Blog Post Elise Russell Liguori Dec 12, 2014

Historic 'Parks Package' Passes Congress

An FAQ with details on today's enormous bipartisan win for national parks.

Today, Congress authorized the largest expansion of the National Park System since 1978 by passing the National Defense Authorization Act (H.R. 3979): a remarkable achievement. This legislation includes a public lands title with more than a dozen park bills and represents an enormous bipartisan win that celebrates America’s public lands and history and truly shows how national parks can unify Congress.

NPCA and its supporters have worked for years to achieve some of these important park victories, including nearly all of the seven new parks and nine park expansions in the package. In fact, this package will make 12 of NPCA’s top priorities for new and expanded parks a reality for the National Park System—including several important initiatives that stalled in the previous Congress.

Here is a breakdown of what the bill contains and what it will mean for our park system.

Q: What new national park sites will this bill create?

A: The bill will create seven new national park sites and it will expand nine existing sites.

New national park units

  • Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park (Rhode Island and Massachusetts)
  • Coltsville National Historical Park (Connecticut)
  • Harriet Tubman National Historical Park (New York)
  • Manhattan Project National Historical Park (New Mexico, Tennessee, and Washington)
  • Valles Caldera National Preserve (New Mexico)
  • Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument (Nevada)
  • National World War I Memorial (Washington, D.C.)

Park expansions

  • Apostle Islands National Lakeshore (Wisconsin)
  • First State National Historical Park (Delaware)
  • Gettysburg National Military Park (Pennsylvania)
  • Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park (Maryland, separate from the new site in New York)
  • Hinchliffe Stadium, Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park (New Jersey)
  • Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserve (Oregon)
  • San Antonio Missions National Historical Park (Texas)
  • Vicksburg National Military Park (Mississippi)
  • Lower East Side Tenement Museum National Historic Site (New York)

In addition, Congress authorized eight formal resource studies to determine whether other sites would be appropriate for future inclusion in the National Park System. These eight study areas are:

  • The Lower Mississippi Delta area of Louisiana, a region of the South with historic and strategically placed Civil War forts and a unique cultural history
  • Sites honoring the legacy of the Buffalo Soldiers; a trail tracing the route of the 9th U.S. Cavalry’s trek from the Presidio to Sequoia Kings Canyon is one possible park site
  • Mill Springs Battlefield, the site of a January 1862 Civil War battle in Kentucky
  • Rota, one of the 15 islands that make up the Commonwealth of Lower Mariana in the western Pacific Ocean
  • Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument, a memorial in Brooklyn, New York, to the more than 11,500 prisoners of war who died as captives in British ships during the Revolutionary War
  • Sites related to the Flushing Remonstrance in Queens, New York, where Quakers in 1657 protested a ban on being able to worship, inspiring the founding American principle of freedom of religion in the Bill of Rights
  • West Hunter Street Baptist Church, a site in Atlanta, Georgia, that served as a headquarters for many in the Civil Rights movement during the 1960s
  • New Philadelphia, Illinois, the first town in the United States planned and registered by an African American

Q: What other public lands will be created or supported through this bill?

A: The bill renews funding for 15 national heritage areas until 2021. The legislation also designates 245,000 new acres of federally protected wilderness and shields 430,000 acres along the North Fork of the Flathead River near Glacier National Park in Montana from future mining and drilling.

Q: When do these new and expanded park sites become official?

A: Most of these lands will officially become part of the National Park System when the president signs the bill into law, which could happen as soon as this coming week. (Update: President Obama signed the bill into law on Friday, December 19.) Establishing staff and services at each new park site will vary by location and could take several years. Several of the park establishment bills (the Manhattan Project sites, the Harriet Tubman site in New York, and Coltsville) have to meet certain technical conditions determined by the Secretary of the Interior before they officially become units of the National Park System.

Q: How have NPCA supporters helped to win these victories?

A: NPCA and its supporters have worked for years to establish many of these parks, including robust citizen efforts since 2008 to preserve irreplaceable fossils at Tule Springs, Nevada, and concerted efforts for a decade seeking to establish sites honoring Harriet Tubman in Maryland and New York. NPCA has played a strong supporting role championing legislation to establish a Manhattan Project National Historic Site for years. Persistent advocacy on NPCA’s priority new park initiatives has helped reinforce the bipartisan congressional support for these public lands—12 of these priorities are now finally moving forward as part of this new legislative package. The effort to protect lands outside of Glacier National Park has been years in the making.

Q: Does NPCA support everything that passed as part of this bill?

A: No. Several provisions that passed are problematic for national parks, including a measure to rebuild a park road through a flood-prone area of North Cascades National Park in Washington and a provision that will change the off-road vehicle plan at Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina in a way that threatens park wildlife. The bill also allows expanded grazing in areas that could have an adverse impact on sensitive wildlife habitat.

One particularly controversial land exchange will allow a company to mine in national forest land in Arizona that is sacred to the Apache Tribe. NPCA had no part in crafting or supporting this measure, which does not affect national park land, nor did NPCA seek to include this measure as part of the legislative package. We encourage concerned Americans to write to their members of Congress to express their views on the measure.

Despite these concerns, two dozen bills in this package will greatly enhance the National Park System and benefit the American public.

Q: Don’t we have enough national parks already? Why do we need new sites like these?

A: As history evolves, our national park system must grow to continue to represent the best of our country. NPCA believes our National Park System should always be a work in progress. That means ensuring new national parks reflect who we are as Americans. Women, Latinos, Asian-Pacific Islanders, and other Americans are still underrepresented in the National Park System. Science is also underrepresented in the National Park System. This legislation goes a long way toward telling more of the diverse stories of our shared heritage.

Q: What will this cost taxpayers?

A: The total amount is unclear, but in the scope of the federal budget, investing in national park sites is a minor expense that pays big dividends to surrounding communities. Some of the new and expanded parks are projected to cost very little; Valles Caldera, for example, is currently a unit of the National Forest System, and the management costs will essentially be transferred from one federal agency to another. Likewise, the Manhattan Project sites will continue to be owned by the Department of Energy, with the National Park Service managing for historic preservation and interpretation. Some lands at other sites are expected to be donated, as is the case with Gettysburg and Vicksburg. Other parks would require additional new funding to manage and establish visitor services.

To put this in perspective: Less than 1/14 of 1% of the federal budget currently goes to the National Park Service. The average American household pays only $2.56 in taxes each year for all of our national parks. Meanwhile, the payback to communities is enormous. Every dollar of the federal budget that is invested in national park operations generates about $10 for local economies, including spending on hotels, campsites, restaurants, equipment rentals, guided tours, and many other goods and services.

In the case of San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, a recent economic report estimates that the return in local economic activity could be even greater—as much as $20 for every federal dollar invested.

Q: What can I do to support this measure?

A: Nothing more—persistent advocacy has already helped to win this incredible victory. However, those wishing to continue the push for important new national park sites can subscribe to NPCA’s news and alerts to stay current on all of NPCA’s national park protection priorities.

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