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Reader Participation Day: Is The National Park System In Danger Of Becoming A Catchall System?


Is the National Park System in danger of turning into a catchall system? Should a site dedicated to the nuclear arms race, another to union organizers, and another to First Ladies really fall under an agency that started out preserving spectacular vistas and landscapes, that showcases Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon?

With the National Park Service soon to launch into its second century overseeing the park system, this would seem to be a timely question, as the agency already is stretched thin with budgetary and staffing issues. Can it afford to also be expected to be a sort of National Historic Service, an agency that oversees and interprets historic moments in the country that have no direct connection to the landscapes the agency was initially charged with overseeing?

This is not to question the significance of some of these sites that are finding their way into the National Park System, but rather to discuss the appropriateness of their inclusion under an agency tasked with conserving "... 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." 


In light of this question, it might be useful to look at just a few of the locations currently being touted by various groups for addition to the NPS:

1. The Pullman neighborhood in Chicago, described by an article in the Chicago Tribune this week as "one of the nation's first factory towns." 

2. The George W. Bush childhood home ("when the family lived in the Midland home from 1951 to 1955, former President George H.W. Bush was in the oil business...") . It's already a museum operated by a local group. 

3. The Lone Star Coastal National Recreation Area (Texas coast south of Houston). 

4. The Atchafalaya Basin in Louisiana

5. The Maine Woods National Park and Preserve

A blog called the "New National Parks Project" appeared in January 2011, but hasn't seemed to gain much traction. Its basic premise does, however, touch on the same question asked by this article:" ... our National Park System is far from complete. There are hundreds of priceless natural landscapes and historic sites that qualify as new parks ...Now is the time to preserve these irreplaceable treasures as the next generation of national parks — before they are lost forever."

The challenge will be figuring out which of those areas are truly "irreplaceable treasures" worthy of addition to the national park system...and which should be operated by other organizations.

My answer to the the question: "Is the National Park System in danger of turning into a catchall system?" would be "yes."

What, exactly, is the problem with a catch-all system? There's some organizational challenges but you get to take advantage of synergies - preserving mixed-grass prairie at Little Bighorn or historic sites in the Smokies or archaeology everywhere.

If the problem is that Congress likes to add sites without funding them adequately - -  well, Congress is a different kind of problem.


Thank you Kurt for providing this thread to continue the "derailed" discussion of Kalaupapa.

In my opinion, the answer to your question posed above is absolutely yes and it is absolutely the wrong way to go.  The NPS should preserve signficant historical and natural assets.  It should not be used to create symbols of hero worship or social/political movement celebration.  The latter merely dilute its mission, relevance and budget. 

I have no problem with lots of variety in the system. I guess in my mind the term "catchall" implies the risk of the NPS trying to be so inclusive that the quality of the system suffers. In some cases, the primary motivation for recent or proposed additions seems to be (1) a local group can't afford to keep running an existing site or (2) the assumption that NPS status will result in a boost to the local economy. Neither of those is justification for addition to the NPS system.

Traveler, a tough issue. I am inclinned to agree with you however, my own bias is to try to protect more of the ecological units of the system. On the other hand, respect for our cultural and historical heritage is important also. But it does seem we are trying to preserve all of it, or, as Jim Burnett points out, becoming a catchall for sites that local organizations cannot maintain. Interesting issue. 

Thanks for the comment and links, Jim Burnett.

A northern Maine woods national park may be a good idea. I guess I don't understand the logic of excluding Mt. Katahdin and the rest of Baxter State Park as is the case with this proposal. The scenery in northern Maine certainly qualifies as a National Park. The Northeast currently only is home to one national park -- Acadia outside Bar Harbor. Perhaps Franconia Notch and the Mt. Washington area in New Hampshire should also be considered for a National Park. Before he leaves office after the end of 2016, President Obama should consider some kind of action on a second national park for the Northeast.


Saying that those sites are in the "National Park System" is a catchall phrase in itself, since the first three are either National Historic Sites (or proposed) or National Monuments. They are under the jurisdiction of the Park Service, but they aren't National Parks like Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon.

The Park Sevice has different responsibilities for different types of sites and landscapes, and they are the logical agency. The BLM and Forest Service manage a few other landscape-scale monuments, but I can't imagine them in charge of historic sites.

The real question is, as Jim Burnett raised, whether these sites are important enough to be managed by a federal agency.

I think that ship has sailed- the National Park System is already a catchall system. A cursory look at the variety of sites confirms that. I think the underlying reason is laudable: people want to protect and preserve the full scope of the country's natural, historic, and cultural heritage. The reason why all these areas are under the management of the NPS is because there are no real alternatives on the national level. The U.S. does not have  Cultural Ministry like many nations, or a National Trust like the U.K. For those who believe an area desrves national recognition, there are few options other than the National Park System. 

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