US National Parks

By Katelyn B

Thesis

The United States National Parks have been very influential in the past, as they are still influencing American and its people to the present day.

History

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Glacier National Park, Montana

The national parks date back to the mid 1800s when the first American explores traveled west to survey the land. Yosemite was one of the first parks discovered for its natural beauty, followed soon by Yellowstone. In 1872 Yellowstone was officially recognized as the first national park by Ulysses S. Grant.(1) The 1906 Antiquities Act marked a great step toward the creation of what would be known as the National Park Service. The act gave presidents the power to set aside areas of historic interest by designating them as National Monuments.(2) Theodore Roosevelt used this act to create many monuments that would eventually become park and he has been a major name affiliated with the parks because of this.

The next phase of the parks was the creation of the National Park Service in 1916. (3) Their goal was to maintain and promote the parks. The first national parks were located in the middle of the Wild West and they were difficult for citizens to access easily. The well known environmentalist Jon Muir and New York Central Park architect Fredrick Law Olson started promoting the parks. During the 1920s the automobile rush developed in America and parks started to see more visitors. The National Park Service and National Geographic somewhat partnered to also help in promoting the parks.(4) Throughout the 1930s the Park Service expanded their domain and started to include historic sites that focused on preserving American culture. They aimed to recreate all of the parks under their care to the primitive appearance before the European settlers arrived.(5)

The 1950s-1960s were all about marketing the National Park Service to the public and becoming the modern parks we know to this day. There was the “See America First” Campaign in 1956 that encompassed promoting pictures of the parks through ads and pictures in magazines. (6) This included the construction of roads, trails, hotels, campgrounds and visitor centers that would appeal to visitors even more. People would travel to the parks by automobiles and railway. It was an financially economical vacation that many middle class families could easily afford.

As time continued more national parks are continued to be created, usually from national monuments. The most recent creation of a park was the Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado. It was previously a national monument and was declared official park status in 2004.(7) The parks have grown to 374 units in 2012 from the 6 national parks that existed in 1904.(8)

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Tourism

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Denali National Park, Alaska

Tourism in the national parks dates to the 1900s when the Northern Pacific Railroad was complete, bringing tourists to Yellowstone. Because of the new form of communication, people were able to access the parks much easier. This is why by 1920 the number of visitors to the parks exceeds over one million per year.(A) Once again you can see the increase in tourism from 1955 to 1960, the years in which the interstate system was built.(c) In 1955 there were 62 million visitors a year, in 1956 the interstate Highway System began, and by 1960 visitor attendance was at 80 million per year. (11)

Other factors contributing to the increase of visitors over the years is the population of the United States growing in general. When the parks began in the late 1800s the population of the United States was not near as big as it is today. There are also a lot more parks and sites covered under what the National Park Service classifies as visitors. In 1904 there were a reported 140,954 visitors with that only coming from six national parks. In 2012 the number of units considered to be park was 374 with 282,765,682 recreation visits.(12)

One variable that was noticeable in tracking the park attendance was whether there were any economic or cultural affairs happening during that time period. A very noticeable drop in attendance occurred from 1941 to 1942 . In 1941 a record 21 million visitors visited the parks, and in 1942 the attendance dropped to only 9 million visitors.(13) This was due to the United States joining WWII in December of 1941. Once war was declared men were off to battle, and the women were holding down the homefront.(B) There wasn't as much free time to visit the parks and money was tight. Another slight slump in attendance occurred in 2008. There was a 20 million drop in attendance that year most likely due to the economic crisis. In 2008 the economic situation of the US was not good, and it impacted Americans with many facing tighter financial circumstances. This led to the cutting back of leisure activities such as visiting the parks.

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Park Service

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The National Park Service serves as the backbone of the national park system. They were established in 1916. (20) The National Park Service maintain all national parks, national monuments, national seashore, national lake shores, and any other park owned by the Federal Government. They are a bureau of the US Department of the Interior and are led by a director who is nominated by the President and confirmed by the US Senate. (21) Underneath the director are senior executives who manage national programs, policy and budget. The park rangers maintain the parks on a daily basis. The National Park Service's initial founding mission was to hold America's natural wonders in public trust for all Americans, past, present, and future.(22) They continue to do that every day.

Environmental

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Mt. Rainier National Park, Washington

One focus of the parks is to preserve and maintain the parks and that includes environmentally as well. One park that works on preserving century old trees is Sequoia National Park in California. National Geographic published an article in December of 2012 that focused on the giant trees. Throughout the article one of the points of interest is how much life one tree can give. The author emphasis on the complexity and the sheer size of the tree that is standing at 247 feet tall.(D) The tree is at least 3,200 years old and has over two billion leaves.(23) Through using these statistics the author is able to establish the value of its impact.

The national parks work in preserving forests like this that benefit our environment. If it wasn't for these parks people would be cutting down these beautiful trees just like settlers did when they first encountered the trees in the 1800s. (24)

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Wildlife

John Muir, the man credited with proposing the idea of starting the parks, argued for the creation of national parks as refugee for wildlife and as places to nourish the human spirit.(26) The national parks have became just that and they focus on keeping the species in balance. There are many endangered species within the national parks, and one of those considered endangered to the American west is the Grey Wolf. The Grey Wolf once thrived in Yellowstone but over the decades the population has slimmed down so much that it is considered endangered to that park. As of 2012 there are less than 60 within the park itself. (27)

In 1996 there was a project conducted under the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service to reintroduce wolves to the Yellowstone area. A total of 7 pairs of mating wolves were placed within the park at a cost of $267,000, which congress refused to sign and conservation groups were able to raise independently.(28) This project delisted the wolves from the Endangered Species Act for awhile, but they were once again relisted once the population died out in 2008.(29) The wolves have been relisted and delisted from the endangered species act multiple times over the years and there have been arguments to delist them permanently from the list. The wolves are only endangered in the western US, but not in other places such as Canada. (30) In 1997 the Purdue bioethics team preformed a case study on the wolves arguing that replenishing them would help benefit their revival within the parks. (31) 15 years later undergraduate Katelyn Larsen completed a study that argued the delisting of the wolves from the endangered species list permanently on the premise that they are not rebounding to their former population even with protection from the Endangered Species Act.(H) She also argued the fact the wolves kill local calves and other animals that are either domesticated or used for farming. (32) Currently the wolves have been removed from the Endangered Species Act even though their numbers are lower than previous years when they were included in the Act. (33)

Recreation

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Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

The national parks provide a variety of recreational activities for visitors to do. Some of these activities include hiking, biking, water sports, horseback riding, rock climbing, fishing and camping. Each different park has its main recreational activities that they are somewhat known for. A lot of rock climbers go to Yosemite to scale the side of the giant monolith El Capitan, while avid fishers may choose to go to the streams in the Great Smokey mountains.(I) Denali is home to the United States’ tallest mountain, Mount McKinley which is 20,320 feet high.(34) Professional mountain climbers often visit the park to climb this mountain. Whether visitors are professional athletes or just looking for day hikes, the national parks are able to accommodate all varieties of people.

Mt McKinley Climb
Yosemite Rock Climbing & Mountaineering HD
Smoky Mountains Fishing

Photogrpahy

Landscape photography is often associated with the US National Parks. Photographers come from all around the world to try and capture the unique essence of each park. America offers a diverse selection of ecosystems because of its size. The US national parks cover the mountains of Denali to the volcanoes of Hawaii. This is why they are so well photographed my modern photographers to this day.

In response to the Great Depression the Works Progress Administration and its Federal Arts Project provided art for public places in attempt to support struggling artists. These vintage posters were part of that effort. Artists were asked to create posters that promoted the landscapes and wildlife of America’s National Parks. Their hopes were if they employed the artists to promote the parks, they would see an increase in visitors in the parks. This would give America itself revenue and provide the struggling artists with income, resulting in a positive situation for both parties.(C) The program ended in 1943 and the largest collection of these prints is currently located in the Library of Congress.(35)

Location

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Wrangell–St. Elias National Park, Alaska

US Density Map with Marked National Parks
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The national parks are located all throughout the US from the swamps of the Everglades in Florida to the mountains in Denali national park. From looking at the map it obvious that there are more parks in the west opposed to the east. Most of the national parks were first created to protect some sort of natural abnormality or to protect forests. Yellowstone was created to protect its geothermal wonders, Yosemite its forest and monoliths, and Sequoia for its trees.(36) Most of these natural wonders occur in the west because of either the tectonic plates, or the natural ecosystem. The tectonic plates collided to form the Rocky Mountains. This uninhabitable land by humans served to be a great home to plant life and wildlife.(A)

Looking at the density map in comparison to where the parks are is also interesting because where there are not people, there are parks.(G) This is once again because of terrain and the difficulty of living comfortably upon these natural wonders. The parks that are in the higher density regions are visited more often, but also face higher risks of pollution. Yosemite and the Great Smoky Mountains rank among the most popular parks because they are near more populated areas.(I)

10 Most Popular Parks

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#4 Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
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10 Most Underappreciated Parks

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#5 Mt. Sanford, Wrangell–St. Elias National Park, Alaska
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Sources