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Geography of National Parks

National Parks: A Brief History and Overview

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Great Smokey Mountains

A forest with fog in the Great Smokey Mountains in Tennessee.

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Updated November 25, 2010
In thinking about pristine wilderness areas, many people think about areas like the Grand Canyon and Yosemite -- both national parks located in the United States representing areas of protected and often unspoiled wilderness. Over time some have also developed into popular recreation and tourist attractions. Throughout their long history, the first goal of national parks and the National Park Service (NPS) is to protect these federally owned lands from development so that future generations can enjoy them.

U.S. National Park History and the National Park Service

National parks are usually found in areas with something unique to protect. These can be native plants, animals, ecosystems, distinctive geologic features, and/or the protection of biodiversity. Arches National Park in Utah, for example, preserves geologic features with its sandstone arches, whereas, the Everglades National Park in Florida focuses on protecting the delicate ecosystems and biodiversity of the Everglades.

The idea of protecting areas such as these first gained ground in 1832 when George Catlin, an artist interested in natural landscapes and native peoples, showed public concern for what westward expansion would do to Native American tribes and wilderness areas.

Then, in 1864, Yosemite Valley was the first area to be formally preserved when the United States government donated the area and its Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias to the state of California, making it a state park.

The first national park in the U.S. however was established at Yellowstone (located today in portions of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming) in 1872, "for the benefit and enjoyment of the people." Old Faithful, Yellowstone's other famous geysers, its unique geologic features, and plethora of flora and fauna were instrumental in its protection as the federal government did not want this rare area to go into the hands of a private owner, possibly keeping the public away.

Nature preservation also gained more ground in the late 1800s and early 1900s when writer and naturalist John Muir began spreading his ideas focusing on protection instead of development. He also proposed that Congress make Yosemite Valley a national park, which finally happened in 1890. In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt visited Yosemite with Muir, bringing preservation even more into the national spotlight.

Over time, other federal land came under preservation but because there was no system of governing national parks in place, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Organic Act in 1916. This act created the National Park Service, which had the task of protecting all national parks and monuments present at the time. Today, the NPS has been given the power to manage parks, monuments, preserves, and a number of other types of open space areas.

National Park Classification Levels

In addition to national parks, the NPS is responsible for managing and protecting 13 other types of land. These range from National Historic Sites and Seashores to National Recreation Areas. There are also some areas that fall under more than one category such as Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska.

National Parks Around the World

Although the United States is famous for its large amount of federally owned land and national parks, there are many parks located around the world. The largest national park in the world is called the Northeast Greenland National Park. It was originally created in 1974 and has a sparse population consisting mainly of research stations. There is also a large amount of birds and marine mammals and under protection.

Like the U.S., Canada also has many national parks within its borders; however some of its most famous ones are located in the Canadian Rocky Mountains along the British Columbia/Alberta border -- one of which is Banff National Park, created in 1885 and consisting of 2,564 square miles (6,641 square kilometers).

Some international national parks also feature famous world landmarks such as Mount Everest. Sagarmatha National Park, located in Nepal, encompasses a large area around the mountain and ranges in elevation from 9,335 feet (2,845 m) to the summit of Everest at 29,035 feet (8,850 m). The park is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and protects many endangered species such as the red panda and snow leopard.

Though the few parks mentioned here is by no means an exhaustive list of those present worldwide, they do represent an attempt to protect unique and sensitive ecosystems but also provide the public with the ability to enjoy such landscapes. This is a main goal of the National Park Service and many similar organizations around the world. As urban areas expand and encroach on natural habitats, their importance will no doubt grow in an effort to protect such areas for the enjoyment of future generations.

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