Nomenclature of Park System Areas
View of the White House (ruin)
and a small ruin located below it.
Canyon de Chelly NM; Oct. 19, 1932.
Photo courtesy of National Park
Service Historic Photograph Collection
Need more information concerning the history of the
National Park Service? Visit our National Parks: Shaping the System.
Nomenclature of Park System Areas
The diversity of the parks is reflected in the variety of titles
given to them. These include such designations as national park,
national preserve, national monument, national memorial, national
historic site, national seashore, and national battlefield park.
Although some titles are self-explanatory, others have been used in
many different ways. For example, the title “national
monument” has been given to natural reservations, historic
military fortifications, prehistoric ruins, fossil sites, and to the
Statue of Liberty.
In recent years, both Congress and the National Park Service have
attempted to simplify the nomenclature and to establish basic criteria
for use of the different official titles. Brief definitions of the most
common titles follow.
Areas added to the National Park System for their natural values are
expanses or features of land or water of great scenic and scientific
quality and are usually designated as national parks, monuments,
preserves, seashores, lakeshores, or riverways. Such areas contain one
or more distinctive attributes like forest, grassland, tundra, desert,
estuary, or river systems; they may contain windows on the past for a
view of geological history; they may contain imposing landforms like
mountains, mesas, thermal areas, and caverns; and they may be habitats
of abundant or rare wildlife and plantlife.
Generally, a national park contains a variety of resources and
encompasses large land or water areas to help provide adequate
protection of the resources.
A national monument is intended to preserve at least one nationally
significant resource. It is usually smaller than a national park and
lacks its diversity of attractions.
In 1974, Big Cypress and Big Thicket were authorized as the first
national preserves. This category is established primarily for the
protection of certain resources. Activities like hunting and fishing or
the extraction of minerals and fuels may be permitted if they do not
jeopardize the natural values. National reserves are similar to the
preserves. Management may be transferred to local or state authorities.
The first reserve, City of Rocks, was established in 1988.
Preserving shoreline areas and off-shore islands, the national
lakeshores and national seashores focus on the preservation of natural
values while at the same time providing water-oriented recreation.
Although national lakeshores can be established on any natural
freshwater lake, the existing four are all located on the Great Lakes.
The national seashores are on the Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific
National rivers and wild and scenic riverways preserve ribbons of
land bordering free-flowing streams which have not been dammed,
channelized, or otherwise altered. Besides preserving rivers in their
natural state, these areas provide opportunities for outdoor activities
like hiking, canoeing, and hunting.
National scenic trails are generally long-distance footpaths winding
through areas of natural beauty.
Although best known for its great scenic parks, over half the areas
of the National Park System preserve places and commemorate persons,
events, and activities important in the nation’s history. These
range from archeological sites associated with prehistoric Indian
civilizations to sites related to the lives of modern Americans.
Historical areas are customarily preserved or restored to reflect their
appearance during the period of their greatest historical
In recent years, national historic site has been the title most
commonly applied by Congress in authorizing the addition of such areas
to the National Park System. A wide variety of titles—national
military park, national battlefield park, national battlefield site, and
national battlefield—has been used for areas associated with
American military history. But other areas like national monuments and
national historical parks may include features associated with military
history. National historical parks are commonly areas of greater
physical extent and complexity than national historic sites. The lone
international historic site refers to a site relevant to both U.S. and
The title national memorial is most often used for areas that are
primarily commemorative. They need not be sites or structures
historically associated with their subjects. For example, the home of
Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Ill., is a national historic site, but
the Lincoln Memorial in the District of Columbia is a national
Several areas whose titles do not include the words “national
memorial” are nevertheless classified as memorials. These are
Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, Korean War Veterans Memorial,
Lincoln Memorial, Lyndon Baines Johnson Memorial Grove, Theodore
Roosevelt Island, Thomas Jefferson Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial,
Washington Monument, and World War II Memorial in the District of
Columbia; Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in Missouri;
Perry’s Victory in Ohio; and Arlington House in Virginia.
Originally, national recreation areas in the park system were units
surrounding reservoirs impounded by dams built by other federal
agencies. The National Park Service manages many of these areas under
cooperative agreements. The concept of recreational areas has grown to
encompass other lands and waters set aside for recreational use by acts
of Congress and now includes major areas in urban centers. There are
also national recreation areas outside the National Park System that are
administered by the Forest Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture.
National parkways encompass ribbons of land flanking roadways and
offer an opportunity for driving through areas of scenic interest. They
are not designed for high speed travel. Besides the four areas set aside
as parkways, other units of the National Park System include parkways
within their boundaries.
One area of the National Park System has been set aside primarily as
a site for the performing arts. This is Wolf Trap National Park for the
Performing Arts, Virginia, America’s first such national park. Two
historical areas, Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site, in
Washington, D.C., and Chamizal National Memorial, Texas, also provide
facilities for the performing arts.
Designation of Wilderness Areas
In the Wilderness Act of 1964 Congress directed certain federal
agencies, including the National Park Service, to study lands they
administer for their suitability for inclusion in the National
Wilderness Preservation System. Congress has now designated wilderness
areas in 47 units of the National Park System. Wilderness designation
does not remove these lands from the parks but ensures they are managed
to retain their “primeval character and influence, without
permanent improvements or human habitation.” There are also 38
wilderness study areas under National Park Service management. Of these
areas, 19 were formally transmitted for Congressional action over the
last 35 years.
The Act provides that “there shall be no commercial enterprise
and no permanent road within any wilderness area...and (except for
emergency uses) no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized
equipment or motor boats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of
mechanical transport, and no structure or installation.”
Wilderness areas are open to hiking and, in some cases, horseback
riding, primitive camping, and other nonmechanical recreation. The
Wilderness Act recognizes that wilderness “may also contain
ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational,
scenic, or historical value.” Wilderness embodies spiritual,
artistic, therapeutic, cultural, and other important values.
Wilderness holds exciting prospects for future management of National
Park Service lands. Because wilderness exists on lands of the National
Park System, National Forest System, National Wildlife Refuge System,
and Bureau of Land Management, it offers a common statutory basis for
interagency cooperation in ecosystem management. Only the Wilderness Act
mandates preservation of natural processes, making wilderness areas
ideal protected core areas for ecosystems, just as national parks often
provide core protection for biosphere reserves and world heritage sites.
As such, wilderness areas provide important benchmark areas for
scientific research and monitoring.
Growing demand for wilderness experience makes sophisticated,
sensitive wilderness management essential. The National Park Service
believes that wilderness management is the highest form of stewardship
it can provide for the public lands in its care.
Parks in the Nation’s Capital
Washington, D.C., has a unique park system. Most public parks are
administered by the federal government through the National Capital
Region of the National Park Service.
National Capital Region has inherited duties originally assigned to
three Federal Commissioners appointed by President George Washington in
1790. The city’s parks were administered by a variety of federal
agencies until this responsibility was assigned to the National Park
Service under the Reorganization Act of 1933. Most city parklands are
included in the federal holdings, although the District of Columbia also
operates parks, playgrounds, and recreational facilities. National
Capital Region also administers National Park System units in Maryland,
Virginia, and West Virginia.
Besides the National Park System, four area
designations—Affiliated Areas, National Heritage Areas, the
National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, and National Trails
System—are linked in importance and purpose to areas managed by
the National Park Service. These areas are not all units of the National
Park System, yet they preserve important segments of the nation’s