Our National Parks History

Building on More than 50 Years of Partnership
Rebecca WatsonNPF Blog
Tall cliffs and rock towers rise above the floor of the desert
Canyonlands National Park - NPS Photo / Mackenzie Reed

As the official non-profit partner of the National Park Service (NPS), the National Park Foundation (NPF) builds upon a legacy of protecting our parks that began over a century ago, when ordinary citizens took action to establish and protect our national parks. Working together for over 50 years, NPS and NPF have done some pretty amazing things, from preserving the home of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and expanding the roaming range of bison in the Badlands to supporting a diverse network of service corps crews and connecting more than 1 million kids to our national parks.

It’s work that we’re proud to do, and with the ongoing support of fellow park lovers, it’s work we’ll continue to do for years to come. Take a look back at the history of NPS, and how NPF works in tandem with parks and partners to help all people connect with and protect America’s national parks.

The History of the National Park Service

Bison graze in a meadow with yellow cottonwood trees


Bison and fall foliage along Lamar River in Yellowstone National Park

NPS Photo / Diane Renkin

The first national park in the world was established before NPS itself. In 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant established Yellowstone National Park, setting aside more than two million acres of land in the Montana and Wyoming territory to be “dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” This act placed the park under the control of the Secretary of the Interior, giving the Secretary the responsibility of preserving all the natural resources within the park. In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act, authorizing presidents to proclaim and preserve historic landmarks, structures, and “other objects of historic or scientific interest.” Nearly a quarter of the units currently in the National Park System originated in whole or in part from this act!

On August 25, 1916, NPS was created by the Organic Act, signed by President Woodrow Wilson. At this point, there were over 35 sites being overseen by the Department of the Interior, and a unified management structure was needed. The Organic Act established the basis for the mission, philosophy, and policies of NPS and today August 25 is celebrated as the NPS’s birthday, a day when visitors can enjoy a free-free visit to a park. Further reorganizations and legislation have transformed NPS into the bureau it is today, from the 1933 executive branch reorganization under President Franklin Roosevelt to the Land and Water Fund Act of 1965 and recently the 2020 Great American Outdoors Act.

Today, NPS protects and preserves over 400 national park sites, covering more than 85 million acres, and employs over 20,000 remarkable people who care for our treasured public lands and cultural heritage. With the help of volunteers and partners, NPS safeguards the natural and cultural resources of our national parks and shares their stories with more than 318 million visitors every year.

Enter: the National Park Foundation

Service corps member walks on an elevated wooden path through a heavily forested area, with a yellow hard hat on

American YouthWorks Service Corps member in Big Thicket National Preserve

American YouthWorks Service Corps

Our national parks belong to all of us, and it is all our responsibility to care for and protect them. NPF was established in 1967 by a Congressional charter as a way for private citizens to directly support our parks – be it through financial contributions, land donation, or other means – so that NPS could have direct support for the expansion and further protection of our national parks.

Today, NPF works to protect wildlife and park lands, preserve history and culture, educate and engage youth, and connect people everywhere to the wonder of parks. We do it in collaboration with NPS, the park partner community, and the generous support of donors, without whom our work would be possible. We are dedicated to supporting parks for present and future generations.

With programs that help make parks more sustainable, preserve precious artifacts, stories, and places, connect kids to parks, grow the capacity of parks and their partners, protect our landscapes and wildlife, envision the future of parks, and invite everyone to make a connection with our parks, NPF’s work is concentrated on saving what matters most and inspiring everyone to become a park champion. Explore the ways we support our parks, through innovative and collaborative programs and projects, as well as some of our most recent accomplishments.

Funding Our National Parks

Two large bookshelves line a wall of a medium sized room. The shelves are packed with hundreds of books. A small wood desk sits in front of the book shelf. A photo of an older Frederick Douglass hangs on the wall.

Frederick Douglass Library at Frederick Douglass National Historic Site

NPS Photo

NPS is primarily funded by Congress, both through annual appropriations cycle as well as mandatory funds. The National Park System also receives funding through park entrance and user fees, like those you pay when visiting parks, and private philanthropy. The funding from private philanthropy primarily comes through 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations such as NPF.

Working closely with NPS, NPF and other nonprofit groups, including Friends Groups, identify priority projects and programs that would benefit from additional financial support. From helping connect people to parks and preserving historic sites to funding research projects and rehabilitating habitats, NPF and Friends groups provide critical support for park projects and programs. Learn more about how our national parks are funded, and NPF’s role in supporting parks and park partners on our blog.

How You Can Help

Sunset over a lake

Arbuckle District Buckhorn Area in Chickasaw National Recreation Area

NPS Photo / Victoria Stauffenberg

Making a financial contribution to NPF is one of the most effective ways to support our national parks. Donations of any amount fund projects and improvements across the country, from connecting kids to parks for the first time to preserving irreplaceable artifacts. And there are many ways to give to NPF, including becoming a monthly donor, making a gift in honor of a loved one, planning a future gift, or even starting a Facebook fundraiser for NPF.

You can also support parks by donating your time as a volunteer at your local park, helping NPS staff with everything from cleanup efforts to artist-in-residence programs. Parks across the country rely on VIPs (Volunteers in Parks) to operate. You can also support a cooperating association, such as park bookstores, or a local Park Partner (or Friend Group). Or just keep it simple visiting, championing, and sharing your favorite park memories with friends and family. Working together, we can give back to our national parks, which give so much to us. Explore details on the many ways to get involved with NPF and our national parks.

Support NPF Today
Parks tell the ever-evolving story of who we are – our heritage and our history, in its struggles and triumphs. NPF is committed to making sure all of our national parks thrive, because national parks don’t just stand for where America has been – they inspire where we go next.

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