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Historic Sites
Economic Aspects


Federal Lands
State and Interstate


Division of Responsibility


Educational Opportunities

Recreational Use of Land in the United States

State Lands

Provision of outdoor recreational facilities by the several States has a history which far antedates the establishment of national parks. State properties dedicated wholly or partly to recreational use now accommodate a total number of annual visitors which exceeds those of the national parks and monuments and the national forests. In point of acreage, they are still considerably below the national parks and monuments. State parks, which bear the bulk of the recreation burden, contain only about 3 percent as great an area as the national forests. Although national forest areas are now being purchased in a number of regions which had none until the start of the recent purchase program, and though it is to be expected that there will be some extension of holdings of the types now administered by the National Park Service, it is likely that State properties will always receive a much greater number of visitors each year than those owned and operated by the Federal Government.

The State Recreation Situation Today.—Today 46 of the 48 States possess State parks or areas differently named, but set aside wholly or primarily for recreational use—Colorado and Montana being the exceptions. Their holdings total approximately 3,755,985.49 acres. Accurate figures on attendance are not procurable, since few States take them, but in 1930 the National Conference on State Parks estimated, on the basis of reports received from nearly all of the States, that it was approximately 45,000,000 in that year. Figures submitted to the National Resources Board in August of this year indicate a 1933 attendance of approximately 61,297,683 persons. In addition, it is estimated that State forests and game and fish properties in 23 States have approximately 5,000,000 visitors each year.

Since State parks are created for recreation, and since the amount and variety of recreation they supply far surpasses that supplied by other State holdings, any detailed consideration of the place of the State in the field of outdoor recreation will naturally concern itself primarily with State parks.

History of State Parks.—The history of the State park movement from the establishment of Yosemite up to the present is briefly presented in the foreword of the State Park Anthology, as follows:

It was not until automobiles became fairly numerous, and sufficient good or fair roads had been built to permit ready access to areas at a distance from centers of population, that the State-park movement may be said to have been fairly launched. Such State parks as had been established in the meantime had generally been created to preserve some outstandingly scenic area, such as the Niagara Reservation in New York or the Yosemite Valley in California, and resulted from a strong public opinion that was concerned as a rule only with a single project, and that had little or no vision of a day when most of our States would be building up systems of State parks.

It is during the past decade that the establishment of State park systems has become a widely recognized function of our State governments. In the old days park advocates would say, "Here is an area so outstanding in its beauty that it ought to be saved for the public." Today we say, "Here is a public, vast in numbers, with modern means of transportation, good roads, and leisure, more and more cramped by the growth of cities, to whom contact with the beauty of nature and opportunity for the simple types of outdoor recreation are inure and more necessary for a healthy mind and a healthy body. Let us find and preserve some of what is left of our unspoiled out-of-doors, so that our people today and tomorrow may have a chance to know what it is like and to enjoy it." 1

1 Evison, Herbert, editor, A State Park Anthology, National Conference on State Parks, Washington, D. C., 1930. (See p. 7.)

Relative Adequacy of Areas Provided.—Among the 46 States having State parks, or areas, of similar character there is an extremely wide variation in the extent to which such areas have been provided. This is expressed by a range of .02 acre per thousand inhabitants in Delaware to 200 acres in New York State. The comparatively low acreage in many Western States is largely compensated by the fact that excellent outdoor recreational opportunities are provided for them by national parks and national forests, although these do not fully meet the needs of their people.

Public Support.—In a few States, notably New York, Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Connecticut, and California, regular and reasonably adequate funds are made available for acquisition, development, and maintenance of recreational areas, though these funds have been considerably curtailed during the past 5 years. In most others this field of State activity is still struggling for some reasonably adequate recognition.

Selection of Sites.—Selection of State recreational areas, chiefly State parks, has been based in varying degree on comprehensive surveys conducted in the following States: Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, and California. Though a few other States have built up systems excellently balanced, most of them, either because of failure to establish standards, or because of their lack of knowledge of their recreational resources, have included in their systems areas too small, of slight value scenically or for active recreation, unduly expensive to develop and operate, or crowded too closely on one another.

diagram: acreage of state, county, and municipal parks

Types of Properties.—The bulk, in number and extent, of State properties which have been established primarily for recreation are called State parks. Familiar as that term is, it is well-nigh meaningless, or perhaps it may be said to have a slightly different meaning in each of the 46 park States. It is applied, for example, to the spectacular, 60,000-acre Custer State Park in South Dakota, and to an, Indian mound on an acre of land in Columbus, Ohio (Campbell State Park); to a 7-acre picnic ground crowded on a lonely brook in an old stand of hemlock in Connecticut (Humaston Brook) to a 15-acre beach on Lake Michigan (Mears State Park) and to a beach without hinterland in California. Only a few States have distinguished between their scenic and active-recreative properties, and those primarily of historic or scientific importance by designating the latter as monuments.

In contrast with this general confusion are certain States which have established definite and high standards for their parks which insist, generally, on areas of considerable extent and scenic distinction and which decline to include properties which are commonplace or almost wholly local in character of use. Notable among these are New York, Indiana, Illinois, and California. No system, however, appears to be wholly free from undesirable or incomplete properties.

Also by contrast with the low-grade holdings which many States have accepted into their park systems are a number which embrace features of superb beauty and of genuinely national importance. Examples of this type of park are the Niagara Reservation in New York, the Humboldt and other redwood parks in California, the forests of giant hardwoods in Turkey Run and Spring Mill Parks in Indiana, and Custer State Park in South Dakota.

Administrative Machinery.—The machinery of administration for State recreation areas—chiefly State parks—is of nearly as many varieties as there are park-owning States. Of the numerous kinds, however, there are two types which are most general in those States which have had parks for some years. One is the commission or board, concerned almost wholly with parks, such as is found in Kentucky, Rhode Island, Iowa, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, and South Dakota. The other is the conservation department headed either by a single conservation commissioner, as in New York and Massachusetts, or by a conservation commission, but having charge of several divisions, of which parks is one.

The commonest type of administration is that which places parks under the State forester or State forestry commission. This has occurred in most cases because the forestry branches were established before the parks, and appeared the most logical agencies under which to place park administration until a separate agency had been set up. Two States in this group—South Carolina and Florida—have recently decided to establish distinct branches in charge of parks. In a number of others, parks are pretty definitely subordinated to the forests, with not much distinction between the two in treatment of their resources.

Ohio has an anomalous administrative organization, with the State forester administering a group of excellent forest parks a park division in the conservation department administering a group of reservoir lakes; and the Ohio Archeological and Historical Society in charge of a group of historical and archeological sites. Pennsylvania has a number of park commissions, loosely connected with the department of forests and waters, which also administers a group of so-called forest parks. In New Jersey, although most of the parks are under the Conservation Commission, one is administered by an independent commission, while another administers the New Jersey portion of the Palisades Interstate Park. In Massachusetts, a number of State park reservations are under county-supported commissions.

New York's system is unique, with her several park regions, each under a separate commission, all united in, and under a considerable degree of fiscal control of, a State council of parks, which in turn is nominally subject to control by the conservation commissioner.

diagram: state park area of growth, 1900-1934

Powers of Park Administrators.—While there is considerable variation in the extent of authority granted to park administrators, certain powers are found to be common to most or all of them. The following powers are generally possessed:

(a) To purchase lands for use as parks.

(b) To accept gifts of park lands or of funds for the purchase of such lands.

(c) To exercise the right of eminent domain.

(d) To construct necessary roads, structures, and other facilities in the parks.

(e) To employ persons needed for operation of parks, and to expend such funds as may be available for other necessary expense of operation.

(f) To promulgate and enforce rules and regulations governing use of the parks and protection of their resources.

(g) To make necessary studies of the scenic and potential or actual recreation areas within the State on which to base selection of sites for inclusion in a State system.

A few States have not yet granted their park authorities the right to exercise the power of eminent domain. On the other hand, certain of the New York regional commissions have the power of appropriation, taking the land when it is needed, and settling for it afterwards through the Court of Claims.

The power of eminent domain has been exercised with varying success in the several States which possess it. Awards considered by the condemning authority to be unjustifiably high are found usually in those States where the award is made by juries selected in the locality in which the property being condemned is situated, they are generally considered fairly satisfactory in those States in which the jury or court is otherwise selected.

Planning of Recreation Areas.—The States of New York, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, California, and perhaps a few others which have been concerned with park administration over a considerable period of years, have long recognized that parks present difficult and complicated problems of planning, requiring the services of men of technical training and an appreciation of the special considerations which should govern the development of lands of this type. On the other hand, the idea that the natural area requires no particular planning at all has died hard—is not, in fact, dead everywhere yet—but it has left in its wake scores of parks in which irreplaceable features of high quality have either been destroyed, badly maarred, or modified by unplanned and uncontrolled public use.

The park planning problem, in general, stripped to its essentials, is that of making usable a natural and relatively unspoiled area, which has remained that way in most cases because it has never been subjected to much use, and at the same time to preserve those scenic or other features which are either the principal reason or one of the principal reasons for establishment of the park.

Park Facilities and Their Operation.—As previously noted, Connecticut operates all facilities provided in its parks. While camp and picnic grounds are generally operated directly by the State, overnight lodgings in hotels or cabins, stores, restaurants, bath houses, boats and canoes, rental of riding horses, and other special facilities are usually or frequently handled by concessionaires.

Concessions are awarded in two different ways. Under one arrangement the State's return and the conditions of operation are fixed in advance, and the concessionaire who is supposed to be best fitted for the task is selected. Under the other, the terms of operation are fixed in advance, but the award is made to the highest bidder. In some cases, prices, methods of operation, standards of service, and limitations on the placing of advertising signs are set forth in great detail in the concession agreement; in others, these are covered in very general terms.

Exclusive Use Privileges.—The practice of turning over to individuals for their exclusive use small portions of State park lands has, fortunately, never become widespread. It has been permitted in Custer State Park, S. Dak., in Devils Lake State Park, Wis., and in one or two other locations. Most State park authorities are strongly opposed to it. Senator Norbeck, Chairman of the Custer State Park Board, has said, "We have leased about 100 sites for cottages in the State park, but are not encouraging any more of it. It brings its own complications and many of them. Suitable locations can be found outside the park for these cottages." 2

2 Letter from senator Norbeck to National Resources Board, Aug. 22, 1934.

The practice is indulged in to a somewhat greater extent on State forests, chiefly in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, but is being eradicated in the latter State as rapidly as possible.

Nature Education.—Use of State holdings for nature education cannot be called extensive. The outstanding undertaking of this sort is found in the Palisades Interstate Park, where it is a joint project of the park commission and the American Museum of Natural History. The Buffalo Museum of Sciences occupies a somewhat analogous position with respect to the nature-education work and to the Allegheny School of Natural History at Allegheny State Park, in western New York. Indiana has had organized nature-education service in several of her State parks for some years. Nature guide service, partly on a basis of volunteer leadership, neither regular nor organized, has been offered from time to time in Iowa parks and in Pennsylvania.

Museums are found in a considerable number of State parks. A few are expertly handled, on the basis of modern museum science, for the sole idea of enlarging public understanding of these parks and their immediate surroundings. The majority have been established without any particular policy, and tend to be heterogeneous and badly organized, suffering chiefly from excessive generosity of donors. The establishment and arrangement of the occasional small zoological collections found in State parks have been undertaken on somewhat the same unscientific basis, with a few notable exceptions, such as that at Bear Mountain, in the Palisades.

Generally speaking, educational effort in State parks has been of very limited extent and value; it offers a wide field of opportunity that few State park authorities appear as yet to have grasped.

Preservation of Natural Conditions.—In most State parks, the preservation of the native landscape and of native animal and bird life is accepted as a primary objective. The cutting of trees and shrubbery is in general prohibited on most of these areas; animals and birds likewise are accorded special protection. Important exceptions are the Adirondack and Catskill parks in New York, where cutting is more strictly prohibited than in almost any other parks—even the national parks—but where hunting is permitted during the season.

The degree of preservation actually attained varies greatly among the several States and among the several hundred parks. In areas too small for the active-recreation load they are required to carry, it is almost a complete failure. The same is equally true in areas which have been badly planned, and in which, as a consequence, there has been no adequate assertion of control over public use. It has been largely defeated in a number of parks by the construction of a needlessly large mileage of roads and trails. It has been impaired by the frequent tendency to overdo clean-up—elimination of ground cover, removal of standing dead trees (snags) which are valuable habitats for many bird species—and other forms of interference with natural conditions. It has been hindered even in the case of expertly planned development by failure to ascertain the effects of such development upon wildlife conditions.

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Last Modified: Fri, Sep. 5, 2003 10:32:22 am PDT

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