How Should a National Park Be Defined?

In one of my earliest posts written nearly five years ago, I discussed the various bucket lists I had created as a plan to explore the wonders of our world, gaining a perspective of where we fit within the environment and history of its being. One of those bucket lists was to visit all of the designated United States National Parks. At the time and up to the start of 2018, there were 59 designated national parks managed by the United States National Park System. With last year’s road trip, I am able to mark off 41 of those 59 national parks, and I am planning a northwestern road trip in late spring which will bring me to 4 more national parks. However, the United States Congress, at the urging of a Missouri senator, recently re-designated the Jefferson Expansion National Memorial to the Gateway Arch National Park. President Trump signed the law in February 2018. Now, I have no major quibble over officially renaming Jefferson Expansion to Gateway Arch, even though the metal arch was designed and constructed in the 1960s as a homage to President Thomas Jefferson’s action of the Louisiana Purchase which greatly expanded the US in the early 1800s and led to its eventual growth as the fourth largest country in the world. However, changing its designation from a national memorial to a national park totally upends the true concept of a national park and how it should be perceived. This is an action to which I cannot agree.

Now, the birth of the concept of the national park with Yellowstone did not arise out of any grand plan, as Yellowstone was created as the first national park only because it was not within the borders of a state at the time of its designation by Congress, but was just within US territory. Yosemite was the first park set aside by Congress, but because it was within the borders of the new state of California, it was designated as a California State Park. It was only after California decided to build the Hetch Hetchy dam and reservoir in a northern valley of the park that Yosemite was taken back and re-designated by the US Congress as a National Park, allowing future national parks to be set aside and designated within individual state boundaries. Under the activism of conservationists like Ansel Adams, the concept of a national park developed into the preservation of important natural ecosystems within the US, an idea which has spread globally to many other countries. The range of US national parks stretch from volcanic geysers, mountain ranges, arctic tundra, unique forest regions, major cave systems, deep canyons, low valleys, off-shore islands, and sub-tropical everglades. Visiting these protected environments have become a great means to gain a true perspective of the natural science of the planet on which we live.

Oversight of these national parks are handled by the National Park Service, a division of the Interior Department. This oversight balances the preservation and maintenance of these protected environments with handling the large number of visitors who come to experience and gain perspective from these environments. The National Park Service also oversees a great number of historical sites from battlefields, trails, and forts to memorials, statues, and historical buildings. There are also several national monument sites that were designated by Presidents under the power of the Art and Antiquities Act. Many of these monuments could be considered a valuable natural environment that could place it in the national park designation, but it would require Congress to pass a law re-designating these monuments to national park status. However, probably for the benefit of visitors and a positive campaign touting their oversight, the National Park Service is very prominent is calling all of their 400+ protected sites as national parks. This campaign may be why Congress did not have any issue in re-designating the Gateway Arch from a national memorial to a national park. Like many Americans, the senators and representatives had become blind to the designation concept of a national park.

Now looking through the other designated national parks, some may argue that social and historical constructs had already pervaded the natural identity of a national park. The smallest US national park, Hot Springs National Park, has its borders entering the northern city limits of Hot Springs, Arkansas, in order to take in historical bathhouses that formed a key part in the area’s use of the hot spring water for health reasons. However, the national park was designated mainly to oversee and preserve the naturally heated waters caused by the underground pressures within the surrounding Ozark Mountains. The park boundaries circle within the mountain ridge around the northern neighborhood of Hot Springs where campgrounds have been set aside. In another of the newer national parks, Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio, the park boundaries surround several towns with a few schools and farms inside. When I visited the park eight years ago, I found it interesting to find a home up for sale in one of the towns within the park borders. As I understand, these town sections are not considered to be federal land nor technically part of the park. However, the reason for the designation of a national park was for the oversight and protection of the Cuyahoga River and the surrounding natural environment, since the Cuyahoga River was one of the first heavily polluted rivers that was successfully cleaned up, a major conservation act of nature. So, in comparison, the Gateway Arch is a major human-manufactured metallic structure designed solely as an artistic memorial based on a stretch of landscaped grassy areas along the shore of the Mississippi River next to an ornately domed historic courthouse in the downtown center of St. Louis. Nowhere in this description do I perceive a preservation of any sort of natural ecosystem associated with the concept of a truly designated national park. This was totally a socially grand memorial commemorating an historic era in the United States. It should have stayed a designated national memorial.

So how should this affect my bucket list of visiting all of the US National Parks? Even if I were to add the Gateway Arch to the national parks list, I will still be able to check it off as having been visited since it was a part of my Central Plains road trip last year, meaning I still have the same number of national parks left to visit. Of course, I still have my little slideshow of personal images from the national parks I have visited on another page of my website. Should I add a Gateway Arch image I took from my current visit last year to this slideshow? At this time, I will not, as I still do not consider this re-designation to truly fit within the natural concept of a national park.

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