National Park Designation is an Unholy Mess
Foreword: Last September, Sabattis and I collaborated on a Traveler article entitled “Are There Really 391 Units in the National Park System? You Won’t Think So After You Read This!”. Controversy is now swirling over proposals to redesignate (or “upgrade”) some existing National Park System units, most conspicuously Golden Gate National Recreation Area and Ocmulgee National Monument. This seems like a good time to remind Traveler readers just how ridiculously out of whack the National Park System unit nomenclature has already become. Is National Park System unit redesignation to remain nothing more than a political football that opportunists can kick around? Is it really too much to ask that Congress and the National Park Service put their heads together and come up with a National Park System unit designation system that actually makes sense?
The National Park Service says there are 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 regularly use this number when quantifying the various threats to the National Park System as a whole.
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 and Scenic Rivers and 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
Now, consider these facts in light of that “391-count.”
• There are 333 National Park System units (391-58 = 333) that do not have "National Park" as part of their official name.
• There are 30 kinds of designations for National Park System units. Of the 333 National Park System units named something other than National Park, 13 have designations that aren’t shared by any other park.
• Officially stated criteria notwithstanding, the distinction between units labeled National Park and those labeled something else is far from clear. There are many anomalies, even some bizarre ones. Consider, for example, that Cape Hatteras National Seashore, a large National Park System unit with one of the nation’s finest assemblages of nationally significant historic and natural resources, is not a National Park. At the same time, that label has been applied to Hot Springs National Park, a very small National Park System unit that preserves historic bathhouses.
• A goodly number of National Park System units, including at least one National Park, are of questionable national significance. Steamtown National Historic site and First Ladies National Historic site are often cited as examples of units that should be purged from the system. Many informed people believe that Cuyahoga Valley National Park has physical and cultural resources that are not up to the standards of a National Park System unit, much less a unit designated National Park.
• Congress has designated at least 20 National Preserves that are managed by the National Park Service, but 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 and Preserve and the Salt River Bay National Historical Park and 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.
• Nez Perce National Historical Park consists of 38 sites. One of them, Big Hole National Battlefield is not only part of Nez Perce National Historical Park, but also counted as a separate 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.)
• If you were to visit all 15 sites comprising Golden Gate National Recreation Area, you’d be visiting three different National Park System units. Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Muir Woods National Monument, and Fort Point National Historic Site each count as one unit in the National Park System 391-tally.
• Nearly 40 components of the Wild and Scenic River System have been assigned to the National Park Service for management, but there seems to be no rhyme nor 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.
• There are eight National Scenic Trails, but only five have been assigned to the National Park Service for administration, and only three count as National Park System units. For unknown reasons, the Appalachian, Natchez Trace, and Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trails all count as National Park System units, but the Ice Age National Scenic Trail and the North Country National Scenic Trail do not.
• 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.)
• Glacier Bay National Park and 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.
• 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.
• The White House counts as one unit of the National Park System.
• The superintendent of National Mall and 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.
• 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 and Aquatic Gardens, and the Sewall-Belmont House National Historic Site, none of which count as units. The Sewall-Belmont House and Museum is in fact an Affiliated Area that does not include “National Historic Site” in its name, even though the National Park Service does, at least for some purposes.
Who is responsible for the unholy mess that is the official tally of National Park System units? 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.”).
The Park Service deserves its own share of criticism for helping to perpetuate -- at least by chronic inaction -- a National Park System unit count that is at best unintelligible, and at worst manifestly inaccurate.
This is not a harmless failing. The present nonsensical way that National Park System units are designated and counted will 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.