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What National Parks Mean to Me

Through the Gap
  A variety of Kentuckians discuss why national parks are special to them.  

Background Essay: For the Enjoyment of Future Generations

On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed an act passed by Congress that created a national park at Yellowstone in the territories of Montana and Wyoming. This was not only the first national park in the United States, but the first national park anywhere in the world. The idea of a national government setting aside land to be preserved in its natural state for the enjoyment of the public was a new concept in the role of government.

Today there are 376 areas in the national park system. There are national parks in 49 states, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, Saipan, and the Virgin Islands. Kentucky has five areas that are managed by the National Park Service.

The National Park Service (NPS) was created in 1916 to manage the national parks. The NPS has two missions:

  • To provide the opportunity for the public to enjoy the scenery, wildlife, and natural and historic resources of the parks; and
  • To preserve the parks so that they can be enjoyed by future generations.

Although almost everyone agrees that the National Park System was a great idea, there are still differences of opinion about how to manage national parks. One area of disagreement has to do with the balance between allowing the public to enjoy the parks today and ensuring that the parks are preserved for the future. It is not always easy to find the balance. For instance:

  • Should there be a daily limit on the number of people allowed to visit a park?
  • Should hunting or fishing be allowed in the parks?
  • What about picking wild flowers?

One way that the NPS tries to find a balance is by creating different types of national parks. There are 19 different categories. In Kentucky, there are four different types of national parks. Mammoth Cave is a national park. No hunting is allowed. Big South Fork, on the other hand, is a National River and Recreation Area. With the proper license and permits and in the proper season, hunting is allowed.

Cumberland Gap and the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace are national historical parks. National historical parks are included in the National Park System because they are places important in the nation's history. Although Cumberland Gap is designated a national historical park, 14,000 of its 24,000 acres have been proposed, and are managed, as wilderness.

In Western Kentucky there are six “certified sites” on the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail. The Trail of Tears National Historic Trail commemorates the removal of the Cherokee and the paths that 17 Cherokee groups followed westward. Today the trail encompasses about 4,900 miles of land and water routes and traverses portions of nine states. The National Park Service, in partnership with other federal agencies, state and local agencies, non-profit organizations, and private landowners, administers the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail. Participating national historic trail sites display the official trail logo.

The national parks belong to all the people of the United States. In addition to visiting the parks for enjoyment, people can get involved in the parks in other ways. Many parks have a youth program, including a web-based Junior Ranger Program. Many hold clean-up days when volunteers help to remove trash. Even picking up a single piece of trash while you visit a national park is a good way to help protect the parks for the enjoyment of future generations.



The National Park Service web site includes general and visitor information about the National Parks, including information on the Web Rangers Program for Youth.

The National Parks Foundation web site includes ideas for exploring and preserving the National Parks.