COMMENTARY: Giving thanks for century of National Park Service

As we celebrated the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, we should also pause to give thanks to the National Park Service for a century of conservation, preservation, and promotion of America’s natural and cultural resources and wildlife.

Prior to the law which established the National Park Service, national parks and monuments were individually managed, some by the U.S. military.

The August 1916 law creating the NPS was signed by President Woodrow Wilson; it facilitated federal control of these lands for recreation and education. Later actions strengthened this responsibility. For instance, the Reorganization Act of 1933 allowed the president to transfer management of historical sites from the War Department and Agriculture Department to the NPS. In the 1950s, a project called Mission 66 undertook a decade-long effort to upgrade and expand national park facilities.

When the Park Service turned 50 in 1966, the National Lakeshores and National Recreation Areas divisions were developed; the Marine Protected Areas were added in 2000. The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act furnished funds to restore and preserve major infrastructures within parks.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

At present, the NPS has its hands full with a number of different duties and jurisdictions. The annual budget of the NPS is about $3 billion. Over 20,000 workers are employed by the NPS, which oversees over 400 distinct units, including 59 national parks, 84 national monuments, 25 national battlefields and military parks, and 30 national memorials, among others.

In addition, NPS regulates a plethora of national preserves, scenic trails, river ways, seashores, and recreation areas. With over 8,500 miles of roads and 12,000 miles of trails, the NPS has oversight of 84 million acres.

Clearly, there are challenges for the NPS as it embarks of the second century of service. First, there is a substantial backlog of maintenance projects, of which $12 billion is necessary to address.

Second, balancing preservation of lands with energy needs and development has proven difficult in some regions. Third, there have been some unseemly controversies surrounding military parks, such as the observation tower issue at the Gettysburg battlefield. Fourth, there has been looting in areas where Native American artifacts are present. Fifth, the elimination of historic preservation programs like the master’s degree in that field at DSU makes the education function of the NPS that much harder.

Just as there are problems to overcome, so there are a number of successes for which the NPS should be commended. For instance, the various lands and buildings run by NPS saw more than 307 million visitors in 2015. One recent study concluded that the national parks are an investment, bringing a 4-to-1 return through revenue and job opportunities.

The various partnerships and volunteer programs have augmented the full-time staff at NPS. Though youth programs, the NPS is able to educate and inspire the next generation of leaders. Finally, historic-preservation funds have been awarded to states and localities to facilitate projects and programs.

Though nearing the end of his administration, President Barack Obama used executive authority under the 1906 Antiquities Act to add to the protection and conservation of unique areas. In August of this year, he designated over 87,000 acres of Maine’s north woods as a national monument and expanded a national marine monument in Hawaii by a half-million square miles.

On a related issue, the Obama White House supported Congress’ designation of the American bison as the national mammal of the United States, which was recently commemorated at a national park in South Dakota.

The land, waterways, and wildlife that humans share Earth with are majestic, yet vulnerable. Over the last century, the NPS and federal government generally have done their share to preserve history, protect the environment, and practice conservation.

Now it is up to citizens to reciprocate that commitment while appreciating and enjoying the world around us. There is every reason to be optimistic for the next hundred years.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science and Law Studies Director at Delaware State University. Dr. Hoff served as DSU’s director of the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation from 2005-2011 and as director of graduate programs for the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences from 2011-2016. As a graduate student in 1980, he worked for Clean Water Action Project, an environmental advocacy group.

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