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Are Park Inholdings Good Partnerships?


    What makes a good partnership for the National Park Service, and what makes a bad one? Is there a bad one?
    There’s been a lot of debate recently about Director’s Order 21, which would, in some folks’ minds, loosen the rules a bit for honoring corporate donors to the national parks. All in the name of partnerships.     Isleroyale_copy
    Some folks strongly oppose the branding of national parks with corporate logos. But what’s your take on park inholdings, those private slices of property that lie within a park’s boundaries? I think we'd all like to have our own cabin in a park, but is that a good idea?

     Often when a national park is created, any private property within the park’s boundaries is purchased by the federal government. Occasionally families are allowed to stay as “inholders,” but for a limited time.
    Currently there’s a battle in Rocky Mountain National Park over one such inholding. The woman who owns the land wants to extend her lease, while the Park Service has been somewhat determined to see her move.
    The other day the Duluth News Tribune told the story of a group of families that wants to work out a deal with the Park Service that would allow them to return to their historic homesteads within Isle Royale National Park.    
    According to the newspaper, members of the Isle Royale Families and Friends Association believe that since their forefathers’ cabins were built long before the island became a national park in 1940, they have a right to continue using the homesteads. The association’s president, David Barnum, says the families in the association “offer a cultural connection” to the island’s history.
    Is it a vital connection? Should parks strive to see that all the land within their borders is held by the federal government, or should inholdings be allowed? If a corporate partnership is bad, is this sort of private partnership any better? It’s something to ponder.


There's a critical distinction between INHOLDERS and LEASEHOLDERS in national parks. Inholders own their land and whether or not the NPS should acquire that land is indeed a valid debate. In the case of Isle Royale and many other parks, however, the NPS long ago purchased the land, and often the buildings, of the former owners and was required by law to pay fair market value. Former owners were usually given the opportunity to lease back the property for either a fixed period of time or for life, and the sales price was reduced accordingly. These folks already sold their rights, and have had the exclusive privilege of continuing to use the now-public property and have not had to pay taxes on it. Granted, many of them were reluctant sellers, but contracts were signed and the families were paid for the property. As parks have increased in popularity, the value of the leases has often increased exponentially but the leaseholders have not had to pay any more to stay. Let's not forget that the public has generally not been allowed access to these properties for years and will not be until the leases expire. The families are required by contract to keep up their properties but in most cases have paid little heed to historic preservation requirements that apply to all federal properties, including these. And, I regret to say, nor has the NPS. It's true that often the properties have historic value, and the NPS lacks the funds just as often to adequately maintain or restore them. Families at Isle Royale and elsewhere claim that they are capable and, indeed, the best qualified people to maintain these properties in the future. But at what cost? Certainly, it is a shame to lose important cultural connections in parks, when they can be preserved. But leaseholder and inholder families have often been bitter opponents of the NPS and rarely show much interest in public access or public good. Is preservation of a publicly-owned resource by private individuals, for exclusive private access, in the public interest? So, to answer your question: in my view, NPS should honor the contracts and bend over backwards to respect the heritage of these families and encourage them to share their history and stories with the public. But the families also need to honor their contracts, and in the absence of new legislation (a horrible idea), the NPS has a legal obligation to do so as well. So when the leases expire, they should not be renewed.Indeed, the NPS has no authority to renew them. Congress' intent on establishing parks in this way was to allow for a gradual and sensitive transition and there's no reason to change that now. I do believe that innovative partnerships that involve the families and maintain some connection, but put the public interest first and foremost, are worth exploring. But I've yet to see an example where that actually occurs, no matter how lofty the rhetoric. -- A park superintendent

Thanks for clarifying the status at Isle Royale, Supt. Longstreet. The distinction between inholders and leaseholders is major, one I had overlooked. With dwindling federal dollars, and more on-the-ground necessities to address, parks no doubt will have to search for those innovative partnerships you mentioned to preserve places like the homesteads at Isle Royale and elsewhere. It's a dilemma that's not going away, unfortunately, and public and private organizations will indeed need to be more creative to preserve these special places.

Dear Mr. Repanshak, First I would like to compliment you on your fine website on National Parks. I am writing to comment on the question you asked on January 31st “are park in-holdings a good partnership?” My family has been one such in-holder on Isle Royale, and you mentioned me in your comments. As background, my great grandfather first came to Isle Royale in 1895 and built a summer cottage. This was at the start of the commercial fishing/ resort era of Isle Royale. Shortly there after 4 resort hotels were built around Isle Royale that included such amenities as a bowling alley, dance hall and golf course. There was also an influx of Scandinavian immigrants who came to the island to commercial fish during that era. The sinking of the Steamer America in 1928 and the NPS take over starting in 1931 ended this era. Initially many of families were in favor of the creation of a National Park, but a controversial and bitter battle ensued because of real or perceived inequities during the eminent domain process. NPS eventually bought out most of the families who had title to land. Many of the commercial fishermen didn’t and they were simply shown the door. A few families decided to sell their land in return for a life lease. As stated by Jlongstreet above, the model at the time envisioned that the life-lessees would be allowed to remain through their life time, followed by the property reverting back to NPS. For the first 30 years of NPS tenure their practice was to burn any building, including its contents abandoned for one year or more without any consideration for the cultural or historical value. It is true that this was interpreted as a heavy handed tactic by many of the island folk that grew up there. From their point of view this was a wanton destruction of perfectly serviceable buildings, let alone the materials that are always hard to come by on a remote island. This practice ended after the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. NPS was no longer able to follow the burning practice and it left them essentially rudderless on what to do with these properties. NPS wasn’t going to spend money to maintain them and it did not know what to do with them even if they were to maintain them. The late 1990’s saw the beginning of a growing movement to ensure not only the preservation of the buildings, but the culture that inhabited them. One example of this thought process is found in the report “Rethinking the National Parks for the 21st Century ( by the congressionally chartered National Park Advisory Board. That report states that “The National Park Service should help conserve the irreplaceable connections that ancestral and indigenous people have with the parks. These connections should be nurtured for future generations”. It goes on to say “Forging partnerships is the centerpiece of the heritage movement, and the National Park Service should establish a formal program to foster them.” In an article in the Orion magazine, Professor William Cronon of the University of Wisconsin asked the question “How do you manage a wilderness full of human stories”. For the last 30 years or so Isle Royale has been sold as a “pristine wilderness”. Yet when visitors arrive by boat from Minnesota they are confronted with a commercial fishery (the last on Isle Royale), a two story log building built about 1882 (that was the first hotel on Isle Royale), a Marconi tower built in 1908 (probably the last one standing in America), along with a number of other buildings over a hundred years old. For the most part all these buildings have been lovingly cared for, and each has a unique story and history that most visitors want to learn. As visitors hike or kayak the island they will discover native mining pits going back hundreds of years and American ones from the 1840’s. They may also discover the island has been logged, it had a school house, a road, farm animals, and a large CCC camp. Over recent years the island has undergone the process called “rewilding”, but Isle Royale can hardly be defined as pristine. Today the island is 99% wilderness. 1% consists of manmade structures and most of that is either NPS or public facilities. Our families maintain a small fraction of the 1% that represents the last of the “commercial fishing/resort era” history of the island. Jlongstreet, apparently a superintendent in a park raises some good points, but let me focus on a question he asks. “Is preservation of a publicly-owned resource by private individuals, for exclusive private access, in the public interest?” It is clear from his (or her) comments that he doesn’t think so. He claims that we are “…bitter opponents of the NPS and rarely show much interest in public access or public good.” Speaking only from my experience at Isle Royale, I believe that our families have been good stewards of the island both before and after NPS arrived. We have formed a unique partnership with NPS. We respect them and they respect us. We have had numerous meetings with our Superintendent discussing all the issues raised here. We enlisted the support of the National Trust for Historic Preservation which fully agrees with our position that the remaining families are the only ones in position to maintain these historic properties, all of which are either on or are eligible for the National Register. The Trust and the Isle Royale Families and Friends Association have established preservation standards for our historic buildings. Our group has established a formal program of historic tours, interpretive programs, and is working on a documentary of the histories of the families along with the above preservation work on our buildings. On an informal basis our families interact with great frequency with the public providing local information, a historical context, and help to distressed boaters and campers as Lake Superior can be very unpredictable and dangerous. Few members of the public encounter, let alone understand the situation for families within parks. A couple of popular misperceptions are that we are living in luxury condos despoiling the wilderness or that “anyone would change places with you, and pay a lot of money to do so”. Both are false, at least in the case of Isle Royale. The reality of our families on Isle Royale is far different then the popular perception. I personally have a sense of great privilege to be allowed to continue to use the building that my great grandfather built over a hundred years ago. There is no running water, or electricity. Every year I spend about a month there with most of my time spent fixing the leaks in the roof and making dock repairs. No I don’t pay property taxes, but I have, as every family has, spent thousands of dollars on buildings which we don’t own and don’t know from one year to the next whether we can come back and use. Only folks that have a deep ancestral connection and a commitment to their history, and culture would do this over the long term. Trust me when I say there is an emotional downside for me going to Isle Royale. I grew up, as did my dad, as have my kids with the dreaded feeling that this might be the last year, and that all of our family history and the connected family history we share with our neighbors will be lost forever. There is a sadness and sorrow that goes along with the place for each of us. Mr. Repanshak, you have obviously raised an issue dear to my heart. You asked whether our connection on Isle Royale is “vital” to the pubic. That of course will always be a matter of opinion. Some will recoil at the concept of our families continuing our cultural connection going back 6 generations, seeing our efforts as a selfish attempt to perpetuate a “special privilege”. Others will view our connection as an opportunity to preserve, maintain and gain greater insight into the history of Isle Royale as seen from the lens (lacking the political correctness of some and the idealization of others) of families going back in time. I think you and your readers can at least agree that it is “vital” to our families who keep and maintain our unique history and culture on Isle Royale. I hope you continue talking about this issue. I would greatly enjoy hearing other opinions either on your site or directly. You can check out our group at or contact me directly. Kind Regards, David C. Barnum President, IRFFA [email protected]

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