Who Should Be Allowed to Purchase Privately Owned Lands in National Parks?

Candice Gaukel Andrews by Candice Gaukel Andrews | November 15th, 2012 | 7 Comments
topic: Eco Travel, Green Living

Zion National Park

Our national parks are our soul-restoring places; the spots we run to when we need to escape the constant clatter of civilization. They are where we go to see the last vestiges of wild America. And each of our national parks seems to have at least one iconic image that lives in our consciousness, whether we’ve actually seen it in person or not: landmarks such as El Capitan in Yosemite, the bubbling hot springs in Yellowstone, or the hoodoos in Bryce Canyon.

Now picture yourself standing on the rim of one of our national parks’ stunning canyons, looking out on nature’s beauty. You’re awed and inspired by the scene in front of you, until your eyes begin to register a structure that doesn’t seem to belong. Then you suddenly recognize what it is: a huge trophy home, with windows from floor to ceiling and a wraparound deck.

That could never happen, right? It could, and it almost did last month in one of our most treasured natural spaces.

Homes in a holy place

Imagine standing on the rim of one of our national park’s stunning canyons and seeing a huge trophy home in the distance. ©Steve Morello

On October 11, 2012, the Salt Lake Tribune reported that a parcel of land in Zion National Park came close to being sold to a developer whose intent was to build a tract of private homes at the base of Tabernacle Dome. Luckily for all of us, an anonymous donor put up the $825,000 to buy this critical piece of private land. The donor then gifted it to the National Park Service.

If you’ve been following this column, you’ve already debated whether the wealthy should buy up wild lands to create preserves in the face of government budget cuts. But what about privately owned lands that are already in conserved areas? Should those landowners have the right to sell or transfer their properties to anyone they wish, just as other private landowners do?

In 1964, Congress established the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which was to receive $900 million a year, paid for with offshore drilling royalties from oil companies. That money has historically been used to buy up private lands in national parks when landowners decided to sell. Today, however, Congress routinely spends two-thirds of this oil money on other programs, leaving the parks unable to compete with wealthy, private buyers.

In 2012, in fact, Congress allocated only $161 million to the parks for buying land as it comes up for sale. But according to the National Park Service, the price tag of the priority properties it is trying to protect is more than $2 billion. In the case of Zion National Park, there’s still a lot of private land that never got absorbed. There are homesteads on roughly 3,400 acres that were surrounded by 147,000 acres of parklands when Congress acquired the Kolob Canyon section in 1956 and annexed it to Zion. Over time, it was hoped, the park would eventually acquire those homesteads.

Currently, inside all U.S. national parks, there are 11,640 pieces of private land. With public monies dwindling, it is feared that someday soon you could hike into a protected valley and come upon a strip mall or a whole neighborhood of homes.

A standard worth striving for

Others would point out, however, that those more than 11,000 pieces of privately owned land represent just 3 percent of the total area of our national parks. Fortunately, most of our treasured places are still vast, open spaces. Some members of Congress even blame the park service for wasting money expanding park boundaries, instead of buying up the land inside them.


The Wilderness Act defines wilderness as the place “where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” ©Henry H. Holdsworth

There is much sympathy for the property owners themselves, too. Some of these lands have been in their families for decades, long before a park may have been established or before the land they own became a part of the park. Would you, as a landowner, want someone to dictate what you can and cannot do with your property and to whom it may be sold?

I think it’s timely to note that in 2014, the Wilderness Act will turn fifty. That act defines wilderness as the place “where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

Perhaps there is a message or a goal to aspire to in that.

Do you think private landowners in national parks should be allowed to sell their properties to anyone they wish, even developers? Or should such lands only be transferred to the National Park Service?

Happy trails,


Feature photo: There are 3,400 privately owned acres inside Zion National Park. Hopefully, this won’t result in sprawling subdivisions within the borders of one of our nation’s busiest natural treasures. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews


  1. Just a comment that not all National Parks exist for the sole purpose of allowing people a place to experience scenic & natural beauty. Some parks, such as “Kalaupapa National Historical Park” on the island of Molokai in Hawaii, were established in order to preserve the history of the PEOPLE who lived there. Activities such as camping, hiking, fishing are not the focus at Kalaupapa. The NPS (National Park Service) does not own any land at Kalaupapa, except for a small 5 acre parcel. The rest is owned by public & semi-public entities such as the the Department of Hawaiian Homelands & the Department of Land & Natural Resources of the State of.Hawaii

    MB | November 16th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  2. (sorry my post inadvertently posted before I was finished). The Department of Hawaiian Homelands (DHHL) and the Department of Land & Natural Resources (DLNR) of the State of Hawaii–these 2 entities are the landowners at Kalaupapa. How those entities acquired the lands at Kalaupapa is another thing (at one point there were private landowners at Kalaupapa). In any case, the NPS serves as a leaseholder & land manager at Kalaupapa National Historical Park, and my opinion is it is best for it to remain that way. There is NO need for the Federal government to own lands there. The DHHL & DLNR are not in the business of building strip malls & likely will never do so. And according to the article, considering the strapped budgets of the Fed government, they wouldn’t have enough money to purchase Kalaupapa anyway.

    MB | November 16th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  3. The land belong to the owners. As such they should be able to move on at some point when that time comes and receive the financial benefits or donate the land to the people. It should not be a government decision, unless the current owners were given a life lease, in exchange for granting the government the land at some time in the past.

    As for development of strip malls or residential gated communities, that should be avoided at all costs. But as the previous posted noted, with the current $16 Trillion debt (as of this date and rising), the government should not purchase the land outright, but rather work with people who are able to fund the purchase, again as noted in the above post was the case in Hawaii.

    It would be good to have all land in the control of the government. However, private ownership is provided in our founding documents and should be honored. That the original borders were drawn around these parcels suggests that there was a reason. Whether the government didn’t have the funds, as is now the case, or the people were not forced to donate, the lands have remained private.

    We need to respect the rights of the people, over the demands of government, whenever possible. If the government was not in “bankruptcy level debt” they could buy it. But as with anyone else who is in extreme debt, they have no right to force others to give up the land, when the owners decide to move on.

    We don’t have the funds to maintain many of our existing national park lands. Adding without budget considerations is not in the interest of the people.

    Mark Fuge | November 20th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  4. Since the world’s first National Park was established segments of the American community has found it part of their agenda to proclaim these parks simply as a means for states and individuals to prosper financially. Forgetting – as Roosevelt said – they are for the people. Today we continue to see parkland held up as collateral while blackmailing politicians. It is very simple – as long as the very attitudes that sent us into this great recession are allowed to float to the top our “Public Lands” and the greatness found there are in jeopardy.

    Brock Haley | November 20th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  5. National Parks are the needed peace in a busy world. The National Parks System brings families together and educates them. Private individuals living inside National Park boundaries wishing to sell their properties should receive an accurate offer of the land’s value from the government. Commercialization of the land should be avoided at all costs.

    Victoria Marie Lees | November 21st, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  6. I’ve seen some of that in Big Sur. It didn’t bother me that much, but I found it distracting.

    Travis | November 21st, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  7. Private property in and around parks when they’re formed should remain private until the owner decides to sell. At that time the government should have the option to purchase at fair market value or at least be given the right of first refusal. If that fails, areas that are single residence, no matter how large, should remain a single parcel, not to be divided.

    Art Hardy | November 24th, 2012 | Comment Permalink

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