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Shaping the System




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The National Parks:

Shaping the System
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Ideals into Reality

All national parklands are not created equal. Besides the obvious physical distinctions among and within the basic types of areas in the National Park System—natural and cultural, urban and wilderness, battlefield and birthplace, arctic and tropical—there are qualitative differences as well. Plainly put, some of the system's areas are better than others.

From the beginning, the National Park Service has professed to acquire only the most outstanding lands and resources, with "national significance" as the primary criterion. "In studying new park projects, you should seek to find scenery of supreme and distinctive quality or some natural feature so extraordinary or unique as to be of national interest and importance," declared the policy letter Horace Albright prepared for Secretary Lane's signature in 1918. "The national park system as now constituted should not be lowered in standard, dignity, and prestige by the inclusion of areas which express in less than the highest terms the particular class or kind of exhibit which they represent."

At its second meeting in May 1936, the Advisory Board on National Parks, Historic Sites, Buildings, and Monuments addressed historical parks in a similar policy statement prepared by Verne E. Chatelain, the Service's chief historian. "The general criterion in selecting areas administered by the Department of the Interior through the National Park Service whether natural or historic, is that they shall be outstanding examples in their respective classes," it declared. "The number of Federal areas must be necessarily limited, and care should be exercised to prevent the accumulation of sites of lesser rank."

Guidelines for evaluating national significance have been developed and refined over the years. The current criteria appear in the Service's Management Policies. A natural park should be an outstanding or rare example of a geologic landform or biotic area, a place of exceptional ecological or geological diversity, a site with a concentrated population of rare plant or animal species or unusually abundant fossil deposits, or an outstandingly scenic area. Historical parks should be associated with persons, events, or themes of national importance; should encompass structures or features of great intrinsic or representational value; or should contain archeological resources of major scientific consequence. Integrity is vital for natural and historical areas: they must not be so altered, deteriorated, or otherwise impaired that their significance cannot readily be appreciated by the public. The criteria for recreational areas stress spaciousness, high resource quality, proximity to major population centers, and potential for attracting national as well as local and regional visitation.

A few of the early parks and monuments did not measure up to the ideals expressed in these policies and criteria. Platt and Sullys Hill national parks, established just after the turn of the century, have been mentioned previously in this regard. Verendrye National Monument, North Dakota, proclaimed in 1917, was found to have no historical connection with the French explorer alleged to have visited the site. Fossil Cycad National Monument, South Dakota, later disclosed few of the fossils for which it had been proclaimed in 1922. In 1956 Congress approved Verendrye's transfer to the state and Fossil Cycad's return to the public domain. More than a dozen park system units have lost that status over the years following reappraisal of their significance.

A few other places of questionable national significance have been admitted to the system and remain in its ranks. What accounts for these imperfections?

In truth, the professional guidelines for evaluating national significance have not always been foremost in the minds of those responsible for new parklands. The NPS customarily transmits its recommendations on new area legislation through the Interior Department to Congress, but Congress makes the final decisions. As a representative body, it normally and naturally will give greater weight to vocal public sentiment behind a park proposal than to abstract standards that might support a negative vote on it. A park bill backed by an influential constituency and lacking significant outside opposition is thus apt to proceed without great regard for the opinions of historians, scientists, or other professional specialists in the bureaucracy. Once established via this process, a park is unlikely to be abolished or demoted to other custody.

Can Congress be blamed for the system's shortcomings, then? Not entirely. The NPS itself is no ivory tower institution, immune from public and political pressures. It is a government bureau dependent on congressional appropriations and popular support for its survival and prosperity. From its earliest days, Stephen Mather, Horace Albright, and most of their successors sought to enlarge its public and political constituencies by acquiring more parks in more places: natural areas in the East, the military parks and other historic sites, parkways, reservoir areas, seashores, urban recreation areas. These aims have made most NPS managers reluctant to vigorously resist popular park proposals questioned mostly by their professional advisers; they have seen little advantage in opposing influential congressmen's desires for parks in their districts. Under the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that all parks do not equal the system's "crown jewels."

The system has also been faulted for its unevenness in representing America's natural and cultural heritage. The idea that there should be parks for all the major facets of natural and human history underlay the 1972 National Park System Plan. As the expansionist impulse behind that document cooled in the next decade, its rationale came under critical scrutiny. Extant sites and related physical features capable of being preserved and appreciated by park visitors are not evenly dispersed among the many themes of human history, nor are all themes well communicated via such resources. The fact that the system deals more with military history than the history of philosophy or education, for example, may be justified by the nature and availability of sites and structures, the system's primary historical media.

Most natural geographic features or phenomena are capable of being represented by parks, but judging them all worthy of park representation oversteps the traditional concept of parks as places for public enjoyment. In America's National Parks and Their Keepers (Resources for the Future, 1984), Ronald A. Foresta faulted the natural history component of the National Park System Plan for relying on purely scientific criteria and ignoring the scenic or human appeal factor. "This comes close to abandoning the idea of a park altogether," he observed. "Perhaps some representative of exposed Silurian rock face should be preserved on a federally owned site. . . . There is no reason for such a site to be called a park, however, or for it to be part of the National Park System unless it has more to recommend it than pure representativeness."

At bottom, much of the controversy over what should be added to the system over the years has stemmed from different perceptions of what the system should be. Purists in and outside the NPS deplored the acquisition of such natural parks as Shenandoah, which had been cut over and existed in a less-than-primeval state. They and others who equated the system with natural preservation saw the influx of historical areas in the 1930s as diffusing its identity. Both natural and historical park partisans did not all welcome the parkways, the reservoir-based areas, and others added less for intrinsic resource quality than for recreational use. Some of these additions, typified by Gateway and Golden Gate, tended to be disproportionately demanding of funds and personnel—another reason for critics to begrudge them.

Today's system, it is fair to say, is both more and less than it might be. That it has edged into certain areas of essentially state and local concern was perhaps inevitable, evolving as it did over decades when the federal government enlarged its role in virtually every sphere. That its quality has sometimes been compromised was surely inevitable, given the public and political involvement in its evolution befitting a democratic society. That it incompletely and unevenly represents the nation's cultural and natural heritage has much to do with the physical nature and recreational—in the broad sense—purpose of parks.

All things considered, the wonder is not that the system has fallen short of the ideals set for it, but that it has come so close to them. In it are a remarkable array of the nation's greatest natural and historic places and recreational areas of outstanding attraction. Not every park is a Yellowstone, not every historic site boasts an Independence Hall. But nearly all have resources and values that make them something special—even nationally significant. With good reason, the National Park System is among America's proudest and best-loved creations.


Last Modified: Tues, Mar 14 2000 07:08:48 am PDT

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