Celebrate 100 Years of the National Park Service

That experiences have remained constant over a century of rapid change shows the power of the NPS - without them, might Yosemite Valley be a theme park?

Kids swimming in the Merced River at the Housekeeping Camp Beach with the Half Dome in the Background.
Kids swimming in the Merced River at the Housekeeping Camp Beach with the Half Dome in the Background. Photo by Grant OrdelheideGrant Ordelheide

August 25, 2016 – National Park Service Centennial

This year, the National Park Service celebrates its Centennial, honoring the past 100 years of protecting America’s most spectacular and significant places and looking ahead to the next 100 years of conservation.

One hundred years ago, Yosemite visitors spent their vacations in much the same way you and I do today: gazing up at impossibly tall sequoias, feeling the mist from 1,000-foot waterfalls, gaping at the view from Glacier Point or Olmsted Point. That these experiences have remained constant over a century of rapid change is a testament to the power of the National Park Service – without them, might peaceful Yosemite Valley be overrun by a noisy, neon-blinking theme park? Could gold-mining operations have polluted its pristine streams? Or would it be a private playground filled with the summer homes of the elite and shuttered to the rest of us?

As unimaginable as those outcomes may seem now, the protection of public lands wasn’t a foregone conclusion at the turn of the 20th century. It’s thanks to the incredible vision of a dedicated group of conservationists that millions of acres of parks and other federal lands were set aside for our enjoyment before they could be developed or exploited. And it’s thanks to Yosemite that the idea of conservation caught on in the first place. All the way back in 1864, 8 years before Yellowstone became the first national park and 52 years before the birth of the National Park Service, Congress passed the Yosemite Grant preserving the heart of what would become Yosemite National Park. The notion that some places were special enough to be protected—and that everyone, not just the rich, deserved to experience them—was a radical one. The Yosemite Grant was the first legislation of its kind in world history.

Luckily for us (and the rest of the world), the idea caught on, and now we have the Grand Canyon, Rocky Mountain, Yellowstone, and 55 other superlative national parks to enjoy, and a National Park Service Centennial to celebrate this year.

Anniversaries like this one naturally invite us to look back at the past 100 years, which is why we decided to remember some of Yosemite’s most significant chapters in our history section. The world’s first protected park has played host to its share of adventures, controversies, and record-breaking feats of daring. But even more importantly, the Centennial is inspiring the people of the park service to look ahead to the next 100 years. Both Director of the NPS Jonathan Jarvis and Superintendent of Yosemite National Park Don Neubacher stressed to me how important it is for the parks to connect with younger, more diverse citizens in the future. The parks will only thrive into the next century with the help of a passionate new generation—and the NPS is hard at work making that happen.

That sounds like even more of a very good thing. Let me raise a glass: Here’s to the next 100 years of America’s most beloved places—and beyond!

– Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan, Editor National Park Journals