Whatever Became of the Decommissioned National Parks?

Should the national park system include a Revolutionary War-era house where a Polish-born freedom fighter once lived? NPS photo.

Once upon a time, there was a national park unit centered around fossilized plants. And there was another -- the country's second national park, actually -- that was located on an island in Lake Huron. But no more.

Almost 50 years ago, Congress decommissioned Fossil Cycad National Monument as a unit of the National Park Service, in large part because most of the fossils that had originally earned the monument its distinction had been pilfered from the area.

And then there was Mackinac National Park (later known as Mackinac Island National Park). It was established in 1875, just three years after Yellowstone National Park, in response to the popularity of the island as a summertime destination. Twenty years later, though, the federal government decommissioned the park and turned it over to the state of Michigan, which established it as its first state park.

Over the years, roughly two dozen national park units have either be decommissioned or turned over to another branch of government. For instance, Lewis and Clark Cavern National Monument was created by presidential proclamation on May 11, 1908, and then given to the state of Montana in August 1937. Papago Saguaro National Monument in Arizona was established by presidential proclamation in January 1914, and handed over to Arizona officials in 1930.

More recently, Oklahoma City National Memorial was deauthorized as a unit of the NPS on Jan 23, 2004 and turned over to the city. The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts was created by an act of Congress in 1972, and transferred to the Kennedy Center Trustees by Congress in 1994.

For a look at a list of former Park Service units, check out this site.

And then ask yourself, are there Park Service units today that should be handed off either because they not longer are fitting or could be better managed by a different agency? Could some of the national recreation areas -- Lake Mead, say, or perhaps Golden Gate or Gateway -- find a better fit with some other agency? How 'bout if Golden Gate is handed off to the city of San Francisco, that Glen Canyon National Recreation Area is swapped to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah, or that Gateway be given to a joint New York-New Jersey commission?

Should the Park Service, in these tough budgetary times, take a serious look at its 391 properties and propose some changes? Former U.S. Rep. Jim Hansen, a Republican from Utah, once suggested that Great Basin National Park be decommissioned, saying once you've been there there's no need to return.

Fortunately, Mr. Hansen didn't get his way. With its ancient trees, intriguing caverns, and alpine high country in the middle of the Great Basin, Great Basin National Park is certainly a unique landscape that fits well with the Park Service's mission.

But can the same be said of all 391 units? Should there really be a "Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial"?

Should the "National Park" Service be given responsibility solely for the 58 units that are called national parks? Should historical sites go to a "National History Service," and national battlefields be turned over to the Defense Department?

What do you think?


The National Park System evolved over time. All those units were seen as of national relevance at one time. And the scope of the National Park Service changed: The very first National Park was founded as a playground or park for the enjoyment and benefit of the people. Since the Organic Act conservation moved into the fore ground. And Mission 66 was instrumental to make interpretation and education of the visitors a priority. Throughout the 20th century, various historically important areas were added to the National Park System as NM, NHS, NHP and what ever.

Clinton made the BLM a key player with establishing huge National Monuments under their jurisdiction. The Forest Service has a few of them since 1978/1980 in Alaska and the Cascade Range too. And very new in the game is the FWS with two NMs (Hanford Reach, WA and Papahānaumokuākea, HI).

Maybe it is time to sort this out. Areas with primarily recreational use may not be served best, if they are administrated by the NPS. That would deal with the NRAs and the city parks in DC. Give them to the mayor of DC, the states (in the east) and the BLM in the west. How about the National Seashores/Lakeshores? Some of them see a lot of recreational use, but large parts are valuable nature.

How about the historical units? You proposed that Battlefields (and maybe all of some of the military forts that are NMs, NHSs and NHPs) could go to a new agency of the DoD. I'm not convinced. The NPS does a tremendous job in providing interpretation about the military history. Their publications, print or websites, on the War of Independence and the Civil War are excellent. Much of this experience would be lost - at least for some time - with transition to a new agency. And there are units where the national importance isn't universally accepted any more. Thaddeus Kosciuszko NM might be one, Claire Burtons NHS? African Burial Ground NM? Pipe Spring NM? All of them relevant historical persons/places. But monuments of national interest?

And I believe all high-profile areas that are protected for their natural features should be concentrated with the NPS (maybe with the exception of Alaska, the FS seems to do a good job with the two NMs within Tongass National Forest). But Mount St. Helens, Grand Staircase-Escalante, and the rarely talked about but highly interesting Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument IMHO should be made NPS units, and preferably National Parks.

And while I am at it:

A high-profile NPS unit of the fur trade is clearly missing. There are some at the Columbia River and Grand Portage NM at Lake Superior exists, but there is no unit to showcase the history of the fur trade in the Rocky Mountains. Daniel, WY would be the ideal place, I'm sure there is suitable federal land, it's in easy driving distance from Grand Teton NP, and it is the place where more of the Rendezvous toke place then anywhere else.

I am uncomfortable with the idea of turning over any of the historical National Parks to the Department of Defense.

I have been very positively impressed by the neutral position taken by National Park interpretive rangers, when providing information about sites where people may have strong, differing, points of view.

At Mesa Verde NP, the ranger who accompanied my group was careful to say that there is no clear consensus about why the people who had dwelled there left. He offered some ideas that various people have put forward, but made it clear that the matter is still unexplained. At other parks where white settlers came in conflict with native peoples, the rangers were careful to explain the point of view of both groups.

I am not confident that representatives of the DoD would be as even handed, especially at parks where members of the armed forces played a role.

I wonder if this argument of decommissioning National Park Service (NPS) units doesn't buy into the hands of those who want to privatize our public lands and sell them off. Wouldn't this be giving them what they want? The problem is not a National Park Service that is too large, but, a philosophy of complete free trade that will cure all our ills...a very bad idea.

On the other hand, there is some merit to decommissioning NPS units as National Recreation Areas (NRAs) are far over on the spectrum of pure playgrounds. NRAs represent the side of the NPS that loves very intense recreational development. Former director Newton Drury thought they went well beyond the mission of the NPS (I'm referring to Sellars book, Preserving Nature in the National Parks). The historical units, I do think fall well within the mission of the NPS and as MRC says, the NPS has done a good job with them, given the NPS's poor funding. Having the influence of the NPS as managers of the NRAs has perhaps had a better influence on them, than if they had been turned over to some other agency.

rob mutch
Executive Director,
Crater Lake Institute
Robert Mutch Photography,

Due to the powerful economic forces of modern-day tourism, as well as community pride in local green spots on the map officially designated as part of the NPS, I think it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to decommission any unit of the NPS. The only way I see for NPS downsizing to occur successfully is via a recommendation by a high-level "blue ribbon" bipartisan committee and a virtual absence of local and regional opposition.

On the other hand, there are non-NPS National Monuments, like Mt. St. Helens, and tribal parks like Monument Valley, that I believe are of major national and international significance. These significant natural areas ought to be protected and preserved within our National Parks System.

Owen Hoffman
Oak Ridge, TN 37830

Regarding the comment about the site devoted to the fur trade, Bent's Fort NHS already does the job. But, as a "faithfully reconstructed" Fort on the footprint of the original fort I might question its national significance.

I would add Thomas Stone NHS to the list worthy of consideration for decommissioning for the same reason as Bent's Old Fort. there are many others (Steamtown) that are not nationally significant.

However, as was suggested, it seems a dangerous time politically to start talk of decommissioning sites because it is a slippery slope to privatization and sensible people realize that would be a big mistake.

Based on encroachment, gentrification, motorized recreation, and other threats to natural and historic treasures, I'd love to see more NPS involvement, not less.

The answer to an underfunded and over-worked NPS is to properly fund and staff it, not knuckle under pressure to decommission sites.

BTW, an absolute NO to DoD taking over national battlefields. The DoD has one purpose and one purpose only: to defend the nation. Putting them in charge of historical parks would be counter to both that purpose, and to the goal of protecting historical treasures (which is NOT a DoD mandate).


My travels through the National Park System: americaincontext.com

If you are interested in the topic, it is well worth checking out Dr. Alan Hogenauer's interesting, fun and well researched article "Gone, But Not Forgotten: The Delisted Units of the U.S. National Park System" in The George Wright Forum, Volume 7, Number 4, 1991

You can download a copy here:

Eric, we owe you a vote of thanks for drawing attention to Alan Hogenauer’s article “Gone but Not Forgotten: The Delisted Units of the U.S. National Park System.” It provides an excellent history of sites that have been entirely removed from the national park inventory after having been established. A surprisingly large number of parks have been erased from the inventory for various reasons. There were 34 such delisted (“decommissioned”) park units in 1983 when Hogenauer wrote this article and some others have been delisted in the last 25 years. The concluding section of Hogenauer’s article emphasizes four main points: First, delistings are highly selective; there has been no wholesale pruning of manifestly worthy national parks. Second, there has been no geographic bias to the delistings. Third, delisted units almost never become inaccessible to the public; indeed, there has been only one such occurrence (Shoshone Caverns). Finally, and very importantly, no delisted unit that Hogenauer identified lost its integrity as a historic, natural, or recreational resource after being removed from National Park Service administration. Does this mean that national park delisting is such a great idea that we should have lots more of it going on? Certainly not! But Hogenauer’s findings do show that the occasional pruning of units is a normal, not necessarily harmful process in the National Park System. Additional delisting is surely going to occur. Instead of condemning delisting out of hand, perhaps we should be fine tuning the process. It’s especially important that we know which criteria are best suited to the task of identifying units whose continued existence as National Park System components least serves the national interest.

Who the heck is "Claire Burtons"? If you mean Clara Barton and somehow think that her life and story aren't worthy of a central place from which to tell it, you are sadly mistaken. Now Glen Echo Park -- that's certainly a big question mark...

A great topic! I think rather than starting with the question of what the National Park System shouldn't be, one should start with the quesiton of what the National Park System should be. A great definition I have heard is that the National Park Service should represent our Nation's greatest, natural, historical, and cultural treasures. With that being said, it is interesting to note that there are six Units in the National Park System that don't even carry the word "National" in their names, and which are very borderline significant. These are:
- Catoctin Mountain Park
- Fort Washington Park
- Greenbelt Park
- Piscataway Park
- Prince William Forest Park
- Rock Creek Park
This list also doesn't include Wolf Trap Farm Park, which recently received the designation of "National Park for the Performing Arts", even though it seems to simply be the summer outdoor music venue for the city of Washington, not much different than similar such venues all around the country. Of those seven, the best case for National Park status that you could probably make out of this list would be for Catoctin Mountain Park (which includes the lands surrounding the Presidential Retreat at Camp David), but the others seem very lacking in "Naitonal" significance.

The other interesting category would be those sites that are primarily recreational sites, centered around dam-based reservoirs. These sites include:
- Amistad NRA
- Bighorn Canyon NRA
- Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area
- Curecanti NRA
- Glen Canyon NRA
- Lake Mead NRA
- Lake Merdeith NRA
- Missouri National Recreational River
This list doesn't include a couple others like Gauley River NRA, Lake Chelan NRA, and Ross Lake NRA that are administered as part of other nearby Parks. Nevertheless, all of the above are certainly anamolous bits of the National Park System, since their resources are in fact the results of man-made dams. With that being said, many of them, including Bighorn Canyon, Curecanti, Glen Canyon, and Lake Mead, all have spectacular scenery, and Amistad actually protects an important paleo-art site. So, as Kurt's article suggested, even Units that seem somewhat questionable are often not completely without merit.


I think Ellen has a good point, and if she's the same Ellen I knew many years ago, I know she means what she writes. Get in touch with me Ellen, if you can. I love the national park system and go to Rocky Mountain National Park as often as I can.