National Park Service System Plan 2017

National Park Service LogoThe National Park Service officially began with the passing of the Organic Act of 1916. After 100 years, and 400 plus “units”, the park service remains as one of the nation’s best source of recreation and natural ecosystem protection.

But what do we have to look forward for the next 100 years? The National Park Service System Plan, published January 2017, lays out the goals of the National Park Service in an ever changing climate, both natural and cultural.

At 156 pages long, the System Plan is loaded with information and informative maps. I’ll go over some of the highlights.

Park Units – Different Names, Same Purpose

The National Park Service is responsible (at time of publication) for the management of 413 parks, monuments, historic sites, battlefields, seashores, trails, etc. Collectively, there are 28 different naming types; thus the Park Service refers to them as “park” or “unit”. The mixed nomenclature creates a bit of confusion for the public and even with those working for the service.

One of the goals of the System Plan is to clean up the naming structure to alleviate any misunderstanding. However, changing names of current units could lead to additional confusion so moving forward, new parks would be designated with one of the following:

  • National Historical Park
  • National Memorial Park
  • National Monument
  • National Park
  • National Recreational Park
Grand Teton National Park
Grand Teton National Park

Creating New Park Units

The System Plan is striving to expand the National Park System with two major objectives:

  1. Fill resource gaps
  2. Connect larger system of land

Resource gaps range from habitat types to cultural groups and events. Some of the cultural groups include American Indians, African Americans, women in American History, as well as music, arts, and even the history of conservation and environmental awareness. A Rachel Carson National Park would be nice.

This theme directly relates to the mission of the NPS. Topics of national significance include the evolving history of conservation, environmental ethic of indigenous cultures, conservation movement figures (e.g., Aldo Leopold, Henry David Thoreau, Edward Abbey), the rise of an American environmental ethic, Americans’ values and relationship to the landscape, the transformation of the American landscape, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the history of wilderness, and the 21st century paradigm for conservation (multijurisdictional, multipurpose, and multi-stakeholder).

How Are New Units Added?

There are two ways new units are added to the National Park System:

  1. Congress
  2. Antiquities Act of 1906

When new units are established by Congress they come about via a 2-step process: (1) Reconnaissance Survey and then (2) Special Resource Study. A single member of Congress or the National Park Service itself can initiate step one. But only Congress can authorize and complete the second step. Once this is completed, all of the following criteria must be met in order for a new park to be established. The proposed park must:

  • Possess nationally significant natural or cultural resources
  • Be a suitable addition to the System
  • Be a feasible addition to the System
  • Require direct NPS management instead of protection from other public agency or private organization

Alternatively, the President has the authority under the Antiquities Act to establish a National Monument (a new park) without any approval or involvement from Congress. The act was passed during Theodore Roosevelt’s Presidential term and was used to great effect. However, this process seems unlikely with the current president.

Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park

Four Main Goals of the National Park Service System Plan

To sum up, the Plan’s 4 main goals are:

  1. Continuous gap analysis
  2. Consideration of new units
  3. Embracing new conservation roles
  4. Bringing parks to the people

Continuous Gap Analysis

According to the plan, “111 primary terrestrial ecosystems in the US are completely unrepresented and another 392 (55%) are underrepresented” meaning they have less than 5% land mass in protection. Some resources have zero protection whatsoever by any Federal, State, Local or private entity.

Consideration of New Units

The process for Special Resources Studies must be streamlined and include factors of climate change and urban population. Units must contain redundancies in order to protect certain ecological and cultural areas in case of future changes. Financial stability, of course, is of great concern. The feasibility of a new park must be discussed and if the a different entity can provide better, cost-effective support, that entity should be considered versus the Park Service.

Funding is one of the greatest concerns as budgets keep getting cut. The public must be informed about the economic benefits of National Parks as well as the numerous other values the parks provide.

There were “more than 307.2 million recreational visits to national park units in 2015. During this time, visitors generated $32 billion in economic activity and supported 295,000 jobs.” (NPS 2015c)

“Additionally, in 2015, volunteers contributed approximately eight million hours, estimated at a total value to the NPS of more than $182 million, easing the financial operations burden for hundreds of parks.” (NPS 2016)

Embracing New Conservation Roles

In order to expand the park system and connect to an even larger system of land, the Plan needs to continue to partner with other organizations. Non-profits such as The Nature Conservancy have been critical in protecting areas large and small. These “other” organizations have the benefit of being quicker to act and do not need to meet the criteria set for establishing new units.

There is a need for a global network of conservation that includes a spectrum of protection systems including NPS units, related areas and programs, and all other conservation agencies, partners and nonprofits.

Bringing Parks to the People

More people now live in urban instead of rural areas so urban-based or at least closer parks are even more important than ever before. It is not always feasible for visitors to reach many of the parks, especially those in Alaska, Hawaii or U.S. territories.

One of the plan’s suggestions: “Connect visitors to parks virtually through new digital experiences that incorporate wearable, mobile simulated experiences.”

Personally, this sounds against the purpose of the park system although my bias lies in the natural and environmental purposes of the parks. Using technology to connect and educate has many benefits; however nothing can replace physically being at a park.

Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park

Final Thoughts on the Plan

Overall, the plan seems pretty solid. I believe the most effort should be placed on filling conservation gaps and embracing new conservation roles by partnering with other organizations, big and small. Groups that already do a lot of great conservation should be assisted with goals of connecting large areas of land. These smaller groups also have the ability to interact directly to their “tribes” and encourage all the components necessary to conserve more land.

Big thinking has to be the driving force behind the National Park Service. We need larger areas preserved and protected, including areas of wilderness. Watersheds, specifically the Mississippi River, should be of highest focus. Other high-focus areas should be bringing back predators and educating farmers, ranchers, and the general public on how important animals like wolves are to balancing ecosystems.

The basic principle of conservation holds true: people will only protect what they love. So increased marketing of the park system as a whole as well as individual units should be done on every level possible.

National Parks are still America’s “best idea”. Let’s all work together to expand the system and make it even greater.

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