The National Park Service celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. And a look at the national park system of today immediately reveals how much evolution the last century has brought. Today, national parks encompass much more than wilderness areas; they are historical landscapes, cityscapes and even memorial sites. Recently, we talked with Brendan Wilson—the Lead Park Ranger for Interpretation at the Flight 93 National Memorial in Somerset County, Pennsylvania—about this evolution of the national parks, and why they continue to be such a critical part of our national identity.

The Allegheny Front: First off, can you give us a little history on how the National Park Service started?

Brendan Wilson: Well, the national parks were here before the park service existed. They were things that had been set aside to be protected as federal lands. For example, Yosemite was given protection in 1864 by Lincoln, but it was actually turned over to the state of California to protect it. So the first national park as we would understand it today is Yellowstone, and that was created in 1872. There was no National Park Service at that time; it was just managed by the Department of Interior. But over the years, as other parks were created, they realized they needed an overarching agency to coordinate and administer all these national parks. So in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed into law what is known as the Organic Act, and that created the National Park Service.

At that time, though, the National Park Service was mainly managing sites out West—the big, western wilderness parks that many people think of with the National Park Service. But over time, it started to expand. Historical sites started to be added. In 1906, the Antiquities Act was passed during Theodore Roosevelt’s administration, and that was a way to protect places like Mesa Verde, the Grand Canyon and places that could be given ‘national monument’ status. And in the 1930s, during Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration, is when the Park Service really started to expand nationwide. And it has continued to expand since. They’ve added things like National Lakeshores and Seashores and National Recreation Areas. In the 1960s and ‘70s, it expanded into cities, with things like Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco.

LISTEN: “How National Parks Shape Our National Identity”

AF: So you mentioned the wilderness parks are the places that people think of when they think of national parks. But we don’t have a big, wilderness national park here in Pennsylvania, though we do have a national forest. So why is that?

BW: Out West, there were these enormous tracts of land owned by the federal government that could be made into national parks. Here in the East, a lot of land is privately owned or already protected as state parks, and state parks are already doing a great job managing them. So even though here in Pennsylvania we might not have a national park that’s a big wilderness park, we have some amazing parks that are historical parks, like Valley Forge or Independence Hall. All of the upper Delaware River is protected, as well as the Delaware Water Gap, which is a pretty good-sized park and there are a lot of resources to explore there.

AF: So how do these sites in Pennsylvania contribute to the larger vision of what national parks and sites mean to us as a country?

BW: When we look at our national parks, they really are a way of telling the stories that make up our understanding of who we are as a people. We deal with both the big events that you might read about in your textbook, but also things like Hopewell Furnace, which deals with early industry here in the country. Also, in recent years, we’ve seen this expansion of the Park Service into telling stories of people who might not be seen initially. One of the recent additions are sites related to Harriet Tubman and her work with the Underground Railroad. And they’re looking at sites right now that can help tell the LGBT story and the civil rights movement there. The concept is to create a system that allows people to find whatever their story—their park—is. And that’s a big part of this centennial too: To let people go and explore and find personal things that help them find their connection. In western Pennsylvania, the National Park Service has 31 miles of walking trails. And even though all of our sites are historically focused, it is a place that people can come and walk through the outdoors. Just because it’s labeled as a historic site doesn’t mean you can’t find a natural experience. And just because it’s labeled as a wilderness park doesn’t mean there’s not history there.

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Brendan Wilson, the Lead Park Ranger for Interpretation at the Flight 93 National Memorial in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, says national parks are much more than wild places. They can play a key role in shaping the conversation about our national identity. Photo: Kara Holsopple

AF: Well, a good example of that is the Flight 93 National Memorial, which is where Flight 93 crashed on September 11 in Somerset County. Thirty-three passengers and seven crew members were killed here and this is also their final resting place. Can you talk about this site?

BW: Absolutely. The landscape plays a key role in understanding both the story of what happened here and also how we are telling this story. The site is a reclaimed surface coal mine. The area here was mined for years before Flight 93 crashed here, so this is a landscape that has been impacted by the crash and by the history of the land before that. And when the designer was looking at this space, he really envisioned it as a living memorial. When you look at the built elements, there is a lot gray and black and white. They are very solemn colors to remind us that this is a place where a very violent event happened. But by doing that, you see the color of the green grass, the yellows and reds and purples and pinks of the wildflowers, the trees in full leaf, the blue sky and white clouds above. So the color comes from the land, and it’s a reminder of the healing process and of renewal—and that from horrible events can also come good things. We have 40 groves of trees—the memorial groves—very formally planted, as a way of honoring the passengers and crew. This was the fifth year of our reforestation effort, and over the years, this is going to change this landscape and bring back wildlife. We’re already seeing that come back here.

Some of it plays to this concept of the healing of the land, but it also becomes a place for the things that the passengers and crew had passions about. For example, one of the passengers, Richard Guadagno, was with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. And he was working at the time out in Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Northern California, an impacted landscape he envisioned as a diamond in the rough that just needed a little attention. Another one of the passengers, Christine Snyder, was an arborist in Hawaii. One of her specialties was working with construction companies that were building developments to make sure they knew how to put the right trees in. Four of the passengers were aboard Flight 93 to go to Yosemite. So by having these wildflower meadows and trees and providing places for people to walk, maybe it’s a way for someone to discover their passions, just as these people had passions before. So this experience when you come here is of a historic landscape, a cultural landscape, a natural landscape and it’s a memorial landscape. And it’s a conversation between all those different experiences.

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Brendan Wilson is the Lead Park Ranger for Interpretation at the Flight 93 National Memorial in Somerset County, Pennsylvania.