Should We Stop Designating Lands As “National Parks”?

Candice Gaukel Andrews by Candice Gaukel Andrews | February 15th, 2010 | 16 Comments
topic: Eco Travel, Green Living

Yellowstone National Park

National parks need to be killed.

It’s a shocking idea I came across recently. Ken Burns’s newest PBS series aside, they’re doing more harm than good to our places of natural grandeur and dwindling native eco-systems.

I heard this idea for the first time last year, while reading an article by Jason Daley in an issue of Outside magazine. Daley posited that “killing ’em all” was the only way to save “the crown jewels of American public land.” But it wasn’t so much “America’s best idea” — according to Ken Burns’s subtitle of

Tracking wolves in Wisconsin

Tracking wolves at a “habitat management area” in northern Wisconsin attracts far fewer people than looking for them at a "national park." ©John T. Andrews.

The National Parks series — that needed to be done away with but the term itself. According to Daley, declaring an area a “national park” is just asking for it to be exploited. For example, says Daley, take a place on a map, color it a bright green, label it “national park,” and as if by magic, the number of visitors will double, triple, and then quadruple in a matter of years. Shade the same spot on a road atlas brown, give it a name like “monument” or “wildlife refuge,” and the count of the people who frequent it is frequently cut in half.

What’s in a Name?

Daley has a point. Once a place has reached the status of “national park,” you’ll find that the wildlife has been radio-collared and categorized, the mountains have big holes bored in them so highways can snake through, and towering cliffs are topped with grand hotels. How many snowmobiles are now allowed to pollute the air of Yellowstone each year? I lose count. And how many helicopter tour flights annually spew noise all over the hoodoos of Bryce and the gulches of the Grand Canyon? It’s in the double-digit thousands. If there’s a “national park,” I guarantee you’ll find a gift shop somewhere in it. Soon a highly sensitive area of great natural beauty is on the list of “must-sees” for almost everyone on the planet.

However, if we don’t set aside some natural lands as “national parks,” we risk losing them to strip malls and parking lots. If a singular phrase such as “national park” is a siren call attracting the masses, at least the categorization does make enacting a set of rules to manage all such lands easier. Much like creating an “Endangered Species List,” a list of “national parks” lets us know at a glance which lands are protected for all of us.

My Name is Legion.

Buffalo in Wisconsin

This photo wasn’t taken at a “national park,” but at a “wildlife area.” ©John H. Gaukel.

Perhaps we should jettison the term “national park” from here on out. Resolve not to name any new ones. Instead, we’ll get creative and diverse in titling our places of natural beauty, as Daley alluded to: “monument,” “refuge,” “nature center,” “way spot,” “haven,” “preserve,” “grassland,” “woodland,” “wilderness,” “sanctuary,” “green,” “barrens,” “commons,” “respite,” or “arboretum.” And we’ll try not to use a word or phrase too many times. Visits to any one place may drop, but your nature experience where you do go may truly become an encounter with the raw, untrammeled world.

Do you think we should do away with the term “national park”? Has your experience in one ever been less than what you hoped for because of crowding and the attendant tourist businesses?

How would you reorder the naming of your favorite natural places?

Happy trails,


Feature photo: Thousands are drawn to Yellowstone “National Park” for winter wolf watching.  ©John T. Andrews.


  1. i don’t know; that’s difficult to say. Where I come from (San Diego, CA), wherever there is even the smallest little field of an open area they say, O My, we should build condos/skyrises/malls here!!! So, the National parks and Reserves were so greatly appreciated by me because it meant no builders could get their hands on it.

    Grace | February 15th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  2. The Forestry Department and Bureau of Land Management are not falling short on their budgets. I think it’s best to let sleeping dogs lie with perhaps some modifications on land use within the parks, shifting to a more conservative view. Essentially, let the dog sleep but change the food dish when it isn’t looking.

    As for doing away with the term “national park” You can call it anything you want but each step you take away from federal management is another toward the rising cost to visit parks, outsourcing important jobs to foreigners, etc etc…

    Mixing politics with forestry is a bad idea because politics most common spawn is a business deal and that’s the last thing parks in this country need.

    Leave business and politics out of the parks, please.

    Phil Crimaldi | February 15th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  3. I’ve been struggling to get the local National Forest to be more sustainably managed for years, so to me the name “National Park” is a holy grail — at least they don’t clearcut the forests! I can see the point of trying to spread visitors out by redoing the naming scheme, but all of those names really do mean different things from a management perspective. Maybe if we upgraded the protection on our other types of green spaces so that they were as natural as national parks, our parks wouldn’t get loved to death?

    Anna | February 15th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  4. Developers are on the rise and grabbing land is their priority. They have political means to get what they want. Having no opposition will allow them to mine the life as we know it, out our planet. We have to support a reserved public or possibly even non public lands. Local levels should not be overlooked.

    Glen | February 15th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  5. Be careful what you wish for. Utah right now has a bill in its state House of Representatives that’s an effort to take back federal lands. One of the driving powers behind that resolution wants to turn the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Park into a strip mine for coal. That’s the danger you face.

    Be Careful | February 16th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  6. If I remember my highschool history right, wasn”t it the Vikings that did the name game thing first? They discovered a island they liked, settled it and called it Iceland, so people wouldn”t come. They also discovered another island and called it Greenland, so people would go there first. The thinking was that after you had seen how harsh and cold Greenland was who would want to go to a place called Iceland. I guess their thinking was ahead of the times! I don”t think in this information age using a deceptive name would work. I wonder how long the parks system would last if no one or very few people showed interest in them? I am well aware of the saying ” we love our parks to death”. But isn”t that better than saying ” very few show any interest in the parks so why have them ” ?

    John H Gaukel | February 16th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  7. I agree that the national parks and even the state parks can get over crowded, but at the same time the national parks were areas of land set aside for us and future generations to be able to enjoy nature with out the influence of mankind. I visit Wisconsin State Parks at least once a year for a 4 day camping trip and also do a few day trips throughout the year. I absolutely love being away from regular life during that time. I have to say that one thing I am always conscious of is leaving the area I was in the same way or better then I found it. It is really a shame that others do not respect the land to do the same. I do agree we need to have less roads going through the parks and less development right on the boards of the parks. These areas were meant to be enjoyed not only for their beauty but also for the peaceful, quiet serenity that they provide. The parks should help us remember that life and this planet is more then just possessions and money. In the end if it takes a change in name for people to truly respect the land that was set aside for us to observe, enjoy and preserve then I agree that is what we should do.

    Matt | February 16th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  8. National Parks should be kept, under whatever name.
    For example, in Chile there are ‘national parks’ and ‘national reserves’. The name ‘reserve’ implies that a higher level of protection is needed [whether for landscape, animals or birds].

    How they – national parks, national reserves, whatever the name – ought to be managed may be quite a different matter and I assume this differs per country, or even per region. If given the option, I still prefer some helicopters flying above a national park than having it erased off the map because of another shopping mall. There is always the question of cost and profit. If by flying these helicopters some money is brought in to – in a larger plan – maintain the national park and its treasures, maybe that is not such a bad thing [albeit far from ideal], considering the alternative.

    Karin-Marijke Vis | February 16th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  9. I can think of several substitute names that would attract a few loyalists, but deter the throng:

    1. Colonel Spruce Tree’s Fresh Air Factory
    2. Children Go Missing Here
    3. Bearland

    Fern | February 17th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  10. I’ve always been fond of Arboretum because of Madison ties.

    Travis John | February 17th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  11. Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet? These areas were beautiful before our names were attached to them, but their beauty is faded somewhat by the amount of use they receive. I’m less concerned with what they call these areas than I am with how the balance the good that comes with increased tourism dollars versus the bad of increased tourism visits.

    Art Hardy | February 19th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  12. Conceptually, the idea of not calling National Parks “National Parks” so that visitation and “development” is lessened sounds appealing. But terms like “refuge” and “wilderness” prompt those opposed to preserving natural landscapes to argue that the land will be “locked up” or that “only the elitists can go there.”

    Making some parts of the natural world accessible to everyone leads to a great appreciation on the part of greater numbers of people of why saving these areas (instead of paving them over or exploiting natural resources found within them) benefits mankind. And not every part of a national park is easily accessible. Many areas are designated as “wilderness” where there is no development or entry via mechanized transport. (I vividly remember a tourist at Lassen National Park complaining about the lack of a paved highway to the top of that park’s namesake peak).

    Finally, “national park” designation provides a great level of protection for these natural areas than “national monument” or “national wildlife refuge.”

    Dick Jordan, Freelance Travel Writer/Photographer at Tales Told From The Road

    Dick Jordan | February 24th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  13. I don’t really think merely changing a term will make a difference. The problem is that there will always be an economic incentive to develop wilderness areas, so if we want to preserve them we need to offer an incentive against development. Tourism provides one way to accomplish this; that said, stricter regulations on tourist activities are probably helpful.

    Nine Quiet Lessons | February 24th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  14. “NO!”

    R. K. Lindorff | February 24th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  15. These are the crown jewels of the Nation. Locking them away is very un-American. While being “loved to death” is a significant risk, the answer is responsible regulation of their use. There are plenty of absolutely outstanding places that have been trashed because their use was not adequately regulated. At the same time, there are national and state parks that are under utilized. Smart regulations, like those at Danali, work. We can manage the resource right; it’s not easy but it is can be done. Pretending we can change the use merely by changing the legal designation is wishful thinking.

    Mark Horn | February 28th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  16. It is NOT the name. It is that we usually give nat’l park status to places great enough throngs of people do want to go AND they automatically gain more funding to lay all that pavement. Forget about the name and just cut funding for all projects that are new or expanding upon the old AND overlay any area that is more than 10% not man made. Simple, logical, AND it saves money. In other words keep spending money on employees, improving existing structures, maintenance, and supporting wildlife and nature but stop building new roads, wider roads, new buildings and structures or making any larger than what they already are. If you don’t make roads, parking, campgrounds, and lodges bigger then guess what? yep, it limits use and stops the further defacement of nature. Probably too logical for silly humans though, or should I say sheeple.

    Thinking | August 5th, 2010 | Comment Permalink

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