The U.S. national parks are governed by the National Park Service, which is an agency within the Department of the Interior. Learn about the national parks of America and the current issues they face.
Go west, young man! If there were ever a rally cry for America's expansion westward in the early 19th century, this would have been it. During that time in America's development, people where fleeing the low wages and crowded conditions characteristic of the big cities of the East and heading to the unbounded opportunities that the West had to offer. However, the artist George Catlin had some concerns about westward expansion.
In 1832, he took a trip to the Dakotas. While there, he grew concerned about the impact of American settlements on Indian civilization, wildlife and the wilderness. He wrote that the lands must be preserved 'by some great protecting policy of government…' Because of Catlin's observations and writings, the concept of national parks is often credited to him. In this lesson, you will learn about the early beginnings of national parks, who handles their administration, and the concerns that our national parks face.
The National Park Service
A national park is an area of scenic or historic value that is protected by a nation's government for the benefit of the general public. Many national parks contain vast areas of land and water and provide recreational and life-enriching experiences for visitors. To preserve the resources of the parks, potentially disruptive activities, such as hunting, mining and logging, are prohibited. In 1872, Yellowstone National Park, located mainly in Wyoming, was the first area to be recognized as a national park.
Maintenance and administration of Yellowstone as well as all other national parks is the responsibility of the National Park Service. The National Park Service is an agency of the Department of the Interior that administers the national parks. This agency oversees more than 80 million acres of land and water, which make up the national parks and other areas of recreational, historical and cultural significance. Even though the first national park was established in the 19th century, it was not until 1916 that The National Park Service was formed.
In that year, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Organic Act, which was the federal law that established The National Park Service. The act made it the purpose of The National Park Service to conserve and protect the natural scenery, wildlife and historical significance of designated areas to preserve them for future generations.
Areas of Concern for National Parks
The National Park Service still works to meet the original goals of the Organic Act. However, there are growing areas of concern for national parks. Perhaps the most pressing concern is funding. National parks are popular tourist destinations, but the costs associated with repair and maintenance of the thousands of miles of roads and hiking trails, as well as the upkeep of historic buildings and water and waste systems, are a constant strain on The National Park Service's budget. Years of under-funding and the natural aging process of buildings and roads, along with the increasing number of visitors to national parks, make funding an ongoing issue for the nation's government.
Roads and infrastructure are not the only areas of national parks that need attention. Another concern is air and water pollution. The parks are protected against development and environmentally polluting activities, such as industrial processes, mining, drilling and logging. However, the areas surrounding the national park are not restricted and this can impact the air and water quality within the parks. Emissions from power plants and industrial processes are blown by winds and the resulting smog and air pollutants can destroy scenic views and affect the growth of native plants.
Overuse of water by surrounding areas can also impact national parks. As urban and farming areas continue to expand, especially in areas upstream of the parks, water demands increase, which can drain aquifers and other water sources or introduce pollutants.
National parks also see that increased land use and development in surrounding areas creates problems for wildlife management. Wildlife is protected within the boundaries of the national park. However, animals and birds do not recognize these boundaries and may wander off of the national park and into developed areas where their protection is not guaranteed.
National park animals and plants are also threatened by invasive species, which are non-native plants, insects or animals whose introduction into an area causes harm. Species that are not native to the region can be introduced into the national parks and may thrive in the new environment. This can deplete resources needed by native plants and animals.
Tourists can inadvertently introduce foreign plants and insects into the parks that hitch a ride on their clothing or belongings. And animal species, including exotic snakes and pets, can be abandoned in the vast lands and waters of national parks. When these species are turned loose in the parks, they can grow and multiply, threatening the survival of the parks' native residents.
Another area of concern for national parks is maintaining visitor experience. The popularity of some national parks is leading to a problem of overcrowding, which can diminish the scenic value and tranquil environment that was part of the original intent of the park. Also, when the National Park Service was created, motorized recreation, such as off-road vehicles, snowmobiles, jet skis and helicopter tours did not exist. This issue continues to be a debate between those who think the parks should be open to all forms of public recreation and those who feel the environmental destruction and noise associated with motorized vehicles diminishes the visitor's experience to our national parks.
Let's review. A national park is an area of scenic or historic value that is protected by a nation's government for the benefit of the general public. The National Park Service is an agency of the Department of the Interior that administers the national parks. The Organic Act was the federal law that established the National Park Service. Areas of concern for national parks include funding, air and water pollution, wildlife management, invasive species and maintaining visitor experience.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to discuss what a national park is and the concerns the National Park Service faces in administrating and protecting these regions.