Lots of “happy birthdays” deserve special mention in August. Smoky Bear was born on the 9th (1944), Roger Tory Peterson on the 28th (1908), and, aw shucks, your host on the 29th (1948, but who’s counting?). But I’d like to highlight one special birthday event that has produced more than 400 other important birthdays for the conservation of our world.
So, Happy Birthday, National Park Service! On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the law that created what I’ll guess is everyone’s favorite federal agency—the National Park Service (learn more about the NPS here) . Of course, we had already established some parks before this (Yellowstone was the first in 1872 (learn more about Yellowstone here); 35 separate units existed in 1916 . But each one was managed separately, and none were managed very well.
The creation of the National Park Service changed all that. Stephen Mather was appointed the first director of the NPS, and he worked tirelessly for the next 13 years to expand the parks, professionalize the staff, and secure a stable budget (learn more about him here).
The official start of the NPS is also important, because the law that established it was an “organic act.” That means the agency was created by an act of Congress, signed into law by the president. It also means that a president who doesn’t like the idea of national parks can’t dissolve the agency, change its mission, or try any of the other subtle things politicians can do to marginalize a program. Unless both houses of Congress and the president decide to do damage to the NPS—and that is about as likely as the Grand Canyon blowing away—we’ve got our favorite federal agency for keeps. Hurray!
As the days of the year tick by, you’ll find that I’ve highlighted the creation of many national parks and other NPS units on this calendar. For example, August 1 is the birthday of Hawaii National Park (1916), August 17 celebrates the birth of Cape Hatteras National Seashore (1937), and four NPS units, including John Muir’s home and the Johnstown Flood Memorial, were born on August 31, 1964.
Listing all the birthdays for our wonderful NPS properties would be a huge task. According to their website, the NPS administers 423 separate park units on our behalf. Only 62 of those are actually “national parks.” The others fall into several other categories, including national monuments, recreation areas, preserves, battlefields, historic sites and more. There’s a lot more work for me to do on this calendar, obviously!
Each of these 423 places deserves recognition. There is nothing like our system of public treasures anywhere else in the world, although most other countries have emulated the U.S. with their own system of national preserves.
And we certainly appreciate what we have. Americans visited our national parks and other units a total of 331 million times in the record visitation year of 2016—the centennial birthday for the National Park Service. That is almost exactly one visit for every adult and child in the country!
Visitation fell off in 2020 due to the pandemic, dropping to 237 million visits. But things are up again in 2021, as all of us who visited a park so far this year can attest. That’s the fundamental truth—we love our parks. And we love the agency that takes care of them for us.
So, Happy Birthday, National Park Service! And many, many more!