It was Wallace Stegner who called the National Parks “the best idea we ever had.  “Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”   It is this idea of a democratic National Park that set the United States apart from the European model.  American National Parks were of the people, all the people, not a select few.  All those who wish to can view the Grand Canyon from its rim, or hike to its depths.  The public, by law, can walk the path of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, peer into the crater of Haleakala, climb North America’s tallest mountain at Denali, and understand the transformation of Washington’s Army that occurred at Valley Forge.


The National Parks existed long before the National Park Service did.  But for the past 100 years, the NPS has been responsible for protecting these national treasures and the people who visit them.  The first NPS director, Stephen Mather stated that “The primary duty of the National Park Service is to protect the national parks … and keep them as nearly in their natural state as this can be done … in order that they may be used and enjoyed.” The democratic nature of the National Parks is sometimes the very thing that threatens them most.


The maps in this exhibition show units of the National Park Service in all stages of their history.  Many date from before the idea of the government preserving areas of natural beauty or cultural significance had even formed.  Many are from the first days of preservation of a site.  Some show the process of creating a park and the struggle to protect and preserve hallowed ground while still allowing in the people for whom it is preserved. We hope that these maps will remind you of the beauty and importance of this country’s natural and cultural treasures, and inspire you to