Blog Post Jennifer Errick Oct 24, 2013

Why Don’t States Run National Parks?

Do we need a National Park Service? Why don't states control national park lands and resources? Here are 5 critical reasons.

Earlier this month, several states helped lessen the economic hardship from the federal government shutdown by opening a handful of national parks on a case-by-case basis while the rest of the National Park System was closed. It is a testament to the importance of these places that governors were willing to contribute from their own limited resources to welcome visitors to Arches, the Grand Canyon, Rocky Mountain, the Statue of Liberty, and eight other national parks for several days. It was, of course, only a short-term solution, but one that helped some of the small businesses, contractors, and concessionaires that depend on the tourist revenue that national parks generate.

The money that states contributed went toward funding the federal Park Service staff that would normally have been in place at these parks—the states did not actually manage these sites themselves during the shutdown. But it raises an interesting question. Why does the federal government have jurisdiction over these parks in the first place? Why not let individual states manage the sites within their boundaries?

Turns out, there are many good reasons. Here are five.

1. Shared ownership and history

There is a quote by Mollie Beattie, former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: “What a country chooses to save is what a country chooses to say about itself." 

National parks are unique, highly special places. Together, these sites tell the story of who we are as Americans. The Statue of Liberty is not just a symbol of pride to New Yorkers—it speaks to an immigrant experience shared by thousands of people around the country. Likewise, the Grand Canyon, the Everglades, the Lincoln Memorial, and Yosemite are places that unite us as a nation and inspire us as a people. We all own them, not just the residents of Arizona, Florida, Washington, or California. Their meaning transcends state boundaries.

A strong majority of Americans recognize this significance. In a non-partisan survey conducted jointly by Hart & Associates and North Star last year, 95% of Americans said that managing national parks is an appropriate federal role. Watch bison roam the meadows of Yellowstone, tour Gettysburg’s hallowed battlefields, or peer into the ancient cliff dwellings at Bandelier and it is easy to understand why.

2. Stronger environmental protections.

The protection of national parks is guaranteed by bedrock federal environmental laws. In addition to strong safeguards enacted under the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, the Park Service bases its management policies on the Organic Act, a federal law that established the agency nearly a century ago. The Organic Act states: “The service thus established shall … conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and … provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” While state laws vary, all 401 sites within the National Park System are uniformly governed by this fundamental conservation ethic. The Park Service translates this mandate into strict standards that maintain pristine natural conditions with healthy land, water, air, and wildlife. This stringent level of protection simply does not apply to state lands.

3. Deeper citizen involvement

National parks are governed by a law called the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA—one of the most important environmental laws in the country. NEPA requires that federal agencies must measure the environmental impacts of any proposed actions that would affect federal lands, and must also allow public comment on these proposals. This means that we as Americans not only own these places together, we have a right to tell the Park Service (or the Bureau of Land Management, or the Environmental Protection Agency, etc.) that we agree or disagree with how they want to handle a particular issue that affects our parks. Whether it’s reintroducing a threatened rodent to its traditional habitat or protecting Alaskan headwaters from mining pollution, these public comments can and do influence national park policies—and we all have a say.

4. Highly trained workforce

National Park Service rangers and staff members are perhaps the most valuable resource available to national parks. Because the Park Service is a federal agency, its staff must maintain uniformly high standards throughout the system, so that each park site is adequately cared for, whether it is as popular as Yellowstone or as remote as Aniakchak. Federal law enforcement rangers have rapid access to national resources during emergencies and intimate knowledge of the laws that apply within their jurisdictions to keep the parks and the people within them safe. These rangers know exactly where sensitive resources are within each park site and work with specialists to protect threatened and endangered species and archaeologically important artifacts.

Because the Park Service manages such diverse sites with unique qualities and preservation concerns, many park rangers and field staff have specialized expertise in environmental and historic issues. National parks are home to wildlife that exists nowhere else, the most vast wilderness areas in the country, and some of the nation’s oldest and most distinctive buildings. A park botanist, for example, may need to know exactly how to monitor some of the last known instances of a particular plant species in the wild—and what to do if those plants start to show signs of stress or disease. Likewise, federal maintenance workers have experience and knowledge uniquely suited to protecting park property and resources—including how to maintain water treatment and irrigation systems that allow endangered animals to thrive and heat and cool buildings with environmentally sensitive artifacts and specimens.

Park interpreters also have a deep knowledge of the stories behind these parks and what makes them special. They bring the history of these sites to life, whether it’s insight into how soldiers prepared for a battle, why a particular bird migrates the way it does, or the precise way that Harry and Bess Truman set their dining room table. This is not to say that state park officials lack knowledge or training, but that federal management offers consistent and stringent protection for our country’s superlative natural and cultural sites. Park officials not only know how to care for all of these resources, they devote extensive educational programs to sharing this knowledge with the public—because collectively, these national parks tell the story of America.

5. Increased tourism

National parks are recognized as premier tourist destinations and marketed internationally as a prime reason to visit America. As a result, they support more than $30 billion in economic activity each year and more than 252,000 private-sector jobs in communities around the country. Tourists intentionally seek out national park destinations when they travel because they understand these sites are the very best our country has to offer. And whereas state and local park information varies greatly from place to place, visitors to national parks can expect consistent, reliable resources for planning and enjoying their trips—from comprehensive online information to quality hiking maps to well-maintained trails.

Don’t get me wrong: I love state and local parks. I live in Maryland and regularly enjoy the wonderful parks near my home, whether it’s hiking along the banks of Jug Bay, swimming at Herrington Manor, or biking the Northwest Branch Trail. I even got married in a county park! But if you’ve never heard of these places, it’s because they primarily attract locals like me. Visitors expect something different when they enter a national park—they expect a world-class experience. And that’s exactly what the Park Service gives them.

About the author

  • Jennifer Errick Managing Editor of Online Communications

    Jennifer co-produces NPCA's podcast, The Secret Lives of Parks, and writes and edits a wide variety of online content. She has won multiple awards for her audio storytelling.

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