From the earliest days of our national parks, the President of the United States has played a crucial role in preserving our most beautiful and historically important places. One hundred years after the formation of the National Park Service, this continues to be the case. Looking back at the history of presidents and national parks provides a revealing portrait of American progress over the last century and a half.
More than 50 years before the formation of the National Park Service, President Abraham Lincoln approved a federal cession in 1864 that gave Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias to the State of California. Known at the time as Yosemite State Park, this area would not become a national park until 1890, but Lincoln's move set the stage for the conservation movement that would gain momentum in the coming decades.
Ulysses S. Grant
Yellowstone National Park—our first national park—was created on March 1, 1872, by President Ulysses S. Grant. The Yellowstone National Park Protection Act of 1872 set this remarkable landscape aside "as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people." It was an act of striking foresight in an age marked by expansion, development, and industrialization.
Few presidents contributed more to conservation than Theodore Roosevelt. Having spent many of his formative years in the west, Roosevelt seemed to innately understand the importance of saving key parts of the American landscape from development. By signing the Antiquities Act of 1906, he was able to create 18 national monuments. Congress also established five national parks during Roosevelt's tenure as president.
With national parks springing up across the country in the early 20th century, a unified organization to manage them was much needed. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the act that created the National Park Service to protect the 35 national parks established at that time, and all those that would be established in the future.
Franklin D. Roosevelt
In 1933, an executive order from President Franklin D. Roosevelt transferred 56 national monuments and military sites to the National Park Service from the Forest Service. The move was crucial in that it marked the inclusion of historically and socially important places in the National Parks System, along with places of scenic and scientific value. As part of the New Deal, Roosevelt was also instrumental in creating the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which built roads, planted forests, and constructed park buildings in national parks across the country.
Lyndon B. Johnson
President Lyndon B. Johnson did a lot to further the conservation movement, thanks in large part to the input of his wife, Lady Bird Johnson. In addition to establishing dozens of new national parks, recreation areas, and monuments, the Johnson Administration passed the Wilderness Act of 1964, the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act of 1965, the Historic Preservation Act of 1966, and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968.
By designating Stonewall National Historic Site in 2016, President Barack Obama created the first entry into the National Park System that represented the LGBTQ+ equality movement. Obama has also granted protected status to more than 265 million acres of land and water—more than any other president in history.
The President of the United States continues to be one of the driving forces behind the preservation of America's most naturally, historically, and culturally important landscapes and landmarks. More than a century after the formation of the first national park, it's clear that there will always be more places to protect, and our commanders in chief will be instrumental in ensuring this happens.
Image Credit: Abraham Lincoln, Yellowstone National Park - WikiCommons; Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Lyndon B Johnson, Theodore Roosevelt, Yosemite Grant Act – NPS.gov; Barack Obama – Brendan Smialowski for AFP/Getty Images; Woodrow Wilson – Library of Congress.