The National Park Service says there are currently 391 units or areas in the National Park System. You’ll see this number used an awful lot, particularly when the National Park Service wishes to highlight the vast breadth and depth of the National Park System. Likewise, park advocates also use this number on a regular basis when quantifying the various threats to the National Park System as a whole.
Of course, that is not quite the same as saying that there are 391 “National Parks” in the National Park System, as only 58 of those 391 carry the designation National Park. The rest have some other designation, such as National Historic Site, National Memorial, or National Seashore. We’ll leave the discussion of all those different designations and what they really mean for another day and ask an even more interesting question: Are there really 391 units/areas/parks in the National Park System?
We’ve investigated the matter and can tell you that the answer is yes and no. It’s yes if you count the way the federal government counts. But it’s no if you count the way almost any rational human being would count.
The way that units in the National Park System are counted is truly bizarre. People who inquire deeply into the matter come out of the experience shaking their heads in wonderment. They don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Have the inmates been put in charge of the asylum?
We’ll let you decide for yourself.
Here is the official National Park Service breakdown of National Park System units by designation type. The number of units in each designation category is shown in parentheses.
National Historic Sites (79)
National Monuments (74)
National Parks (58)
National Historical Parks (42)
National Memorial (28)
National Preserves (18)
National Recreation Areas (18)
National Battlefields (11)
National Wild & Scenic Rivers & Riverways (10)
National Seashores (10)
National Military Parks (9)
National Rivers (5)
National Lakeshores (4)
National Parkways (4)
National Battlefield Parks (3)
National Scenic Trails (3)
National Reserves (2)
National Battlefield Site (1)
International Historic Site (1)
Other [unique] Designations (11)
Total Units = 391
OK; to see whether you understand what’s really going on here, you’ll need to take a little quiz. Refer to the above list as much as you like. Just don’t expect it to help as much as you’d like. Answers follow; no peeking, please.
1. How many National Preserves have been designated by Congress and put under National Park Service management?
d. more than 18
2. Nez Perce National Historical Park consists of 38 sites. If you were to visit all of the sites, how many units of the National Park System would you visit?
3. Golden Gate National Recreation Area includes more than 15 sites in the San Francisco vicinity. If you were to visit all of the them, how many units of the National Park System would you visit?
4. How many components of the Wild and Scenic River System have been assigned to the National Park Service for management?
a. fewer than 10
d. about 40
5. How many National Scenic Trails have been assigned to the National Park Service for management?
6. Last year, Peggy O’Dell was named Superintendent of National Mall and Memorial Parks. How many units of the National Park System is she responsible for?
c. less than one
d. more than five
7. Gayle Hazelwood is Superintendent of National Capital Parks-East. How many units of the National Park System is she responsible for?
c. less than one
d. more than five
8. Is the White House included in the National Park System unit count?
b. yes, as one unit
c. yes, as two units
d. yes, as three units
9. How many units does Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve account for in the National Park System grand total of 391 units?
10. South Carolina's Fort Moultrie is administered by the National Park Service. How many units does Fort Moultrie account for in the National Park System?
Extra Credit Question:
11. How many National Historic Trails count as units towards the 391?
Super Bonus Question:
12. The Western Arctic National Parklands has two superintendents and the four-letter code NOAA. How many units does it account for in the National Park System?
(1) d -- Congress has designated at least 20 National Preserves that are managed by the National Park Service. However, as the list shows, only 18 are counted as units of the National Park System. The two that don’t count as units are the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park & Preserve and the Salt River Bay National Historical Park & Ecological Preserve. All of the land within each of these parks carries both of the title designations. That's right; Congress has given two different designations to exactly the same area of land and water, and they've done that more than once.
(2) b -- Big Hole National Battlefield is part of Nez Perce National Historical Park and is also counted as a unit of the National Park System. To add to the confusion, the Bear Paw Battlefield is a sub-unit of both Big Hole National Battlefield and Nez Perce National Historical Park, but does not count as a separate unit towards the Park System’s 391 total.
(3) c -– Two of the 15 sites, Muir Woods National Monument and Fort Point National Historic Site, are part of Golden Gate NRA and count as separate units. That makes three units -- one each for Golden Gate NRA, Muir Woods NM, and Fort Point NHS.
(4) d -- The National Park Service has been assigned nearly 40 other such rivers, and there seems to be no rhyme or reason as to why some count as Park System units and others do not. Several of the rivers are wholly contained within Alaskan National Parks and don’t count, but the Middle Delaware National Scenic River is wholly contained within the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area and does count. The Great Egg Harbor Scenic and Recreational River in New Jersey is almost entirely locally managed and counts, but the Maurice Scenic and Recreational River in New Jersey is managed very similarly and doesn’t count.
(5) c -– Of the eight National Scenic Trails, five have been assigned to the National Park Service for administration. For unknown reasons, the Appalachian, Natchez Trace, and Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trails all count as units, but the Ice Age and North Country National Scenic Trails do not.
(6) c and d –- Of all the bizarre ways in which the National Park Service counts its units, this one may take the cake. The Superintendent of National Mall & Memorial Parks is actually one of two superintendents for a unit called National Capital Parks. At the same time, the Superintendent of National Mall and Memorial Parks also has responsibility for Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the National Mall, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Washington Monument, and the National World War II Memorial – each of which is counted as a separate unit of the National Park System towards that figure of 391 units. Further adding to the confusion, this superintendent has responsibility for a number of other areas, including the District of Columbia War Memorial, the George Mason Memorial, the National Japanese-American Memorial to Patriotism During World War II, and the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial, none of which count as units.
(7) c and d -- The other half of the unit called National Capital Parks is National Capital Parks-East. The Superintendent of National Capital Parks-East also has responsibility for the Carter G. Woodson Home NHS, Frederick Douglass NHS, Fort Washington Park, Greenbelt Park, the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House NHS, and Piscataway Park. To complicate matters further, this superintendent also has responsibility for places like the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, Fort Dupont Park, the Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens, and the Sewall-Belmont House National Historic Site, none of which count as units. The Sewall-Belmont House & Museum is in fact an Affiliated Area of the National Park System (which is a post for another day) that does not include “National Historic Site” in its name, even though the National Park Service does, at least for some purposes (see this site).
(8) b -- The White House counts as one unit of the National Park System.
(9) c -- Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve counts as two units of the National Park System. According to the National Park Service, this is based on the fact that a small area on the far western edge of the park (representing less than 2% of the total park acreage) is designated National Preserve and allows sport hunting.
(10) a -- Fort Moultrie is an administrative component of Fort Sumter National Monument.
(11) a -- This is an easy one if you consulted the list at the top. Of the 18 National Historic Trails designated by Congress, only one, the Iditarod National Historic Trail was not assigned to the National Park Service. Of the remaining 17, however, the National Park Service doesn’t count a single one as a unit of the National Park System. This is despite the fact that many of the Trails have their own superintendents and some even have visitors centers (like the Lowndes County interpretive center on the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail.)
(12) d -- The Western Arctic National Park Lands is a National Park Service administrative designation that encompasses four units of the National Park System, including Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, Cape Krusenstern National Monument, Kobuk Valley National Park, and Noatak National Preserve.
How did you do? Not very well, I’d wager. You see, you are a rational person, and therefore ill-equipped to deal with the federal government’s way of counting things.
Here at Traveler we call the federal government method of counting National Park System units the “Nominally Understandable Tallying Scheme.” When we encounter some aspect of the parks count that we cannot understand, we find it helpful to remember that the scheme used for counting National Park System units is NUTS.
Think of what you could do if you used this method of counting. When counting people attending an event, say a party held in your honor, you wouldn’t be restricted to counting each whole person. You could also count each person’s head, legs, and arms. Two people who are holding hands can be counted as one person – unless you’d rather count them as two people, which is perfectly fine. And of course, you need not count a person at all if it doesn't suit your purposes.
Who is responsible for the unholy mess that is the official tally of National Park System units?
It’s not entirely clear. Some of the blame surely belongs with Congress, which often designates units for political purposes (Cuyahoga Valley National Park anyone?) and often fails to follow the National Park Service’s conventions in designating units (which is why we have “The National Park of American Samoa” instead of “American Samoa National Park.”)
On the other hand, the Traveler staff has not yet found any evidence that the magic number of “391” units of the National Park System has been set by any law or combination of laws. For example, the National Park Service says that it counts attached “National Parks” and “National Preserves” as separate units because they have separate management guidelines. But this rings somewhat hollow, since lands within a single national park can often be managed by separate guidelines as well, such as when part of the park is federally designated wilderness.
And as to why some Rivers, some Trails, and some Memorials are counted as separate units and others are not? We’ve not been able to find anyone who can give us a consistent explanation. It seems that the Park Service deserves its own share of criticism for reporting a National Park System unit count that is at best unintelligible, and at worst, manifestly inaccurate.
It is that double counting that bothers us most here at Traveler. There is not even so much as an asterisk acknowledging the fact that double counting is going on in such cases as the National Mall and Memorial Parks, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and any of the "National Parks and Preserves".
So how did we get here? It seems to us that there are only two ways to interpret this. Either Congress and the National Park Service do not realize that the 391-count is bogus, or they do not care. Neither explanation satisfies.
In the meantime, this nonsensical counting system will surely continue to frustrate efforts by national park advocates to quantify the needs of the National Park System and draw attention to potential solutions. The first step to identifying your needs is to identify what you have, and with the National Park System’s method of counting, identifying what you have is nearly impossible.
So, the next time you hear one of the many park advocates say that X number of national parks are threatened by this, or are in need of that, you may just ask yourself: what exactly are they counting?
The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Sabattis, whose contributions have been invaluable. Any sins of commission or omission are, of course, mine alone.