National Park Service 101

Hikers enjoying the view at Grand Canyon National Park

By now you've surely heard that the National Park Service is celebrating its 100th birthday in 2016 — but just what is the National Park Service, anyway? Consider this your crash course on National Park Service history, in which you’ll learn about the past, present, and future of one of the most important government agencies in America!

How was the National Park Service formed?

National parks were around for quite a while before the National Park Service came along, starting with Yellowstone National Park, which was designated in 1872. But with more and more parks popping up across the nation, a unified agency to oversee all of them was desperately needed. On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the act creating the National Park Service, a new federal bureau that would be responsible for protecting the 35 national parks that existed at the time, and all those to come.

What does the National Park Service do?

Well, it does a lot of things. The National Park Service is a bureau of the Department of the Interior, and it now oversees all 417 units in the National Park System. The National Park Service is responsible for everything from educational programs in the parks to making sure park roads and buildings are maintained. Here are a few fun facts about the National Park Service:

  • National Park Service lands total more than 84 million acres, and include locations in every state.
  • The National Park Service includes more than 22,000 employees in a diverse assortment of roles, along with 221,000 park volunteers.
  • There are a lot of national park lovers! The year-end total number of recreational visits in 2016 was 331 million.
  • In 2016, our national parks contributed $34.9 billion to the U.S. economy – a $2.9 billion increase from 2015!
  • The land overseen by the National Park Service includes not only national parks, but also national monuments, historic sites, recreation areas, seashores, lakeshores, battlefields, military parks, scenic rivers, and even the White House.

Who are park rangers?

National Park Service park rangers pointing at things

National Park Service Rangers (pointing at things)


Park rangers are probably the most visible members of the National Park Service team. There are several different kinds of park rangers handling jobs that range from law enforcement and conservation within the parks to leading guided tours and hosting educational programs. Learn more about park rangers, what they do, and how you can become one here.

How does the National Park Foundation help the National Park Service?

The National Park Service has a pretty huge job to do on its own. That's where the National Park Foundation comes in. We are the official national nonprofit partner to the National Park Service, and we directly support America's national parks in three key ways: 

  • Protecting America’s national parks through essential preservation and conservation efforts
  • Connecting all Americans with the unparalleled natural landscapes, rich history, and vibrant cultures protected by the National Park Service
  • Inspiring a lifelong engagement with the next generation of park stewards

Kids hiking the Narrows at Zion National Park

Kids hiking the Narrows at Zion National Park

As we celebrate the centennial agency charged with safeguarding our national heritage, now is a good time to look to the future while simultaneously remembering the history of the National Park Service. Whether you donate to a national park or program, find time to volunteer in a park, or pursue a career as a park ranger, the next major contribution to the National Park Service could be your own.

Last updated September 6, 2016.


What would you say the National Park system is?
Hi there! Thanks for your comment. If you want to learn more about the National Park Service and the sites that make up the National Park System, we'd recommend checking out this page from the National Park Service's website: Hope this helps!

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