This episode of America’s National Parks was hosted by Jason Epperson, with audio from Ed Rizzotto: The Importance of Urban Parks.

Listen below, or on any podcast app:

The National Park designation has become one of the most prestigious terms in the English language. National Parks have stirred the imagination of Americans ever since they were dreamed up, and a recent focus has been sparked by the confluenc of social sharing like YouTube and Instagram, the park service’s recent 100th anniversary celebrated in 2016, and incredible documentaries like Ken Burns’ “America’s Best Idea.” But the structure of the National Park System remains a mystery to many casual visitors — some of it’s even confusing to the National Park expert. What exactly makes a National Park?

This popularity, combined with politics and the promise of tourism dollars, have driven government officials to leverage the Park system to fit their agendas in recent years. It’s time to step back, take a look at the whole picture, and take stock of what we have and what we haven’t.

I thought we’d take a look at the park system, how it’s actually structured, and show why our focuses are often severely misdirected. Who are the parks for, and how do we decide what a park is?

There are 419 units in the National Park system, and only 62 of them have the congressional designation of “National Park,” including the most recent, White Sands National Park. White Sands was formerly a National Monument, as many National Parks were at one time. National Monuments are places declared reserved for the public by the President of the United States. Most are managed by the Park Service, but not all. National Parks, however, must be named by Congress. In addition to Monuments and National Parks, we have National Battlefields, National Battlefield Parks, National Battlefield Sites, National Military Parks, National Historical Parks, National Historic Sites, International Historic Sites, National Lakeshores, National Memorials, National Parkways, National Preserves, National Reserves, National Recreation Areas, National Rivers, National Wild and Scenic Rivers and Riverways, National Scenic Trails and National Seashores.

So…it’s a bit of a mess, and though the Park Service has guidelines for nomenclature, Congress can essentially call something whatever it wants. In the end, the National Park Service calls them all National Parks. They are all managed under the exact same parameters, and there is no special funding or any other benefit to having the congressional National Park designation.

That surprises a lot of people. In the last few years, three new congressionally designated National Parks have joined the fray. White Sands, along with Indiana Dunes National Park, and Gateway Arch National Park.

All three were already National Park Service units, and quite literally, the only change for their operation was removing and replacing signage, badges, brochures, and the like.

Now, here’s the problem. For all three of these parks, local members of Congress lobbied hard for the name change, openly touting the increased tourism it would bring. And they weren’t wrong. Indiana Dunes is probably the best example, with visitation increasing 21% the year after the new National Park status.

But why? Are we so addle minded as Americans that we don’t accept the beauty and splendor of a place without a name change? Do we really skip all these other wonderful places because they don’t have National Park in the title? Unfortunately, for a lot of people, the name really is the thing. Which I suppose is why there was a lot of anger when Gateway Arch National Park was announced.

Gateway Arch was formerly the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, and it consists of the Arch, of course, and the Old Courthouse (where the landmark Dred Scot case was tried) and a museum representing the location on the St. Louis Riverfront as the ceremonial beginning of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.

Some thought naming it for the arch diminished the importance of the Courthouse. Others thought it too small. Most, frankly, just think a National Park is a large expanse of beautiful nature, and Gateway just didn’t fit the bill.

I think we’re missing the bigger picture.

On the importance of urban parks such as this, here’s retired ranger Ed Rizzotto in an oral history interview with the Association of National Park Rangers. Ed was a ranger for 7 years at Gateway National Recreation Area in New Jersey and New York, not to be confused with Gateway Arch.

So what’s the big picture? National parks are all unique, whether on the shores of the Mississippi or in the wilds of the Sierra Nevada. They’re here to protect fragile ecosystems, or to help us remember our history, or yes, for our enjoyment.

Should politicians leverage the system for the gain of their district, I don’t know. But I do know that if we didn’t care so much about names, it wouldn’t work. Yes, the naming system is a mess and could be entirely overhauled. Heck, maybe they should all just be named National Parks. But I beg of you, don’t consider any park service designation as being more important than another. Doing so may have you missing out on the incredible, vast mountains, desert and untamed rivers flowing in deep canyons at Dinosaur National Monument. Or the craggy shores of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Or the somber halls of Ellis Island, where 12 million immigrants waited for their first taste of the American dream for themselves and generations to come. Each National Park Service Site has a wonderful, unique story to tell. Dig deeper than 62 passport stamps.


Connect & Subscribe

You can find America’s National Parks Podcast on FacebookInstagram and Twitter, and make sure to subscribe on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts, so you’ll never miss an episode.

Join the America’s National Parks Facebook Group here.

Pick up your own “From Sea to Shining Sea” gear in the America’s National Parks Teespring store.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 69434150_735914166836084_179055030496657408_n.jpg

For great American road trip destinations, give us a listen on the See America podcast, wherever you listen to this one. If you are interested in RV travel, find us at the RV Miles Podcast.

Today’s show was sponsored by L.L.Bean, follow the hashtag #BeanOutsider, and visit LLBean.com to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.