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Is It Too Big?

Written by Dennis Sun

Last week I wrote about the National Park System and its centennial anniversary this year. First off, national parks are easy to pick on because each of us has a different idea on how to manage or how not to manage them. Those who live next or close to them and are most likely impacted the most should have a say in management of both the human element and wildlife.

So do we have enough national parks, or do we need a better way of establishing a national park? Our national park centennial this year gives an opportunity to reflect on our system’s enormous growth and change since its inception. From a mere handful of national parks scattered across the West in 1916, the system now exceeds over 401 parks, stretching across all 50 states and covering around 84 million acres. That is right – 84 million acres. It contains, of course, national parks, monuments, preserves, recreation areas, seashores, battlefields and heritage areas, along with nearly a dozen other specific designations, all deemed nationally significant enough to merit a place in the system. In the last several years, both Congress and the President have added several more national monuments, and the President is planning to add some more before he leaves office.

This rapid growth in the national park system presents the question of how the additions come about. Is the process for new additions proper and detailed enough? Under existing law, Congress and the President are each empowered to add new areas to the national park system. Congress adds new parks through the legislative process. They pass a bill, and the President signs it. The President does the same through the Antiquities Act, which gives him the authority to proclaim new national monuments on public lands, except in Wyoming and Alaska where Congress also has to pass it.

Several factors help to explain the lack of extensive recent growth in the national park system, especially in the absent of new, large “national parks.” Since the 1960s, the option of alternative protective designations – wilderness areas, primitive areas, national conservation areas and other designations, have been available to protect deemed sensitive lands, rather than creating a new national park. Ironically, these alternative protective designations were developed in part as a reaction to the Park Service’s early practices for overbuilding in the national parks. It seems intense government agency turf battles, particularly between the Park Service and the Forest Service, have frequently blocked proposals to transfer national forest lands to the park service, while the new National Landscape Conservation System gives the Bureau of Land Management a much more prominent role in land conservation.

Also because many new park designation proposals involve lower elevation lands with intermingled private lands and conflicting uses, such as livestock grazing or energy development, there is more potential for conflict over proposed new additions today than was present in the past. Moreover, public lands preservation efforts in any form have become a political lightning rod across much of the West, often serving as a wedge issue between economic development advocates, such as ranchers, and land conservation organizations or green-minded people.

I do think is is time to review and change the process for designating all lands to these conservation designations. I also believe it should take more than just a president’s signature to establish a monument designation for public lands. There should be input from local government and citizens along with congressional approval.