Redistributed as a Service of the National Library for the Environment*
National Park System:
Carol Hardy Vincent
April 16, 1999
The National Park System contains 378 units throughout the nation. They are administered by the National Park Service of the Department of the Interior. The National Park System encompasses 83.4 million acres of land - 77.4 million acres federally owned and 6.0 million acres of private and other public land (e.g. state land) within NPS unit boundaries. Units range in size from less than one acre to more than 13 million acres. Nearly two-thirds of the total acreage is in Alaska.
In 1872, Congress created Yellowstone, the world's first national park. Subsequently, the nation slowly developed a system of national parks. While some new areas were administered by DOI, others were managed by different agencies. A 1916 law created NPS within DOI to protect existing and future parks, monuments, and other areas. It charged NPS with promoting and regulating the use of those areas both to conserve them and to provide for their enjoyment by the public. A 1933 executive order furthered the development of a national system by transferring dozens of sites to NPS from other agencies. The General Authorities Act of 1970 made explicit that all areas managed by NPS were part of a single system, and gave all units of the system equal standing with regard to resource protection. However, statutes authorizing particular units sometimes provide additional management direction for those units.
Today, there are more than 20 different types of designations for units of the National Park System, reflecting the diversity of the areas. There are 54 units called national parks, the so-called "crown jewels" of the system. Other commonly used titles include national historic sites (77), national monuments (73), national historical parks (38), national memorials (28), national recreation areas (19), and national preserves (16). Some classifications are unique to NPS, while others, such as national recreation areas and national trails, also are used by other land management agencies. In recent years, Congress and NPS have attempted to simplify and standardize classifications. 1
Units of the system generally are managed to preserve resources in their natural or historical conditions for the benefit of future generations. Thus, hunting, mining, and other consumptive resource uses generally are not allowed. However, in the laws creating units, Congress sometimes has specified that some of those uses are allowed.
Creating Monuments by Presidential Proclamation
Additions to the National Park System usually are made by act of Congress. However, national monuments may be added to the system by presidential proclamation, as well as by act of Congress. The Antiquities Act of 1906 (16 U.S.C. 431 et seq.) authorizes the President to create national monuments on federal land that contains historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, or other objects of historic or scientific interest. 2 The President is to reserve "the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management" of the protected objects.
More than 100 monuments have been proclaimed by many Presidents since 1906. Congress has subsequently converted many of them, such as the Grand Canyon, to national parks. National monuments typically are managed by NPS. A prominent exception is the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, which is managed by the Bureau of Land Management under the 1996 presidential proclamation.
Adding Units by Public Law
Except for proclaimed monuments, National Park System units are created by act of Congress. An act may explain the unit's purpose; set its boundaries; provide specific directions for land acquisition, planning, management, and operations; and authorize appropriations for acquisition and development. Bills to create units are within the jurisdiction of the House Committee on Resources and the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, with appropriations typically contained in Department of the Interior and Related Agencies Appropriations Acts.
In recent years, Congress sometimes has enacted free-standing legislation to add units to the National Park System. Congress also has authorized units as part of omnibus parks and recreation laws containing dozens of recreation-related measures. Measures sometimes are packaged to facilitate broad evaluation of an issue and to expedite consideration. Legislation creating a new unit may be preceded by legislation to authorize an NPS study of the area, as described below.
Provisions of law, together with NPS policies, affect Congress's consideration of measures to create units of the National Park System. 3 In 1998, Congress amended existing law pertaining to the creation of new units (P.L. 105-391) to standardize procedures, improve the information about potential additions, prioritize areas, focus attention on outstanding areas, and ensure congressional support for area studies. Current law charges the Secretary of the Interior with investigating, studying, and monitoring nationally significant areas with potential for inclusion in the system. In the past, the National Park System Advisory Board, composed of private citizens, advised the Secretary on possible additions to, and policies for management of, the system. In practice, NPS performs the functions assigned to the Secretary.
Recommending Areas for Study
The Secretary of the Interior is required by law to submit annually to Congress a list of areas recommended for study for potential inclusion in the National Park System. Candidates for study are identified by diverse sources, such as local "grassroots" preservation interests, elected officials, and professional evaluations. The Secretary's annual list for Congress of damaged or threatened areas on the Registry of Natural Landmarks and the National Register of Historic Places also has been used to identify study sites. NPS screens candidates, in some cases conducting a brief site visit or a more detailed reconnaissance survey to assess an area. NPS ranks areas that pass the initial screening, and the highest priority areas are recommended to Congress for study Any detailed study for inclusion in the system requires congressional authorization.
Under 16 U.S.C. la-S, NPS must consider three issues in assessing whether to study particular areas: whether an area is nationally significant, and would be a suitable and feasible addition to the National Park System; whether an area represents or includes themes, sites, or resources "not adequately" represented in the system; and requests for studies in the form of public petitions and congressional resolutions (the "popular demand" factor).
Preparing Area Studies
Under the 1998 statute (P.L. 105-391), any actual study requires "specific authorization of an Act of Congress." However, NPS may conduct preliminary activities, such as a resource assessment, provided that the activity does not cost more than $25,000. In the past, studies were directed by authorization and appropriations laws and prepared at the initiative of NPS, individual Members of Congress, and other entities. The 1998 statute sought to eliminate these separate sources for initiating studies, on the grounds that in some years funding was insufficient to cover all studies, and ongoing studies sometimes were not completed because funds were earmarked for other studies. Nevertheless, the new law does not appear to explicitly require a preliminary study before Congress adds a unit to the system.
After funds are made available, NPS must complete a study within 3 fiscal years. Studies are to include public involvement, with at least one public meeting held in the local area, and reasonable efforts to notify affected state and local governments and landowners. Studies also are to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA), which requires an assessment of the potential impact of the proposed action on the human environment Criteria for Studies. In preparing studies, when directed by Congress, NPS must consider certain factors established in law to promote the consistency and professionalism of the studies. The factors elaborate on criteria long included in NPS policies. NPS is directed to assess whether an area contains natural or cultural resources that are nationally significant, constitutes one of the most important examples of a type of resource, and presents a suitable and feasible addition to the system.
The NPS has developed criteria for determining national significance, suitability, and feasibility. An area will be regarded as nationally significant if it is an outstanding example of a resource; exceptionally illustrates or interprets our nation's natural or cultural themes; provides extraordinary opportunities for recreation, public use, or scientific study; and contains a true, accurate, and relatively unspoiled resource. 4
In the past, NPS has considered recreational areas, as well as natural and cultural ones, in evaluating national significance, and has developed examples of each kind. (The Advisory Board has recommended that recreation alone not be used to evaluate national significance.) A nationally significant natural area might be a refuge that is critical for the survival of a species. Cultural areas might include districts, sites, structures, or objects of exceptional quality in interpreting our nation's heritage, such as those with distinctive architectural types. Cultural entities generally exclude cemeteries, birth places, graves, religious properties, relocated structures, reconstructed buildings, and properties of significance within the past 50 years. A qualif~ing recreational area might have a natural or cultural aspect that offers a unique setting for varied types of recreation.
NPS views an area as suitable if it portrays a theme or resource insufficiently included in the system, unless a similar area is managed for public use by another agency. An area is feasible to add if it is large enough, configured so as to allow long-term protection and public use, and affordable to manage. Other important issues involve ownership of the land and the cost of acquiring it, access, threats to resources, and staff or development requirements. For instance, privately owned land that the owner is unwilling to sell, or that would be expensive to acquire, might not be viewed as feasible.
Under 16 U.S.C. la-5, NPS studies must evaluate other factors about an area, including the rarity and integrity of the resources; resource threats; whether similar resources already are protected; the probable costs of its acquisition, development, and operation; the socioeconomic effects of adding it; the interpretive and educational uses; the potential for public use; the extent of public, including local, support; and whether the configuration ensures long-term protection and use.
Other Management Options. In studying an area, NPS must consider whether NPS management or alternative protection is appropriate. Options noted in NPS management policies include administration by other federal agencies, state or local governments, Native American authorities, and the private sector. Consideration may be given to other forms of aid, such as technical or financial; other designations, including national trail or national historic landmark; and cooperative management between NPS and another agency. NPS generally will not recommend adding an area to the National Park System if another arrangement already provides, or could provide for, sufficient protection and public use. The study must identify the best alternative(s) for protecting resources and allowing public enjoyment. Each study sent to Congress must be accompanied by a letter from the Secretary that identifies the preferred management option for the area, so as to minimize uncertainty about NPS's position.
Lists of Areas Previously Studied
The NPS also must submit to Congress an annual list of areas previously studied that contain primarily historical resources, and a similar list of areas with natural resources. Areas are to be ranked in order of priority for potential addition to the National Park System, based upon the expanded criteria for determining the rankings contained in law. In developing the lists, the Secretary of the Interior is required to consider not only threats to resource values and cost escalation factors, but the issues considered when preparing the initial studies. Areas on the lists must be supported by accurate and current data.
The addition of units to the National Park System sometimes has been controversial. Some discourage adding units, arguing that the system is "mature" or "complete," while others assert that the system should evolve and grow to reflect current events, new information, and reinterpretations. Differences exist on the relative importance of including areas reflecting our natural, cultural, and social history. The adequacy of standards and procedures for assuring that the most outstanding areas are included in the system also has been a subject of much debate. Critics contend that the system has been weakened by including inappropriate areas, especially where authoritative information was unavailable, incomplete, or disregarded in favor of political considerations. Others counter that there will always be disagreement over the worth of areas, and that recently added areas have been held to the same high standards as older units. How to properly maintain existing and new units given limited resources also has been at issue. Some have cited existing NPS fiscal and staffing constraints in arguing against creating new units, particularly without a commensurate increase in NPS funds; supporters of new units have charged that the older units are the most costly. Another issue has been whether particular resources are better protected outside the National Park System, and how to secure the best alternative protection.
Alternatives to Inclusion in the National Park System
It is generally regarded as difficult to meet the criteria and to secure congressional support and funding for expanding the National Park System. Although there may be hundreds or thousands of related inquiries to Congress and the NPS, usually no more than a handful of new units are created each Congress.
Significant areas are preserved outside the National Park System. Some of these are protected with recognition or assistance by the NPS. Certain areas that receive technical or financial aid from the NPS, but are neither federally owned nor directly administered by the NPS, have been classified by the NPS as affiliated areas. In the past, the affiliated areas have been given special recognition by Congress, and have included an array of properties primarily recognized for cultural or commemorative worth. Affiliated areas have been created by act of Congress and by designation of the Secretary of the Interior.
National Heritage Areas, a designation recently established by Congress, contain land and properties that reflect the history of their people. They consist mainly of private properties and may include natural, scenic, historic, cultural, or recreation resources. Conservation, interpretation, and other activities are handled by partnerships among federal, state, and local governments and nonprofit organizations, and for each area Congress has recognized a "management entity" to coordinate efforts. The NPS supports these efforts through technical and financial assistance, usually for a temporary period. Supporters of Heritage Areas have asserted that they reduce pressure to add new, costly, and possibly inappropriate areas to the National Park System, while opponents have feared that they could be used to extend federal control over nonfederal land. Differences also have existed over whether to create a comprehensive heritage program containing priorities and standards for establishing Heritage Areas.
Some programs give places honorary recognition. Cultural resources may be listed by the NPS in the National Register of Historic Places, as meriting preservation and special consideration in planning for federal or federally assisted projects. The Secretary of the Interior may designate natural areas as national natural landmarks, and cultural areas as national historic landmarks. National parks, monuments, and other areas of international worth may, at the request of the United States, be recognized by the United Nations as world heritage sites or biosphere reserves. The Congress, or the Secretary of the Interior, may designate rivers as components of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, and trails as part of the National Trails System.
NPS experts and programs support local and state governments in protecting resources. The NPS may provide grants for projects (including acquisition and development of recreational facilities), and technical assistance (for conserving rivers, trails, natural areas, and cultural resources). In addition to this broad range of NPS programs, a variety of resources are protected by the private sector, state and local governments, and other federal agencies. (See CRS Report 98-991 ENR, Federal Land Management Agencies: Background on Land and Resources Management.)
1 A brief definition for each classification, together with a description of each unit of the system, is included in U.S. Dept. of the Interior, National Park Service, Office of Public Affairs and the Division of Publications, The National Parks: Index 1997-1999, (Washington: GPO, 1997).
2 Extensions or establishment of monuments in Wyoming require the authorization of Congress (16 U.S.C. 431a), and withdrawals in Alaska exceeding 5,000 acres are subject to congressional approval (16 U.S.C. 3213).
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