Chapter 8: National Parks: Preserving America’s Natural and Cultural Heritage

Preserving America’s Natural and Cultural Heritage

Robert B. Keiter

The national parks—widely regarded as “America’s best idea”—are designed to preserve the nation’s natural and cultural heritage. A unique part of the federal public lands, national parks attract visitors from near and far, who come to marvel Yellowstone’s astonishing geothermal features, Yosemite’s soaring cliff faces, the eye-popping Grand Canyon, and other remarkable natural attractions. They come to see Yellowstone’s bison and bears and to absorb the deep solitude of Canyonlands’ austere backcountry. And they come for adventure—for the thrill of navigating the Grand Canyon’s pulsing whitewater, to climb the soaring Grand Teton, to surf the waves at Cape Hatteras, and to paddle through Voyageurs’ watery wilderness. Generations of American families have made summer pilgrimages to the national parks, establishing traditions that still endure today. Though most visitors come away with enduring personal memories of these storied places, few are acquainted with the national park system’s rich history, the profound changes it has undergone, or the challenges it confronts today. Although seemingly well-protected natural sanctuaries, the national parks are never far-removed from the political, social, and economic forces that regularly buffet the nation’s public lands.

In 1872, Congress enacted legislation establishing Yellowstone National Park in northwestern Wyoming as the world’s first national park. The bill retained this extraordinary landscape in public ownership as a “pleasuring ground” to be maintained in its “natural condition” for present and future generations.1 Congress soon built upon the Yellowstone idea with the designation of additional national parks to protect other stunning western settings from falling into private hands or being exploited for profit. By 1916, it was clear that these early national parks constituted an emergent system, prompting Congress to pass the National Park Service Organic Act2, which created the National Park Service and instructed the new agency to preserve these lands in an unimpaired condition. Since then, the national park system has grown to more than 415 units covering 84 million acres with sites in each of the fifty states. A political creation from the beginning, the much-beloved national parks occupy a unique, preservation-oriented position on the nation’s public lands.

This chapter explores the evolution of the national parks as part of the nation’s public land system, emphasizing the vital role parks play in promoting nature conservation. It begins by outlining the basic legal framework governing the national parks. It then explains how, within that legal framework, the national park idea has evolved over the years in response to changes in public values and advances in scientific knowledge. Next, it reviews how the national park system has expanded over time, noting the importance of public sentiment and ecological knowledge in driving that growth. Given the dynamic nature of American society, the chapter concludes by highlighting current challenges confronting the national parks and reflecting on how these challenges are being addressed to ensure the future of this remarkable system devoted to preserving our natural world and cultural legacies.

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Adopted in 1916, the National Park Service Organic Act has survived the test of time and continues to guide management of the ever-expanding National Park System. The Organic Act provides that the “fundamental purpose” of the national parks is “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”3 The act further grants the Park Service authority to adopt rules and regulations governing the use and management of the parks.4 Over time, Congress has amended the act, both clarifying and expanding the Park Service’s role and responsibilities. In 1970, the General Authorities Act established that the growing assortment of differently named units within the National Park System constituted a single system and should be managed as such.5 It also instructed the Park Service to prepare general management plans for each unit to address park visitation and ensure park resources were adequately protected.6 In 1978, responding to the destructive impacts caused by upstream logging outside Redwood National Park, Congress adopted the so-called Redwood amendment, which not only reaffirmed its commitment to the original organic mandate but also prohibited derogation of park values unless “directly and specifically provided by Congress.”7 Other amendments to the Organic Act have expanded the Park Service’s responsibilities. In 1998, Congress adopted the Omnibus National Park System Act, requiring for the first time that the Park Service “assure that management of the National Park System is enhanced by the availability and utilization of a broad program of the highest quality science and information.”8 The legislation also explicitly acknowledged that national parks were part of larger landscapes .9 In 2016, Congress adopted the National Park Service Centennial Act, instructing the Park Service to “ensure that management of system units…is enhanced by the availability and use of a broad program of the highest quality interpretation and education,” including programs that enable people to engage with the natural world, promote diversity, and reflect current scientific research.10 Other Organic Act amendments have sought to clarify the Park Service’s role in recommending additions to the National Park System, including the criteria to be used in evaluating the “national significance, suitability, and feasibility” of the area.11 Moreover, Congress has twice revised the Park Service’s concessions policies, clarifying that park resource values take priority over visitor uses, limiting in-park visitor accommodations and services to those that are “necessary and appropriate” and promoting greater competition among concessioners.12 Simply put, Congress has confirmed that the Park Service’s first obligation is to safeguard park resources in an unimpaired condition while gradually expanding the agency’s responsibilities toward meeting this obligation.

Other important laws that extend across all public lands also apply to the national parks and have helped shape the system and its management. The Wilderness Act of 1964, enacted in part as a reaction to the Park Service’s early penchant for constructing roads, hotels, and other facilities inside the parks, prohibits any structures, other development activity, or motors inside designated wilderness areas to ensure the lands remain “untrammeled” and “primeval” in character.13 Although the Park Service expressed early opposition to the wilderness legislation (Miles 2009), Congress has designated nearly 44 million acres of national parkland as wilderness, paradoxically giving the agency the largest wilderness portfolio among the four federal land management agencies (Wilderness Connect, n.d.). The Endangered Species Act extends powerful legal protection to species verging on extinction, essentially supplementing the protection that wildlife generally enjoys within the parks under the Organic Act but also requiring the Park Service to consult with the US Fish and Wildlife Service if its actions might affect a protected species or its habitat.14 The National Environmental Policy Act requires federal agencies to prepare an environmental impact statement whenever their actions might significantly impact the human environment,15 which ensures that the Park Service must carefully evaluate new construction proposals and visitor activities, such as the number of tour boats in Glacier Bay National Park.16 Further, the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act provide national parks with some important legal protection against polluting activities occurring outside park boundaries.

Drawing upon its authority under the Organic Act, the Park Service has promulgated regulations and policies further defining its management priorities and strategies. Park Service regulations are legally enforceable and designed to protect park resources and visitors; they vest park officials with the authority to close sensitive areas and to impose limits on hunting, fishing, recreational activities, firearm possession, and similar activities.17 Individual park managers are authorized to establish specific regulations for their parks through the superintendent’s compendium, which can entail additional limits on vehicles, bicycles, fishing, research specimen collection, climbing, and the like. Further, the Park Service’s management policies provide additional guidance on such matters as the interpretation of the Organic Act, wildlife management, wilderness management, wildfire, cultural resources, and Native American uses (National Park Service 2006). Although not regarded as legally enforceable,18 the management policies are binding on agency employees, setting useful standards for those charged with preserving park resources and values.

The judiciary has played an important role in interpreting and applying these laws in cases challenging controversial park management decisions or involving external activities perceived as threatening park resources. Several cases have posed the question of whether the agency’s resource protection responsibilities take precedence over visitor enjoyment, for example, when mountain biking was negatively impacting trail conditions or when Jeep access was adversely affecting stream conditions. The courts have consistently ruled that resource protection must take priority in order to meet the Organic Act’s mandate to preserve the parks in an unimpaired condition for the benefit of future generations. A more difficult question arises when the threat to park resources arises outside the park in the form of an external pollution source or energy development on adjacent lands (Sax and Keiter 2006, 1987). In these cases, the courts have recognized that the Park Service has an obligation to protect park resources from impairment but also that the agency does not have the authority to prohibit activities that are otherwise legally permitted on nearby lands. As a result, the agency must work collaboratively with its neighbors, engaging in their planning and environmental review processes and seeking to influence decisions that might harm park resources (National Park Service 2006). One fruitful avenue for engagement has been the emergent notion of ecosystem (or landscape) scale management, which enables agencies and landowners to take full account of the broader landscape through comprehensive resource management planning efforts.

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Within this legal framework, the national park idea is not really one idea but rather an amalgam of ideas that have evolved over time, reflecting economic, social, scientific, and other changes in the nation’s values and priorities. Early national park policy was defined by the so-called Lane Letter, released in 1918 over Secretary of the Interior Franklin Lane’s signature for the purpose of interpreting the new Organic Act and explaining the new Park Service’s approach to park management (Dilsaver 1994). Much has transpired and changed since then, including the interstate highway system, dramatic population growth, increased leisure time and personal wealth, advances in scientific knowledge, and new outdoor recreation equipment. As these changes have taken hold and fostered increased park visitation, the national park idea has evolved as have the Park Service’s management priorities and strategies (Keiter 2013).

In the beginning, most of the early national parks were undeveloped, wilderness-like settings remote from most population centers. To attract visitors and fulfill the public enjoyment dimension of its mandate, the Park Service strived to encourage visitation to the parks, primarily by building roads, hotels, and other visitor facilities that inevitably altered the wilderness-like character of the parks. The agency’s ostensible goal was to enable people to see and experience these extraordinarily scenic places, which in turn would help secure public support for the new park system and thus needed congressional funding. The advent of the automobile in the early twentieth century soon made park visitation a reality for many Americans, especially as the country’s highway system improved (Sutter 2002). The net result was to transform the national parks from a wilderness setting into a tourist destination, such that visitation today exceeds 320 million people annually and results in overcrowding in several parks at popular times. Along the way, to protect park scenery and ensure a favorable visitor experience, the Park Service extinguished wildfires and exterminated predators, oblivious to the ecological implications of these policies. In the words of a Park Service historian, the agency was engaged in “façade management” to safeguard the scenery and enhance visitation (Sellars 1997).

To accommodate park visitors, the Park Service turned to the private sector and enlisted concessioners to oversee the hotels, dining halls, stores, and other facilities. Because the Park Service had no experience providing these types of visitor services, the ensuing public-private partnership has endured for the past century, though not without conflicts over appropriate levels of development and visitor services. Concessioners focus primarily on the bottom line, which means serving more and more visitors in the parks—an incentive that can effectively turn the national park into a mere commodity. Similar incentives are at work in adjacent gateway communities that cater to park visitors. Intent on maximizing the economic returns from visitors, gateway communities have promoted activities inconsistent with the national park experience, sometimes even creating a Coney Island-type atmosphere. As these communities grow, it is often at the expense of the nearby park, with subdivision expansion displacing wildlife and overall development creating pollution problems. All of which lends a strong commercial dimension to the national park idea. Although the Park Service can exercise control over concessioners, it has little control over gateway communities (Keiter 2013).

From early on, the national parks have been viewed as prime recreation settings. The 1918 Lane Letter described the parks as “this national playground system,” asserting that “the recreational use of the national parks should be encouraged in every practicable way.” It went on to endorse “all outdoor sports,” giving special notice to “mountain climbing, horseback riding, walking, motoring, swimming, boating, and fishing” but not hunting, which has been banned in the national parks from the outset (Dilsaver 1994). During the early years, this commitment to outdoor recreation led Yosemite to bid for the 1936 Winter Olympics and prompted the construction of swimming pools, ski areas, golf courses, and the like inside some parks. Concerned about the impact and appearance of these myriad recreational activities, critics charged that the Park Service was becoming a “Super Department of Recreation” and a “Playground Commission” (Sellars 1997 ). Eventually, to protect against environmental degradation and to ensure an enjoyable visitor experience, the Park Service has put restrictions on the types of recreational activities permitted in the parks as well as limits on the number of people allowed to engage in different activities, including backcountry camping permits and Grand Canyon river rafting limitations (Keiter 2013). The courts have consistently upheld the agency’s authority and decisions, citing its responsibility to safeguard park resources from impairment.19

The Park Service’s early commitment to scenic preservation largely ignored science as a basis for managing park resources. With the agency’s workforce principally composed of landscape architects, the goal was to maintain a beautiful—albeit static—scene that appealed to visitors. That changed, however, in the mid-1960s in response to the Leopold Report (Leopold et al. 1994), which examined the Park Service’s wildlife management policies and concluded that the agency was wrongly disregarding science and thus imperiling park ecosystems. The report was clear about how the Park Service should proceed: “As a primary goal, we recommend that the biotic associations within each park be maintained or where necessary recreated, as nearly as possible in the condition that prevailed when the area was first visited by a white man. A national park should represent a vignette of primitive America” (Leopold et al. 1994). Accordingly, the report endorsed an ecological restoration agenda, one that would utilize adaptive management strategies under the supervision of “biologically trained personnel.” Specific recommendations included recovering extirpated predators to reestablish predator-prey relationships, reintroducing fire to park ecosystems, and eliminating nonnative species. Although another thirty years passed before Congress added a scientific mandate to the Park Service’s responsibilities and yet another twenty years before education was also added, the agency meanwhile dramatically shifted its resource management policies to recognize the dynamic nature of park ecosystems and to restore such ecological components as predators, wildfire, and even seasonal flooding. As a result, the national parks have become an important workshop for scientific experimentation and education, something akin to “nature’s laboratory.”

The Organic Act quite explicitly directs the Park Service to conserve wildlife, and the agency has long been committed to doing so. Its approach to wildlife management, however, has undergone a radical transformation over the years. In the early days, the idea was to put animals on display for park visitors and to distinguish between “good” and “bad” animals (Biel 2006; Pritchard 1999). This resulted in the establishment of a zoo at Yosemite, bear viewing spectacles at park garbage dumps, and the Buffalo Ranch at Yellowstone—all hardly natural spectacles. It also resulted in the elimination of wolves, bears, cougars, and other predators to ensure visitors could enjoy elk, bison, and deer meandering peacefully across the landscape. Following the Leopold Report, though, the Park Service shifted direction and adopted a “natural regulation” policy that not only allowed nature to take its course but also sanctioned active restoration efforts (Boyce 1993; Schullery 1997), the classic case being the addition of wolves to Yellowstone (McNamee 1997). Other major ecological restoration efforts have included allowing wildfires to burn in the backcountry, restoring natural water flows in the Everglades, removing dams on the Elwha River in Olympic National Park, and emulating seasonal flood events in the Grand Canyon (Lowry 2009). The basic goal is to maintain and restore ecological processes with minimal human intervention, recognizing that park ecosystems are dynamic—not static—settings subject to ongoing change and adaptation. Of course, this also means acknowledging that park resource management policies can have impacts beyond park boundaries in the form of dispersing wildlife and rampaging wildfires. Conversely, intensive external development activities, such as oil fields, clear-cut logging, and new subdivisions, can adversely impact park resources by fragmenting wildlife habitat and fouling park waters. In short, the national parks are imperfect wildlife or ecological reserves (Keiter 2013).

The realization that national parks are not islands of preservation amid oceans of human activity has prompted the notion that parks represent the vital core of larger ecosystems, which should be managed as an entirety. Building on post–Leopold Report scientific insights, it has become evident that external activities—or external threats—can severely affect national park resources. In 1980, the Park Service itself recognized these dangers in a report titled State of the Parks (National Park Service Office of Science and Technology 1994). Subsequent reports have reconfirmed these concerns (National Parks Conservation Association 2018), drawing upon the emerging sciences of conservation biology and island biogeography to demonstrate that national parks are too small to prevent extirpation of some native wildlife species. One oft-cited study found that all the major national parks, owing to their limited size, have lost at least one species during the last century (Newmark 1995, 1985). To help address these problems, the Park Service and its supporters have endorsed the notion of ecosystem management, which views parks as the heart of an ecosystem and calls for restraint across the landscape to sustain important ecological processes (Keiter 2003; Keiter 2013; Skillen 2015). Examples of where this ecosystem approach is being implemented, though with mixed results thus far, include the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, Crown of the Continent Ecosystem, and the California Desert landscape. As climate change further alters existing ecological systems, large-scale management strategies will become even more important to promote resiliency and hence enable ecosystems to adapt to change (White et al. 2010).

This short history of the national park idea vividly illustrates how our notions about these special places have changed over time, responding to new knowledge, values, and concerns. That the management standard set forth in the Organic Act has not been changed suggests it has been flexible enough to accommodate these shifts in the role and purpose of our parks. That Congress has seen fit to give the Park Service explicit new science and education responsibilities while reaffirming its foremost preservationist obligation confirms the importance of the agency’s nonimpairment mandate and its policies placing resource conservation and restoration before visitor enjoyment to ensure future generations can continue to appreciate the parks. To be sure, change is not just a matter for the past but is ongoing, inevitably presenting the Park Service with new challenges and the need to adapt to new circumstances and values.

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The notion of preserving nature rather than exploiting it for human use and consumption represented a sharp departure in federal policy from the privatization and utilitarian perspectives that had long prevailed as white settlers advanced across the frontier continent. No wonder, then, that additions to the National Park System during the past century reflect evolving ideas about what types of places should qualify as a potential national park. Most of the nation’s large natural parks have been carved out of the public lands, reflecting a political judgment that these special places should be protected from settlement or development. During the early years, the emphasis was on designating particularly scenic or unique landscapes as a park to promote aesthetic values. Later, Congress was convinced to extend national park status to less scenic settings in order to protect ecological and wilderness values, reflecting a notable shift in the role played by the parks. This section briefly outlines how the National Park System has evolved, observes how this evolution mirrors broader societal changes, and highlights the political dimensions of new park proposals. It is a story of largely haphazard growth and political opportunism, informed by emergent social values and, more recently, scientific insights.

In 1906, confronted with reports of widespread looting of Native American sites across the Southwest, Congress adopted the Antiquities Act, giving the president authority to establish national monuments to protect historic and scientific objects, though limited to the smallest area necessary to adequately safeguard these objects.20 President Theodore Roosevelt promptly employed the act to designate the Grand Canyon as an 820,000-acre national monument, establishing the important precedent, sustained by the courts, that the act could be used by presidents to protect large areas for their scientific or historic value.21 In 1919, when Congress designated the Grand Canyon a national park,22 it established the further precedent of converting national monuments into national parks. Since then, Congress has converted more than a dozen presidential national monuments into national parks, including Zion, Bryce Canyon, Olympic, Carlsbad Caverns, and Arches (Harmon et al. 2006; Rothman 1989).

Prior to the adoption of the Organic Act in 1916, Congress created several national parks modeled on the seminal 1872 Yellowstone designation. These early parks, which included such iconic venues as Yosemite, Sequoia, Mount Rainier, Crater Lake, Rocky Mountain, and Glacier were protected to safeguard their unique features and scenic qualities, ensuring that these special places would not fall into private hands for mining, logging, or homesteading purposes. They were viewed as important dimensions of the nation’s spectacular natural heritage, not dissimilar to the numerous cultural landmarks—cathedrals, castles, and the like—that were widely treasured, preserved, and visited throughout Europe (Runte 2010). Although placed under the Department of the Interior, the US Cavalry actually oversaw the early parks because the Department of the Interior lacked the financial or human resources to police the lands to prevent poaching, trespassing, and other incursions (Hampton 1971). But after Congress passed the Organic Act, the National Park Service took over, assuming responsibility for protecting the existing parks and attracting visitors to them.

Not surprisingly, the early national parks were established without regard to the Native American tribes that either inhabited or utilized the lands for hunting, fishing, or other purposes. The early “wilderness” national park model envisioned these scenic settings as being without any permanent human settlement, which meant current Indian residents in Yosemite, Glacier, and elsewhere were displaced from their homes and moved outside the new parks (Burnham 2000; Keller and Turek 1998; Spence 1999). This initial approach to national park creation was quite ironic, given the origins of the national park idea. The idea is generally attributed to the artist and author George Catlin, who in 1832 proposed creating a “Nation’s Park, containing man and beast, in all the wildness and freshness of their nature’s beauty” (Spence 1999, 9–10), following a westward journey where he observed the existing Native American cultures being overrun by the rapid advancement of white settlement. Catlin’s notion of preserving nature’s beauty and beasts eventually took hold in the form of the national park but notably did not include the original native inhabitants.

The result, over time, has strained relations between the Park Service and Native American tribes, as the tribes have gradually asserted treaty and other rights for access to the parks. In several instances, notably at the Grand Canyon, Death Valley, and Badlands, these Indian claims have gained traction, prompting boundary changes and other adjustments to the park-tribe relationship (Keiter 2013). In 2014, increasingly sensitive to Native American concerns, the National Park Service proposed the creation of the first “tribal national park” at the south unit of Badlands National Park in South Dakota, but the proposal has yet to gain congressional support (National Park Service and Oglala Sioux Tribe 2012). As the tribes continue to assert claims to their ancestral homelands, social justice concerns will progressively find their way into the national park idea, pressing for recognition and new relationships between the parks and tribes.

Following the adoption of the Organic Act, the National Park Service’s original leaders endorsed the view that only areas of “national significance”—defined in terms of “scenery of supreme and distinctive quality or some national feature so extraordinary or unique”—merited inclusion in the budding system (Letter 1994). With this focus on scenic splendor, Congress was soon persuaded to add new parks in Hawaii, Alaska, Maine, the Southwest, and the Appalachian region, extending the nascent system across the country. But the “national significance” standard has proven problematic over time. Although 1976 legislation directed the Park Service to employ the “national significance” standard when evaluating potential new park units,23 Congress has not consistently adhered to the standard when establishing new parks. Further, the standard is inherently difficult to define with precision, given that national values and interests continue to evolve. As different types of new units have been added to the system, critics have complained that a number of them do not meet the system’s standards (Foresta 1984; Ridenour 1994).

During the 1930s, both the president and Congress had a hand in enlarging and reshaping the National Park System. In 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt doubled the number of park units when he transferred sixty-four national monuments, military parks, battlefield sites, memorials, and cemeteries to the Park Service, dramatically expanding the scope of the system (Runte 2010, 194–95). These transfers put the Park Service in charge of the nation’s cultural heritage, broadening its mission into an entirely new realm. President Roosevelt also employed his Antiquities Act power to enlarge the system, creating eight new national monuments at such locations as Joshua Tree, Capitol Reef, Channel Islands, and Jackson Hole, all of which Congress subsequently converted into national parks (Unrau and Williss 1983).

At the same time, Congress was also involved in reshaping the system. First, Congress designated Florida’s Everglades as a new national park, citing the area’s wilderness and ecological qualities and thus deviating from the notion that only scenically spectacular areas merited national park status (Runte 2010, 116–23). Congressional recognition that undisturbed wilderness settings merited national park status opened the door for yet more such additions to the system over the ensuing years. Second, Congress established the first National Recreation Area at Lake Mead in southern Nevada, creating a new type of designation within the system where recreation took priority over other resource management objectives (Sellars 1997, 37–39). Since then, Congress has employed an array of different designations to establish new park units, which now include national seashores, national lakeshores, national rivers, national preserves, and national trails. Although these new designations have enabled Congress politically to expand the system and to protect different types of areas or features, they have also sowed confusion and diminished uniformity within the system (National Parks Second Century Commission 2009, 43).

National Park Service Units
National Battlefields 11 National Battlefield Parks 4
National Battlefield Sites 1 National Military Parks 9
National Historic Parks 57 National Historic Sites 76
International Historic Sites 1 National Lakeshores 3
National Memorials 30 National Monuments 84
National Parks 61 National Parkways 4
National Preserves 19 National Reserves 2
National Recreation Areas 18 National Rivers 5
National Wild and Scenic Rivers and Riverways 10 National Scenic Trails 3
National Seashores 10 Other Designations 11



Related Areas

Affiliated Areas 25 Authorized Areas 9
Commemorative Sites 3 National Heritage Areas 55
National Trails System 30 National Wild and Scenic Rivers and Trailways 10


Following World War II, the National Park System experienced enormous growth. Several factors drove this development, including a population boom, widespread prosperity, the new interstate highway system, and burgeoning environmental and wilderness movements. The 1960s and early 1970s—often referred to as the “golden years” for the national parks—saw sixty-eight new park units added to the system, including Virgin Islands, Canyonlands, North Cascades, Redwood, and Guadalupe Mountains as well as an assortment of new designations ranging from Cape Cod and Point Reyes National Seashores to Indiana Dunes and Apostle Islands National Lakeshores, while Arches and Capitol Reef national monuments were converted to national parks (Mackintosh 2005). During the next six years, Congress added yet more units, including Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area—all situated near large urban areas—as well as Big Cypress National Preserve and Congaree Swamp National Monument (Mackintosh 2005).

Congress capped this extraordinary growth cycle in 1980 with the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, or ANILCA (Nelson 2006; Runte 2010;)24, which added forty-four million new acres to the system and ten new units, including Gates of the Arctic, Lake Clark, Kenai Fjords, and Wrangell-St. Elias national parks. In ANILCA, besides doubling the size of the National Park System and greatly expanding the federal acreage dedicated to wilderness, wildlife, and other conservation purposes, Congress consciously sought to “preserve in their natural state extensive unaltered…ecosystems” and drew boundary lines for these new Alaskan units to “follow hydrographic divides or embrace other topographic or natural features,”25 reflecting an emerging sensitivity to ecological conservation. Since then, however, the system has grown more slowly with only occasional large additions, such as Great Basin National Park in Nevada, Valles Caldera National Preserve in New Mexico, and Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in Maine and the transformation of Death Valley and Joshua Tree national monuments into enlarged national parks. In part, this slowdown in growth of the National Park System can be attributed to the fact that the other federal land management agencies—the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and US Fish and Wildlife Service—each now have wilderness management and other preservation responsibilities, making them resistant to relinquishing their prized scenic lands to the Park Service for a new park designation.

Over the years, National Park System growth has been abetted by private philanthropy as well as state and local support. In several instances, wealthy individuals have provided the funds to acquire private lands that have subsequently been converted into national monuments or parks to be enjoyed the general public. Examples include John D. Rockefeller’s land purchases in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, which were incorporated into Grand Teton National Park; Bostonian George Dorr and other wealthy New Englanders who helped purchase lands for Acadia National Park; the Mellon family’s purchases on Cape Hatteras and Cumberland Island; and Roxanne Quimby’s recent land acquisitions in Maine that have become the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument (Butler 2008; Hartzon 1988; Newhall 1957; Winks 1997). Land trust organizations such as the Nature Conservancy and the Trust for Public Land have increasingly played important roles in acquiring inholdings and other sensitive lands that either have been incorporated into the park system or are situated adjacent to existing parks (Keiter 2018). During the 1930s, state funds and private donations, including contributions from local schoolchildren, were instrumental in acquiring the private lands that became Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah national parks (Ise 1961). Recent congressional legislation lends support to these types of public-private partnerships to support the expansion and maintenance of the National Park System.26

Several lessons can be gleaned from the evolution of the National Park System. First, because Congress has reserved for itself the power to designate new national parks, political considerations play a significant role in the expansion of the system, and the same can be said about presidential national monument designations. As a result, the growth of the system has a haphazard quality to it, linked to national as well as local political sentiments and opportunities. Second, to surmount evident political obstacles, Congress has employed an array of designations, such as national recreation areas or national preserves, to facilitate the expansion of the system, but those have also reduced the level of protection for these new units. Hunting, for example, is often permitted in national preserves, while it is generally prohibited in national parks unless specifically authorized by Congress.27 Third, both Congress and the National Park Service have gradually begun paying more attention to science and related ecological considerations when identifying and designing new park units to ensure the protected area can, in fact, accomplish its resource preservation objectives. Finally, because states and local communities have come to recognize the economic impact of a national park designation, politicians have begun to regularly promote new park designations that, in some instances, fall plainly short of encompassing “nationally significant” features or resources (Headwaters Economics 2018; Thomas et al. 2018). In short, driven by politics and opportunism, the National Park System has experienced tremendous albeit haphazard growth that does not always protect the wildlife and other objects that prompted the designation.

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As the twenty-first century unfolds, the National Park System confronts multiple challenges, reflecting the natural, social, and other changes occurring across the landscape. The most concerning natural changes facing the parks are climate change and external development pressures, both of which threaten to disrupt park ecosystems and existing resource management strategies. Ongoing social changes of concern include a growing and diversifying population, increasing urbanization that tends to distance people from the natural world, and a related nature deficit disorder malady, particularly among youth. Other imminent challenges revolve around increased park visitation and automobile usage, funding for park staff and maintenance, the role of technology inside and outside parks, and new recreational activities pressing for access to the parks. To address these changes, the Park Service and its advocates are beginning to rethink long-standing resource and visitor management policies.

Climate change, absent dramatic mitigation actions, is predicted to have a substantial impact on the national parks, depending on location. Coastal region parks, such as Big Cypress and Hatteras National Seashore, may find themselves submerged due to rising sea levels, while initial saltwater intrusion will alternative vegetation. Joshua Tree National Park in the California desert is predicted to lose its namesake trees that will likely shift northward in response to temperature changes. Drought conditions will affect most of the Southwest’s national parks, changing water cycles in this arid environment and altering wildlife and plant behavior. In the Rocky Mountain parks, including Yellowstone, Glacier, and Rocky Mountain, increased temperatures will lessen snowpack, increase the likelihood of catastrophic wildfires, and prompt wildlife to relocate further north and upgradient, perhaps outside park boundaries (Cafferey et al. 2013; Gonzalez et al. 2018; Monahan and Fisichelli 2014).

To address climate change concerns, scientists are urging the Park Service (and other land managers) to prepare risk assessments and to identify adaptation strategies designed to promote ecological resiliency (Baron et al. 2009; Hansen et al. 2014; Hilty et al. 2012). Drawing upon the best available science and employing adaptive management strategies, effective responses to a warming world will probably entail more active or “interventionist” resource management policies and an enlarged, landscape-scale approach to conservation (National Park System Advisory Board Science Committee 2012). These new strategies, which should initially be deployed on an experimental basis subject to careful monitoring, could include more aggressive prescribed burning to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires, the establishment of secure wildlife movement corridors outside park boundaries, and the translocation of species to more hospitable habitats. The ultimate objective is to reduce the risk of devastating change and to maintain ecological integrity while adapting to nature’s dynamic processes.

External development pressures are ubiquitous outside national parks. Once regarded as “islands” of nature conservation protected by their remoteness, national parks across the country, including those in the West bordered by public lands, face rising levels of industrial development and subdivision pressures just outside their boundaries, with accompanying environmental consequences. Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota is virtually surrounded by oil and gas fields, while the southern Utah national parks confront the prospect of widespread energy exploration and mining projects. With more and more people attracted to scenic locations and outdoor recreation opportunities, subdivision and other development pressures have mounted outside many national parks, including Rocky Mountain, Glacier, Yellowstone, and Great Smoky Mountains, threatening to fragment important wildlife habitat and to create air and water pollution problems. Unsightly overhead power transmission lines now mar scenic vistas at Delaware Water Gap and elsewhere. Air pollution from distant power plants and cities regularly obscures the Grand Canyon, Great Smoky Mountains, and other national parks (Freemuth 1991; National Parks Conservation Association 2018; Schafer 2012).

Park officials, lacking clear jurisdictional authority beyond their borders, are responding to these external pressures by engaging more actively outside park boundaries and promoting collaborative relationships with park neighbors. The agency’s management policies, noting that parks are “integral parts of larger regional environments,” endorses the principle of “collaborative conservation” to enable park officials to protect park resources and values (National Park Service 2006). This includes working with neighbors through partnership arrangements and participating in local planning processes to encourage compatible land-use practices. In doing so, given the emergent view of national parks as the vital core of larger ecosystems (Keiter 2013), the Park Service should be in the vanguard promoting landscape-level conservation planning that includes protected wildlife migration corridors, subdivision zoning standards, pollution control requirements, construction design standards, and noise limitations. Additional funding to support strategic land purchases or conservation easement acquisitions can also help facilitate landscape-scale conservation efforts and to resolve some external threat problems. Moreover, national and local conservation organizations, such as the National Parks Conservation Association, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Greater Yellowstone Coalition, must continue to play an assertive advocacy role on behalf of the parks, including litigation to protect park resources from external threats when necessary (Sax and Keiter 1987).

To address the demographic and other social changes confronting the national parks, the Park Service has already endorsed several interrelated goals. One such goal is to attract a broader diversity of visitors to the parks, making them more hospitable to minority populations that have generally not sought outdoor, nature-based experiences (National Park Service Second Century Commission 2009, 30). Another goal is to engage tech-focused youth in the natural world of the parks (Louv 2005). And yet another goal is to bring the national park experience closer to our expanding urban populace in order to involve them with nature and to lure them to visit the national parks.

To attain these goals, the Park Service, drawing upon its new education mandate, must continue expanding its educational efforts beyond park boundaries, using technology to reach people where they are found, both in their homes and online. Smartphones, social media, and other technologies can be employed inside and outside the parks to introduce visitors to the natural setting and to educate them about park resources and management challenges (Doremus 2018). Given that most of our large natural parks are located distant from urban centers, the Park Service and its constituents should consider new types of parks closer to where people live so they can engage with nature and reap its rewards (National Park System Advisory Board 2012). To attract minority communities to the park experience, we should consider new national monuments, historical sites, and similar designations commemorating important events, individuals, and accomplishments from within these communities to demonstrate that the system is fully committed to telling the entire American story and to including everyone in that story (National Park System Advisory Board 2012, 9–13). During his tenure, President Obama established several such national monuments under the Park Service’s auspices, including Pullman, Caesar Chavez, Harriett Tubman, and Bears Ears. Such extended inclusion efforts will not only expose more people to an enriching national park experience but will help spawn a new cadre of national park supporters, an important consideration given that our parks are ultimately a political creation.

At the same time, park officials cannot ignore serious overcrowding and related automobile pressures at some parks or the problems associated with new recreation demands. Although long reluctant to impose limits on visitor numbers or automobiles, park officials have begun to address the latter problem with shuttle bus systems in places such as Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Yosemite. If visitation to the parks continues to increase at current rates, it may be necessary to consider an advance reservation system, which is already used to reserve hotel, campground, and backcountry space. Other options include daily or hourly limits at particularly attractive sites and collaborative education efforts with sister land management agencies designed to funnel visitors to other nearby sites or activities outside impacted parks. New recreational activities, such as mountain biking, hang gliding, and slacklining, pose the question of whether a particular activity is compatible with the national park setting and experience. The Park Service’s management policies provide a useful framework for evaluating new types of recreational activities, focusing on the unique values and experiences available in the national park setting—namely, engagement with nature and its inspirational qualities (National Park Service 2006; Sax 1980).

Deferred maintenance and reduced personnel numbers are long-standing Park Service challenges. Because Congress has not appropriated sufficient funds to maintain park roads, buildings, and other infrastructure, park visitors have regularly encountered closed or damaged roads, trails, and campgrounds, while park water and sewerage systems have occasionally been shut down. As the Park Service workforce has shrunk in size, rangers have not been available to lead hikes or to present interpretive campfire programs or to patrol the backcountry. These problems can only be addressed with additional funding, either by congressional appropriations or private donations. Congress seems at least open to directing funds derived from onshore oil and gas development revenues toward the park maintenance backlog28 and the 2016 centennial legislation makes it easier for the agency to seek private philanthropic support.29 If these funds do not prove sufficient for the task, then alternate funding sources should be considered, perhaps a federal tax on recreational equipment, increased entrance fees, a park hotel tax, or a personal income tax write-off provision.

* * * * *

The national parks, having undergone profound changes during the past century, are nonetheless still governed by the original 1916 Organic Act, with its imperative to conserve park resources in an unimpaired condition while accommodating visitors. Under the Organic Act, Park Service policies have evolved over time, responding to new knowledge and changing public values that have continuously altered our understanding of the national park idea. Where the Park Service originally focused on promoting visitation in a beautiful setting by intervening actively in nature, it has shifted toward allowing natural processes to take their course under a largely hands-off management approach, modified by targeted ecological restoration efforts. Congress has mostly endorsed this shift in policy, adding a science mandate to the Organic Act, supporting large-scale ecological restoration efforts, and demonstrating a degree of ecological sensitivity with additions to the park system. But as climate change impacts and growing development pressures become ever more evident, national park policies must be further reoriented toward the larger landscape in order to achieve resiliency and ecological-integrity conservation goals. Indeed, as the one federal land system dedicated to nature conservation, the national parks are uniquely positioned to serve as the anchor—or vital core—for a new national landscape conservation network designed to meet these looming challenges.

Just as the original Yellowstone designation was a political act, the future of the National Park System will ultimately be shaped by politics, as reflected in Congress and the presidency. Public opinion, of course, dictates the trajectory of American politics, and there continues to be strong support for the national parks, nature conservation, and cultural preservation efforts. But as the nation’s populace continues to grow ever more diverse and urban, it will be imperative to extend the national park idea to new constituencies and venues to ensure ongoing political support for the system. That support will be crucial to meet the system’s needs in this ever-changing world, which include high-quality scientific research, well-trained park personnel with new skill sets, sufficient maintenance funding, and innovative public outreach and education efforts. Only then will the Park Service be in a position to continue fulfilling its venerable mission—to conserve unimpaired our natural and cultural heritage for the benefit of present and future generations.

Legal Citations

  1. Yellowstone Park Act of 1872, 17 Stat. 32, 33, codified at 16 U.S.C. §§ 21, 22.
  2. 54 U.S.C. §§ 100101 et seq.
  3. 54 U.S.C. § 100101(a).
  4. 54 U.S.C. § 100751(a).
  5. 54 U.S.C. § 100101(b).
  6. 54 U.S.C. § 100502.
  7. 54 U.S.C. § 100751(c).
  8. 54 U.S.C. § 100702.
  9. 54 U.S.C. § 100703.
  10. 54 U.S.C. §§ 100802, 100803. In addition, the Park Service is authorized to coordinate with organizations and partners to deliver its educational and interpretive programs. Id at § 100804.
  11. 54 U.S.C. § 100507.
  12. National Park Service Omnibus Management Act, Pub. L. 105–391 §§ 401–19, 112 Stat. 3497, 3503–19, codified at 16 U.S.C. §§ 5951–66; National Park Service, Management Policies (Washington, DC: U.S. Dept. of the Interior, 2006), 10.2 et seq.
  13. 16 U.S.C. § 1131(c).
  14. 16 U.S.C. § 1536(a)(2); see Mausolf v. Babbitt, 125 F.3d 661 (8th Cir. 1997).
  15. 42 U.S.C. § 4332(2)(C).
  16. National Parks Conservation Association v. Babbitt, 241 F.3d 722 (9th Cir. 2001).
  17. 36 C.F.R. § 2.1 et seq. (2018).
  18. Wilderness Society v. Norton, 434 F.3d 584, 596 (D.C. Cir. 2006).
  19. River Runners for Wilderness v. Martin, 593 F.3d 1064 (9th Cir. 2010); Organized Fishermen of Florida v. Watt, 775 F.2d 1544 (11th Cir. 1985), cert. denied, 476 U.S. 1169 (1986); National Rifle Association v. Potter, 628 F. Supp. 903 (1986).
  20. 54 U.S.C. § 320301.
  21. Cameron v. United States, 252 U.S. 450 (1920).
  22. 40 Stat. 1175 (1919), codified at 16 U.S.C. § 221 et seq.
  23. Pub. L. 94–458, § 2, 90 Stat. 1940 (1976), codified at 54 U.S.C. § 100507.
  24. 16 U.S.C. §§ 3111–26.
  25. 16 U.S.C. § 3101(b) (ecosystems), § 3103(b) (boundary lines).
  26. See National Park Service Centennial Act.
  27. NPS Management Policies,; National Rifle Association v. Potter, 628 F. Supp. 903 (D.D.C. 1986).
  28. National Park Restoration Act, S. 2509 (115th Cong., 2d Sess., 2018); Restore Our Parks and Public Lands Act, H.R. 6510 (115th Cong., 2d Sess., 2018).
  29. 54 U.S.C. § 101121 (establishing Second Century Endowment Fund for the National Park Service).


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