, hitting over 1 million visitors a year starting at the beginning of the Jazz Age. 
January 1, 2021

1928 • Horace Albright

Horace Albright goes to the family with the big bucks and presents his idea to save the Tetons. Good news is, the Rockefellers happened to have some extra cash laying around, so good old Johnny donated a humble $5 million to preserve the Great Smoky Mountains, while also donating money to Grand Teton, Acadia and Shenandoah. 
January 1, 2021

1933 • The Great Depression

The Great Depression is in full swing, but Franklin D. Roosevelt has a bright idea to help out American citizens and American land. He provided job opportunities for those who were unemployed, having them work to better the existing National Parks. Across the country, these Americans planted trees, made trails, built roads and fought wildfires. Smokey Bear would be proud. 
January 1, 2021

1956 • Conrad Wirth

A gentleman by the name of Conrad Wirth, director of the National Park Service at this time, proposed something called Mission 66—a 10-year program that would work to upgrade the parks across all aspects including facilities, resource management, and staffing, resulting in visitors centers, training centers and employee housing. 
January 1, 2021

1961 • Yogi Bear

The TV series Yogi Bear premieres, coming from the one and only Hanna-Barbera. Running around parks trying to find lunch in park-goer picnic baskets, the cartoon shows Ranger Smith endlessly trying to chase Yogi down. Fun fact, Yogi Bear was named after Yogi Berra of the N.Y. Yankees and he sued, but lost. Should’ve chosen a Mets player. 
January 1, 2021

1970 • Tina Short

Tina Short becomes one of the first African American women Park Rangers in the nation’s capital. Her daughter followed the trail her mother blazed, becoming a Park Superintendent later on. 
January 1, 2021

1972 • Happy Birthday, Yellowstone

Yellowstone celebrates its 100th birthday. Old Faithful was faithful yet again, bison were roaming, hot springs were hot. Life was good. 
January 1, 2021

1980 • 47 million acres

A vast 47 million acres of land in Alaska was added to the National Park System, establishing Denali, Glacier Bay, Gates of the Arctic, Kenai Fjords, Katmai, Lake Clark, Wrangell-St. Elias and Kobuk Valley National Parks. Quite the addition. 
January 1, 2021

2001 • Fran Mainella

Fran Mainella becomes the first woman to be the director of the National Park Service after being appointed by President Bush. Clemson University went on to name the Mainella Award after her, which encourages conservation careers for young women. The badass outdoor-women series continues. 
January 1, 2021

2015 • 300 million annual visitors

National Park visitations exceed 300 million annual visitors for the first time in history. That’s a lotta hikers. 
January 1, 2021

2021 • Oldest active National Park Ranger

Betty Reid Soskin, the oldest active National Park Ranger, celebrates her 100th birthday. A year later she set down her ranger hat and retired after 16 years of service at the Rosie the Riveter-WWII Home Front National Historic Park in California. 
January 1, 2021

2022 • Still no Boneyard National Park

Whalebone still does not have its own National Park, but we are working on it. Maybe this issue will be enough to persuade Congress. Fingers crossed. 
January 1, 2021

Photos by Britt Norris