John F. Kennedy once said “National parks and reserves are an integral aspect of intelligent use of natural resources. It is the course of wisdom to set aside an ample portion of our natural resources as national parks and reserves, thus ensuring that future generations may know the majesty of the earth as we know it today.”
There are numerous visually breathtaking and historically rich National Parks that we are fortunate enough to call ours in the Southwest. While many of these national treasures attract hundreds to thousands of visitors each year, it’s important to note that these majestic parks are here today for us to experience and enjoy thanks to many of our former commander in chiefs. Everyone from Abraham Lincoln to Barack Obama has played in role in preserving America’s natural landmarks. To honor these historic sites and in honor of Presidents Day, here is a brief history of some of the major National Parks in the southwest and the presidents we are forever grateful to for preserving them.
While many presidents contributed to establishing and verifying regions across the country, there are two presidents who are credited with bringing national parks to the forefront. President Theodore Roosevelt was a great lover of the outdoors and as President thought it was important to keep land and water free of buildings and pollution. He worked for new laws to protect forests, rivers, and other natural resources. Roosevelt wanted to make sure that special places like the Grand Canyon were protected forever, so he created national parks and forests. During his administration (1901-09) five new parks were created, as well as 18 national monuments, four national game refuges, 51 bird sanctuaries, and over 100 million acres of national forest. On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the act creating the National Park Service, a new federal bureau in the Department of the Interior responsible for protecting the 35 national parks and monuments then managed by the department and those yet to be established. Today there are over 417 National Parks in the United States with over a dozen located in the stunning southwest.
The Petrified Forest
The Petrified Forest is home to some of the most impressive fossils ever found and more are being discovered each year as erosion exposes new evidence. Fossils found here show the Forest was once a tropical region, filled with towering trees and extraordinary creatures we can only imagine. While more than 150 different species of fossilized plants have been discovered by paleontologists, species of reptiles, such as Desmatosuchus, similar to the armadillo, have also been discovered. In 1906 the Antiquities Act signed by President Theodore Roosevelt was used to create the Petrified Forest National Monument. Between 1934 and 1942, the federal Civilian Conservation Corps built road, trails, and structures in the monument, and the government acquired additional land in the Painted Desert section. The monument became a national park in 1962. Six years after the signing of the Wilderness Act in 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, wilderness areas, were designated in the park. In 2004, President George W. Bush signed a bill authorizing the eventual expansion of the park from 93,353 acres to 218,533 acres. “If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them something more than the miracles of technology. We must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it.” – Lyndon B. Johnson, President of the United States
The Grand Canyon
Grand Canyon National Park is the United States’ 15th oldest national park. Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, the park is located in northwestern Arizona. The park’s central feature is the Grand Canyon, a gorge of the Colorado River, which is often considered one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. During a first visit to the Grand Canyon, President Theodore Roosevelt gathered a small crowd on the south rim and addressed them. “The Grand Canyon fills me with awe,” Roosevelt stated. “It is beyond comparison! Beyond description; absolutely unparalleled throughout the wide world. Let this great wonder of nature remain as it now is. Do nothing to mar its grandeur, sublimity and loveliness. You cannot improve on it. But what you can do is to keep it for your children, your children’s children, and all who come after you, as the one great sight which every American should see” – Theodore Roosevelt
Theodore Roosevelt created the Grand Canyon Game Preserve by proclamation on November 28, 1906 and Grand Canyon National Monument in 1908. Further Senate bills to establish the site as a national park were introduced and defeated in 1910 and 1911, before the Grand Canyon National Park Act was finally signed by President Woodrow Wilson in 1919. The National Park Service, established in 1916, assumed administration of the park.
Yosemite National Park
One of California’s most incredible natural landscapes, Yosemite National Park features nearly 1,200 square miles of towering waterfalls, millennia-old Sequoia trees, daunting cliff faces and some of the most unique rock formations in the United States. But despite its enormous size, most of the tourist activity takes place within a 7-square-mile area of Yosemite Valley. In 1864 President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill granting Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove to the State of California. John Muir helped spark the creation of Yosemite National Park in 1890. In May 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt camped with Muir near Glacier Point for three days. On that trip, Muir convinced Roosevelt to take control of Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove away from California and return it to the federal government.
Death Valley is known as America’s lowest, hottest, and driest national park, adventurous visitors enjoy Death Valley for its many extremes and mysteries such as the sailing stones. Death Valley became especially popular in the 1920s when resorts were built around Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek. Death Valley was declared a National Monument in 1933 by President Herbert Hoover setting aside almost two million acres of southeastern California and small parts of south westernmost Nevada. The park was then substantially expanded and became a national park in 1994.
Located in the northwestern part of New Mexico is a magnificent natural outcropping of sandstone known as El Morro (which means “the heartland” or “the bluff” in Spanish)
This landmark has been a beacon for travelers and a natural canvas for Native American, Spanish and American explorers for hundreds of years. In the late 1500s, Spanish conquistadors came upon El Morro and began to record their presence at the base of the bluff. Rising so high above the surrounding landscape, El Morro became a guiding beacon for these early Spanish soldiers as they crisscrossed what is the American Southwest today. To preserve the site and the rock inscriptions telling the story of El Morro’s past, six months after signing the Antiquities Act into public law, President Theodore Roosevelt established El Morro National Monument for being “of greatest historical value” on December 8, 1906.
Crater Lake Park
Oregon has only one national park, but with 360 miles of public beach, gorges, wild rivers, forested peaks and fossil-rich desert it is by no means lacking in scenery. Crater Lake national park in western Oregon is known for having one of the deepest, clearest lakes in the world, due to the eruption of the Mount Mazama volcano, which created Crater Lake over 7,700 years ago. President Roosevelt signed the bill which resulted in the official creation of the park on May 22, 1902. Crater Lake thus became America’s 6th national park, following Yellowstone, Yosemite, Sequoia, General Grant (now Kings Canyon), and Mt. Rainier.
Zion National Park
Zion National Park’s canyons and mesas boast an especially exquisite beauty, even in a state known for dramatic landscapes. Breathtaking Zion Canyon is the centerpiece of this 147,000-acre parkland that protects a spectacular landscape of high plateaus, sheer canyons and cliffs. In 1908 eight southern Utah ranchers applied for a survey of lands near Little Zion Canyon in eastern Washington County. The report is said to have persuaded President William Howard Taft to set aside on July 31, 1909, over 15,840 acres in Little Zion Canyon as Mukuntuweep National Monument. Zion National Park was established as Utah’s first national park in 1919. The highlight of Zion National Park is an expansive canyon averaging 2,000 feet deep, Zion Canyon offers hiking opportunities along its floor in the 20 to 30-foot-wide area known as The Narrows and the challenging area known as The Subway. Two of the most prominent are the Crawford and Kolob.
Bryce Canyon is most famous for its colorful hoodoos, and there are more of these artfully eroded spires in the park than there are anywhere else on Earth. The area was originally settled by Mormon pioneers in the 1850s and was named after Ebenezer Bryce, who homesteaded in the area in 1875 and was known to have described the canyon as “a hell of a place to lose a cow”. Following a visit to Utah with the First Lady, President Warren G. Harding proclaimed Bryce Canyon a national monument on June 8, 1923. On June 7, 1924, Congress passed a bill to establish Utah National Park, when all land within the national monument would become the property of the United States. The land was acquired and the name was restored to Bryce Canyon. On February 25, 1928, Bryce Canyon officially became a national park.