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What's In A Name: Gateway Arch National Park

A new name for Jefferson National Expansion Memorial -- Gateway Arch National Park/NPS

Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis has a new name, but that has quite a few folks scratching their heads over the change/NPS

What exactly is a "Jefferson National Expansion Memorial"? That apparently is one of the reasons there's a new "national park" in the National Park System, Gateway Arch National Park in St. Louis. But even that name is raising some eyebrows.

Does that name alone evoke images of the country's Western expansion, of the gateway St. Louis served for Lewis and Clark and other explorers and fur trappers who ventured into the Western landscape to see what was there and try to seek their fortune? Or does it make you wonder why a manmade stainless steel arch is being called a "national park"?

The new name has more than a few travelers scratching their heads.

"We set a goal as a family to visit all 59 national parks and visit about 4 a year," one reader wrote us. "Recently I did a Google search for the newest national park and the Jefferson Memorial came up. The new name is Gateway Arch National Park. Now, I am a novice at the national park names, but after our goal to see all 59, I’ve learned a few things and one is that it’s an 'official' national park when it’s in the name. But I also understand it must protect natural lands and this is man made.

"So, is the Jefferson Memorial what now is the Gateway Arch National Park, the 60th? Or is there something I’m missing?," he added.

Even National Park Service guides that explain the nomenclature attached to units of the National Park System -- national park, national monument, national recreation area, national historical park, national seashore, national lakeshore, etc. -- seem to suggest that simply renaming Jefferson National Expansion Memorial does not make it a "national park."

Generally, a national park contains a variety of resources and encompasses large land or water areas to help provide adequate protection of the resources.

Designated as a memorial back in 1935, this unit covers a bit more than 192 acres (91 acres federal, 101 non-federal) in St. Louis. According to the Park Service, "(V)isitors can ascend the 630-foot arch and see exhibits on American Indians, Thomas Jefferson, Lewis and Clark, and others in the underground Museum of Westward Expansion. In the nearby Old Courthouse, enslaved Dred Scott sued for his freedom in 1846."

Not exactly a "national park" in the sense as Shenandoah, Great Smoky Mountains Acadia, Zion, or Yellowstone.

In announcing the name change the other day, the Park Service release said:

“Gateway Arch National Park helps visitors connect the Arch to the National Park Service,” says Mike Ward, Superintendent at the Gateway Arch National Park. “The mission of the park remains the same regardless of the park’s name. The stories of Thomas Jefferson and his vision of westward expansion are woven throughout the new Museum at the Gateway Arch, which celebrates its grand opening on July 3, while Dred Scott and his freedom suit are showcased at the Old Courthouse.”

Legislation to change the park’s name was introduced in the U.S. Senate last summer. It was passed by the U.S. Senate on Dec. 21, 2017, and by the U.S. House of Representatives on February 7, 2018. President Trump signed the bill into law on Feb. 22, 2018. The bipartisan legislation was sponsored in the Senate by Sens. Roy Blunt and Claire McCaskill, and in the House by Reps. William Lacy Clay, Ann Wagner and Blaine Luetkemeyer.

“The name ‘Jefferson National Expansion Memorial’ was established long before the Gateway Arch was envisioned, and has simply never been adopted by our millions of visitors,” says Ward. “We hope this new name will best reflect the magnificent renovations and visitor experience we will unveil in a few months.”

Not everyone is embracing the name change. Comments that landed on the park's Facebook page included the following:

"Well, that's just dumb. Call it Gateway Arch if you want, but 'national park? As if this little city park shoved next to a freeway is on the same level as Yellowstone or Yosemite? Way to water down the brand. Does this make this little patch of pavement and grass the nation's 60th national park?" -- Clint Hadden

"So we celebrate an arch, but not the western expansion it represents? Still a cool place, but don't get the name change." -- Gary Walsworth 

"The people of St Louis didn’t just sit around and suggest throwing up a big hunk of metal in the middle of the riverfront just for the literal impact of being shiny, they were building a monument to the city’s historical significance, which was based upon expansion into the Louisiana Territory. Calling the land Gateway Arch National Park turns that logic on its ear and says we’re primarily celebrating the big hunk of metal. Knowing the cynical people at work in the current government, both legislative and administrative, I wouldn’t be surprised if this does turn out to be a ploy to water down national park designations." -- Clinton Rice

"A national park for the Arch? I like the Arch as much as anybody. But, this is where Jefferson's westward expansion initiative started. What a stupid thing to do. Let's not educate people what this is all about. Let's change the name so it's easier for the ignorant." -- Dave Largent

"Sorry, this should not have happened. Before this there were three national parks less than 30,000 acres: Congaree at 26,000, Virgin Islands at 15,000, and Hot Springs at 5,500. Now we have one at 91 acres that was built in the 1960s. At this point Congress should pass a bill making all 417 National Park Service areas 'national parks' and get rid of the 20 plus other designations. Many are more deserving of that designation than the Arch." -- Jim David

"A manmade structure, no matter it's significance, does not deserve the name 'national park.' It reeks of a desperate grab for tourist dollars. The NPS should be better than this, especially at a time when budgets are stretched incredibly thin for the existing park units." -- Joshua Caleb Hengel 

As we explained to the reader who contacted us on the name change, "there long have been efforts by local groups, usually concerned about tourism dollars, to convert national monuments, national historic sites, national recreation areas, etc, into “national parks.” Hands down, the reason is economic. Besides Gateway Arch 'National Park,' there’s long been an effort to turn Golden Gate NRA into a 'national park.' For years, in fact, it’s been referred to locally as “Golden Gate National Parks.”

Not too many years ago, Pinnacles National Monument was transformed into Pinnacles National Park.

There are efforts underway now to create an "Indiana Dunes National Park" and a "White Sands National Park" out of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and White Sands National Monument. There also has been talk about turning Colorado National Monument into, we suppose, Colorado National Park, and Cedar Breaks National Monument into “national park.” No doubt there are others.

That said, we do believe there are places in the National Park System where the “national park” brand is deserved, but not bestowed. Foremost is Dinosaur National Monument.

Thoughts, travelers?

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There is no doubt that Jefferson Expansion National Memorial was a mouthful, and it's likely that few visitors knew it by any name other than the Gateway Arch. As evocative as the previous name was, I can't fault local officials and the tourism board for wanting to simplify things.

But why not "Gateway Arch National Memorial"? While there have been dubious cases of "National Park" designation in the past (e.g. Congaree Swamp, Cuyahoga, the aforementioned Pinnacles), this is the first "capital N-capital P" National Park with no natural or historic significance whatsoever.

The parkland along the Mississippi is nice enough, the museum is top notch, and the arch itself is architecturally striking, but it's hard to describe the entire endeavor without coming to the conclusion that the nation's newest National Park is simply a nicely maintained tourist trap. When contrasted with the truly world class historic resources just across the river and down the road a few miles at Cahokia, the National Park designation is even more absurd.

Of course, these designations are the result of political horsetrading in the smoky backrooms of Congress, and I wouldn't have it any other way. How then do we convince our esteemed representatives in Washington that preserving the exclusivity of National Park designation is more important than rallying votes for the next $600 billion defense authorization bill? Good luck!

What's in a name?

How about the "Donald J. Trump National Parks Highway?"


One of Utah's looniest members of the state legislature has just introduced a bill to name a Utah highway that runs past some of southern Utah's national parks.

Here's a link to an article from the Salt Lake Tribune today:

And this from the conservative Deseret News:

And a clip from Channel 13, FOX News Utah:

"Gateway Arch National Park." America's newest, tiniest, and dumbest "national park." Thanks, Congress, way to water down everything this entire idea stands for.

I can't wait until the adults are back in charge and reverse this decision. Designating a man-made structure in the middle of an enormous city a "national park" is a national embarrassment. #boycottstlouis

This is a disaster.  It opens the door to make the"national park" designation meaningless.  Is this officially being recognized as our 60th national park?

I think Pinnacles just barely met the threshold for making "national park" status.  Meanwhile Dinosaur National Monument definitely deserves that designation, but still doesn't have it.

Cuyahoga Valley should definitely go back to being a national recreation area.  I live nearby and have visited here repeatedly, and still cannot find a reason for this to be a "national park."  Collectively it's little more than some wooded areas and rivers in residential backyards. 

And yet it's still a more valid "national park" than our newest entry...

Making Gateway Arch a "national park?"  WTF?  I don't even know where to start.  Might as well designate my driveway as a national park.  If a manmade structure in a huge city can be called a "national park" then the designation has officially lost all meaning. 

They did what?

I rather disagreed with the Pinnacles redesignation.  It was done so with the thought that there might be economic benefits for Monterey County, but the numbers don't seem to bear that out.  Then there's Cuyohoga Valley National Park, which is a real head scratcher.

For years Death Valley was just afforded national monument status.  I though possibly part of it was that there were active mining claims there, but apparently the redesignation didn't extinguish them.  Joshua Tree was also a large national monument that eventually got redesignated.  I wonder if Point Reyes National Seashore might be a good candidate, although that would make things interesting with the active dairy and cattle ranches.

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet


The answer is, as always, $.  Some of this is ParkEnvy.  The fact that most of the best natural areas in the Eastern and Central time zones aren't on Federal land is a problem when looking for National Park worthy designations. If Niagara Falls or the Adirondacks were transferred to the Feds they'd be made National Parks in about 2 minutes. Anyway, Hot Springs being a National Park kind of "waters down the brand" thing a bit, no?

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