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National Park Designation is an Unholy Mess


Cuyahoga Valley National Park has attractive features, but does it really deserve to be National Park-designated? National Park Service photo.

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.


I agree that the nomenclature is often confusing, but I don't see how streamlining the process would lead to better management. What's a bigger issue are areas like the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area which have some administration by the NPS but also include several state- and county-managed lands. If there's a problem there, who can you contact?

I also take strong issue with the very notion that some of these parks don't have "national" significance. You identify issues where the national signficance is underappreciated, maybe. But lacking? I doubt that.

Cape Hatteras National Seashore in not a bizarre anomaly. Rather Cape Hatteras was the first National Seashore. And the definition assigned to this new type of unit was as follows.

Primarily a seashore is a recreation area. Therefore in its selection, the boundaries should be placed in such a manner that the maximum variety of recreation is provided. Thus while provision for bathing may be the first consideration of these areas, it must be kept in mind that a far greater number of people will be more interested in using a seashore area for other recreational purposes. It is desirable therefore to provide ample shoreline for all types of beach recreation. The Cape Hatteras National Seashore provides such an area in that there is extensive shoreline for all forms of recreation both for immediate use and for future development.

Further on the matter of Fort Moultrie. This morning while sorting through some old files I found an NPS tri-fold brochure distributed a long time ago (late 1980s or early 1990s) at Congaree National Park (then Congaree Swamp National Monument). This brochure, a listing of NPS units and Affiliated Areas in South Carolina, not only refers to "Fort Moultrie National Monument," but also provides a phone number and address. There is a separate listing for Fort Sumter National Monument, so there's no mistaking the intent.

Two categories instead of 30 does have a certain appeal! Thanks for bringing the Parks Canada approach to our attention.

Surprised that no one has mentioned Parks Canada, where it's either National Park (primarily natural/scenic) or National Historic Site. Nice and clean and simple!

Alan Hogenauer

Speaking of Ft. Moultrie, here's a new news clip about the Ft.

Museum Exhibit On Slave Trade Opens

"African Passages," a newly-installed museum exhibit on the international slave trade at the Fort Moultrie Visitor Center, opened to the public this past weekend.

The new exhibit examines the role of Sullivan's Island as a quarantine station during the international slave trade, when Charleston was the main port of entry for captive Africans in North America. Historians estimate that slave ships brought 200,000 to 360,000 men, women and children into Charleston's harbor. Between 1707 and 1799, when arriving ships carried infectious diseases, their free or enslaved passengers were quarantined either aboard ship or in island "pest houses." This painful history makes Sullivan's Island a gateway through which many African Americans can trace their entry into America.

The exhibit includes the haunting Middle Passage charcoal works of Thomas Feelings and the exuberant Gullah art of Jonathan Green. West African objects, leg shackles and an 1803 slave identification badge are among the artifacts on display that are on loan from the collection of the Avery Research Center for African American Culture at the College of Charleston.

The story of Priscilla and her seventh generation granddaughter's return to Sierra Leone provides a modern day link from Charleston across the Atlantic and three centuries.

"The scholarship of historians Edward Ball and Joseph Opala uncovered this amazing connection from Sierra Leone to Sullivan's Island. The story of Priscilla puts a face on those oppressed by slavery," said Krista Kovach-Hindsley, NPS exhibit planner.

With text written by journalist Herb Frazier, the exhibits were fabricated and installed by Studio Displays of Charlotte, North Carolina. Seed money for the project was donated in 2004 by the Committee of Descendants, a foundation established by Ed Ball and his extended family. The Remembrance Committee of Charleston has also been instrumental in seeing the project completed.

"This is a story of national and international significance that is central to the birth and growth of the United States," said superintendent Bob Dodson. "It is a powerful story of strength and endurance that will touch people on a personal level. I am very grateful for the grass roots support of this long awaited exhibit. The Charleston community has been looking forward to the completion of this project for some time now. The exhibit builds on the commemorative marker installed in 1999 and Toni Morrisons Bench by the Road placed on park grounds in 2008.

Rick Smith

Interesting question. Fort Moultrie was transferred to the state of South Carolina after it was deactivated in 1947. The state of South Carolina then transferred the site back to the federal government in 1960. Assigning it to the National Park Service for administration as a component of Fort Sumter National Monument would certainly be the logical thing to do in those circumstances. An administrative decision like that wouldn't require a proclamation or designation of the sort you'd need for establishing a new NPS unit.

I got curious and looked a bit deeper at the usual places for such an information - the hit came pretty easily, wasn't more than ten minutes searching. And thank you for the summary of the really know facts. But one big question stays: How did the NPS get responsible for Fort Moultrie, if not by designation or proclamation?

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