From lush boreal forests to arid red deserts to jagged, ice-capped mountains, America’s national parks showcase the rich diversity and stunning beauty of our nation’s landscape. Every spring during the week of April 16 through 24, the nation celebrates its national park system with National Park Week.
While many look forward to National Park Week every year, most notably because of the waiving of park admission fees, this year is giving outdoor enthusiasts even more cause to celebrate, as 2016 marks the National Parks Service’s centennial.
According to the nps.gov, Woodrow Wilson signed the National Park Service into existence on August 25, 1916, 44 years after the establishment of the first national park, Yellowstone, in 1872. The federal bureau was created to manage and steward the blooming national parks system, which by that year had reached a total of 35 parks.
While there are many contributing factors to the birth of national parks in America, some argue the existence of the federal parks system can be attributed just as much to literature and the arts as to politics.
By the mid-19th century, America, still a relatively young nation, was struggling to define its identity. During this time, many of the prominent creative minds in the country turned to nature for inspiration in their work, much of which was disseminated widely across the country.
According to “America’s National Park System: The Critical Documents,” the Romantic movement in arts and literature during the 19th century “encouraged the experience of mountains and wilderness.”
Manifestations of such encouragement could be found in the writings of literary icons such as Henry David Thoreau and Washington Irving and in the works of landscape painters such as Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran.
“The rise in attention to nature coincided with the search for identity and pride among American literati,” the book states. So, while a young America may not have had the Parthenon, the Alhambra or a Santa Maria del Fiore, it did have the giant redwoods of California, the mountains and geysers of Wyoming, and the glacier-carved lakes of Montana.
A legacy of national pride in our wild places has clearly carried on through the 20th century. Since the birth of the National Parks Service 100 years ago, the total number of national parks in the United States has grown from 35 to over 400, according to nps.gov.
As an additional celebratory measure for the NPS’s centennial, the US Postal Service is unveiling a series of stamps throughout the month of April, depicting various national parks. The stamps are to be released for circulation on June 2 of this year, according to the National Parks Service.
In another initiative inspired by the centennial, the National Park Service and National Park Foundation have collaborated to create the Find Your Park movement, which aims to educate people about and connect them with the national parks system.