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Op-Ed| The National Park System: Why It Should Continue To Grow

Roosevelt Arch at Yellowstone/NPS

The U.S. needs to build its National Park System, not stand pat on it, according to the Coalition to Protect America's National Parks/NPS

Editor's note: The Coalition to Protect America's National Parks, previously known as the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, maintains the National Park System in its current form is too small, and that more effort should be made to expand it. In this article, the Coalition explains its rationale for such an effort.


In December of 2012, the National Park Advisory Board transmitted the report Planning for a Future National Park System to the director of the National Park Service. Their transmittal letter quoted the NPS ‘Call to Action.' Identify a national system of parks and protected sites that fully represents our natural resources and the national cultural experience. It called for the NPS to work with communities and partners to create a comprehensive National Park System plan that delineates the ecological regions, cultural themes, and stories of diverse communities that are not currently protected and interpreted.


Placed against this expansive vision, the existing National Park System is incomplete. That judgment also applies to the units that comprise the current U.S. conservation estate; forests, refuges, monuments, state parks, land trusts, etc.

The international standard for conservation of terrestrial and inland waters is 17 percent. A recent estimate puts the current U.S. total at 7 percent. The maritime and coastal area standard of 10 percent is even further from being achieved.

Here are some characteristics of the current National Park System. It is 13 percent rock and ice, 3 percent wetlands (Svancarrra and Scott, Ecological Content and Context of the National Park System). It comprises 3.7 percent of the U.S. but only 1.7 percent of the contiguous 48 states. Ninety-one percent of the acreage is west of the 98th meridian, 73 percent without Alaska and Hawaii. Eight ecoregions have no representation in the system. Thirty-three states have less than 1 percent of their area in national parks, 18 of these are in the Mississippi River drainage.

Cultural areas show similar imbalances. Gender, diversity, migration, immigration, social movements, education, arts, science, the role of media are sparsely represented if included at all.

In short there is room for robust growth if the system is to serve as the cornerstone of a national system to protect and preserve our natural resources and fully represent our national experience.


Since national parks are created by Congress or proclaimed by the President, the latter only on existing federal land, what is the role of a strategic vision for a future system? Such a vision should influence the decision making at all levels. When additional areas are proposed, their role in filling gaps should be considered. The process of creation will not change but the strategic overview should influence the decision.


It is unlikely, if sad, that the future probably does not include the opportunity to create additional Yellowstones or Yosemites. New parks will probably be more like the Upper Mississippi or Boston Harbor Islands where management and ownership are shared and mixed. Heritage Areas seem to be Congress’ approach of choice in dealing with large landscapes. Access for urban dwellers -- 87 percent of us by 2030 -- will require innovative partnerships.


There have been calls for a moratorium or an end to system growth based on the expense of new areas. An examination of the 2014 NPS budget at the park level shows that the recent growth has not unduly burdened the system financially. The ten parks with the highest budgets include none created after 1972. There are 67 parks with budgets of $5 million or more, the most recent on that list was created 30 years ago (2016 NPS Budget/ Green Book/ONPS Summary section).


In the U.S. we are losing open space at the rate of 1.6 million acres a year (Salazar et al, America’s Great Outdoors, February 2011), Yellowstone every 18 months! Since 2000 the National Park System has grown by around 350,000 acres, most of that at Craters of the Moon in Idaho. That’s a rate of less than 25,000 acres per year. System growth then is not just a matter of filling gaps, it is also a race to prevent irreversible loss of our natural and cultural heritage. The original idea of the Land and Water Conservation Fund was to balance conservation additions to the rate of development. If that is still our national goal we have failed miserably (Galvin, Growing the System, March 2014).


Except where otherwise noted the source of information is Planning for a Future National Park System: A Foundation for the 21st Century by the National Park System Advisory Board (2012). 

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Anyone think present actions on the borders with millions of undocumented and documented immigrants coming into the country is a good thing and how Parks and other wild lands will be effected? Seemingly the same folks in DC that are allowing it also are making more National Monuments. Is that the payoff? Just looking at it in the big picture. Major trouble in River City I am thinking.

Thinking about what is needed in the national park system in terms of it being "too small" or how many more acres should be added or what it costs to manage it is misleading and misses the important point. What happens to the system in the future must be based on values. We should never stop adding areas that possess the values that are worth protecting for future generations.

Well said, Bill.

RANDY TURNER -- I wish you would explain what you concluded specifically, and the distinctions between your objective view and that of NPS.  My recollection is in 1999, the Senate and the Senate committee and staff were suffering with new conservative doctrines standing in stark contradiction sometimes in the same Senator or staff member with other doctrines.  There was a strong desire to outsource park work, and a reduced sense of value for the idea that a professional agency somewhat removed from politics and dedicated to park preservation -- the original 1916 vision -- should be empowered to stand up for park values against the momentary whims of senate subcommittee staff. Those staff called NPS people inflexible.  And yet that original vision was based on the evidence that a more-self-contained professional agency was essential or the continuity of park excellence would erode. 

What are you saying, Randy Turner? 

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