Seventy-Five Years Ago, the Reorganization of 1933 Impacted the National Park System Like No Other Event Before or Since
What’s the single most significant date in the evolution of the National Park System? Was it 1872, the year that Yellowstone National Park was established as the first national park in America and the world? Was it 1906 when the Antiquties Act was signed into law? Was it 1916 when the Organic Act created the National Park Service? Was it 1917 when Stephen Mather became the first Director of the National Park Service? Was it December 2, 1980, when the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) added 43 million acres to the National Park System? Was it October 17, 2006, the day that Mary Bomar took over the helm of the National Park Service?
How about “none of the above”? I’m of the opinion, shared by many, that August 10, 1933 was the single most important day in the long history of America’s national parks. Here’s why.
Even before the National Park Service came into existence in 1916, ardent champions of the national parks chafed at the fact that dozens and dozens of natural areas and historic sites that should be national parks were instead being administered by the War Department, the Department of Agriculture (home agency of the U.S. Forest Service), and other agencies or offices.
Horace Albright, the man who followed on the heels of Stephen Mather as the Park Service’s second director, was among the many who thought – and missed no opportunity to proclaim – that it just wasn’t right for the National Park System to be slighted in this way. Albright lobbied for 17 years in behalf of righting this “mistake.”
A very interesting sequence of events eventually brought the matter to a head and changed the National Park System forever.
On March 3, 1933, exactly one day before he left office, President Herbert Hoover approved legislation that authorized presidents to reorganize the Executive Branch of the government. The immediate beneficiary of the new legislation would be Hoover’s replacement, Franklin D. Roosevelt.
On April 9, Roosevelt was driven to Virginia to inspect Rapidan Camp, a fishing retreat on the Rapidan River that Hoover had purchased with his own money and arranged to donate to Shenandoah National Park. Roosevelt wanted to see if the property would be suitable for his own use as a presidential retreat. (It wasn't, so Roosevelt instead established his retreat at Camp Shangri-La, later renamed Camp David, in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains.)
National Park Service Director Horace Albright was along for the ride, and he seized the opportunity to argue in behalf of one of his pet causes. Turning the conversation to history and historical sites, Albright told President Roosevelt that he would love to see the War Department’s historical areas transferred to the National Park System.
Imagine how elated Albright must have been when the President readily agreed and instructed him to draw up an executive order for the transfer.
On June 10, 1933, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 6166. This, and Executive Order 6228, dated July 28, took effect on August 10, 1993. On that date, a whole bunch of federally administered sites would be consolidated and transferred to the National Park System. Under the terms of the executive orders, the National Park System would henceforth administer all federally owned national parks and national monuments, all national military parks, 11 national cemeteries, all national memorials, and the National Capital Parks (which had been managed by a separate office in Washington, DC).
The reorganization had an especially profound effect on the historical wing of the National Park System, greatly enlarging it in size and making the National Park Service the leading historical park management agency in the United States.
Twelve natural area parks were also included in the reorganization, bringing the grand total of new units to 69.
Park historians have noted that the reorganization had three highly significant consequences:
(1) It made the National Park Service the sole Federal agency responsible for all Federally owned public parks, monuments, and memorials;
(2) It enlarged the National Park System idea to include at least four types of areas not clearly included in the System concept before 1933 — National Memorials, like the Washington Monument and the Statue of Liberty; National Military Parks, like Gettysburg and Antietam with their adjoining National Cemeteries; National Capital Parks, a great urban park system as old as the nation itself; and the first recreational area — George Washington Memorial Parkway;
(3) The reorganization substantially increased and diversified the holdings in the System by adding 12 natural areas located in 9 western states and Alaska and 57 historical areas located in 17 predominantly eastern states and the District of Columbia. The number of historical areas in the System was thus quadrupled. The System became far more truly national than ever before.
As anyone could readily see, the reorganization had tremendous implications for the future growth of the National Park System.
Unlike the War Department, the NPS was not constrained to focus on military history but could seek areas representing all aspects of America's past. Management of the parks in the nation's capital would give the NPS high visibility with members of Congress and visitors from around the nation and invite expansion of the system into other urban regions. Although the big western wilderness parks would still dominate, the bureau and its responsibilities would henceforth be far more diverse.
Albright included a detailed discussion of the Reorganization in his book Origins of National Park Service Administration of Historic Sites, (Eastern National Park and Monument Association, 1971).
Looking back on the accomplishments of a long career in public service, Albright took special pride in his role as a catalyst for the Reorganization of 1933. He was, as it turned out, the right man, in the right place, at the right time.