The agency that would become the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (NYS OPRHP) was created in 1970; however, the history of state parks and historic sites in New York stretches back to the latter part of the 19th century. Management of state-owned parks, and guidance for the entire state park system, was accomplished by various regional commissions, private organizations, statewide advisory councils, and divisions within other state agencies prior to the establishment of NYS OPRHP, which grew from the framework created by these earlier organizations.
State-level procurement and management of parks in New York began in 1883, when then-governor Grover Cleveland signed legislation authorizing the appropriation of lands near Niagara Falls for a "state reservation".:10 Two years later, the Niagara Reservation, known today as Niagara Falls State Park, opened to the public. The park is claimed to be the oldest state park in the United States, and was the first established via eminent domain.
The State Reservation on the St. Lawrence was authorized in 1896, and by 1898 it included modest state holdings in the Thousand Islands region of New York. During the early 20th century, the state continued to expand its public parks system with several large additions, including Letchworth State Park in 1906, Fire Island State Park (known today as Robert Moses State Park) in 1908, John Boyd Thacher State Park in 1914, Enfield Glen State Park (today's Robert H. Treman State Park) in 1920, and Allegany State Park in 1921. A coordinated effort to protect portions of the Hudson Palisades from the damaging effects of quarrying resulted in the creation of a number of state parks in the 1910s and 1920s, including Bear Mountain State Park and Harriman State Park.:10–12
Throughout these early acquisitions, the state lacked a formal statewide agency or organization to coordinate management and development of state parks. Instead, parks were managed by independent regional commissions, such as the Palisades Interstate Park Commission, or by organizations such as the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society. To address the need for statewide coordination, the New York State Council of Parks was created by legislation adopted on April 18, 1924.:15 The council served to plan development and set standard policies for all New York state-owned parks, reservations, and historic sites that were not under the authority of the New York State Conservation Commission (which notably included those lands that comprised the Forest Preserve in the Adirondacks and Catskills). Its formation was supported by governor Alfred E. Smith and based on plans by Robert Moses, who became the council's first commissioner;:16 Moses would remain in charge of the council until 1963.:40
The council initially included representatives from regional park commissions and other organizations involved in park management, including the Conservation Commission and the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society. Prior to the creation of the Division of Parks (see below), the State Council of Parks was the highest-level organization overseeing park management in the state.:16