Exploring Our Nation’s Playground: A Closer Look at National Parks in America


1. What really IS a National Park?

So…what really is the definition of a ‘national park’? Well, it’s actually a little trickier than it might seem at first glance. The National Park Service (NPS) is an agency under the United States federal government that was created with the purpose of controlling and maintaining national parks, national monuments, and other sites including recreation areas, military parks, historic sites, and urban preserves. So while the NPS is responsible for the conservation of all these lands, true ‘national parks’ are just one category within the whole array. In America, we have 60 protected lands that are given the title “National Parks” they are represented in 28 out of our 50 states and have a total area of nearly 52.2 million acres of protected land! (Runte, 2010)

National parks were created with the purpose of making our nation’s natural wonders “held in trust for all people for all time” (Runte, 2010, p. 1). In order to reach “national park” status, a land must not only exhibit a landscape of natural beauty, but must also contain geological features and ecosystems that are unique in comparison to the rest of the nation, and must have recreational opportunities for visitors to pursue. (Runte, 2010).


2. How the heck did we get National Parks?

We have not always had national parks in America. And they most certainly did not appear all at once. In 1872 Yellowstone National Park was established as the nation’s first national park (Sellers, 2009). And it was not until February 22, 2018 that the Gateway Arch in Missouri was deemed the nation’s most recent national park (Reports, 2018).

Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir at Yosemite 1903 (www.history.com)

John Muir is considered to be the “Father of National Parks” because of his early push for environmental conservation and wilderness protection. He advocated for the protection of lands that are now Yosemite National Park. On July 1, 1864 President Abraham Lincoln signed an Act of Congress that designated Yosemite Valley as state land of California (meaning that private ownership was no longer permitted). Eight years later, in 1872, Yellowstone National Park was created due to the fact that its land was federally governed and there was no state government that could control its management. It not only became the nation’s first national park, but also the world’s. However, it was the efforts of conservationists that allowed national parks to thrive and become what they are today. Theodore Roosevelt was founder of our nation’s oldest wildlife and habitat conservation organization known as the Boone and Crockett Club. Roosevelt and his club headed the efforts to prevent the hunting and poaching of natural resources in Yellowstone National Park. Ultimately, their success  led to laws being developed by the government to protect not only Yellowstone, but all of the parks that would follow. The official federal government branch of the National Park Service (NPS) was later established on August 25, 1916 and today oversees upwards of four hundred units and sixty national parks (Sellers, 2009).


3. Why doesn’t everyone know about Indian removal?

A Different View of Mount Rushmore (indiancountrymedianetwork.com)

When we think of our national parks we often focus on the natural beauty of pristine landscapes and wild environments that they provide us with. What we overlook is the fact that these lands were not always uninhabited. In order to create these spaces we now cherish, the US had to first dispossess the Native Americans who were living on the land. The earliest national park advocates had the aim of not only protecting the “wild” environments, but also the native people who called those lands their homes. However, advocacy for national parks did not succeed until their concept was changed to instead represent an uninhabited nature that should be set aside for the purpose of American pleasure. Having Native Americans living, cultivating, and hunting on the lands did not fit this picture. In order to achieve these ‘ideals’ it meant the forced removal of the native people (Spence, 2000). 

Claiming the national park lands played an important role in the establishment of the reservation system in America. In fact, Americans soon came to view reservations as the ‘appropriate’ place for Native Americans to live rather than in their original, natural environments. Despite the removal of the Native Americans to reservations, their occupancy and use of the national park lands often continued and new legislature had to be put in place to restrict these ‘violations’.  Although it is seldom discussed when talking about national parks we must remember that before these uninhabited lands were even capable of being preserved, they had to be created (Spence, 2000). 


4. Are these places REALLY protected?

Alt NPS to Trump: you can’t shut down the internet (grandcanyonnews.com)

In the past, conservationists concerned themselves with decreasing hunting and poaching, maintaining trails after erosion, and encouraging practices of ‘leave no trace’ to keep our national parks safe. Now, a newer, bigger threat lies on the horizon: climate change. The rate at which climate change is affectingour parks varies depending on park location or topography. Forexample, climate warming and drying has been especially prominent win the western regions of America. What this means is that these parks are at risk for increased chance of wildfires, forest drought, and pest outbreaks. AKA large scale forest die off is coming!  (Hansen et al. 2014).

So then…what’s the next step? Well, movements are starting to be made with the attempt to collect data on climate change effects within national parks. This is done with the goal of determining the vulnerability of parks on an individual level so that parks can be addressed on a case-specific basis. Similarly, parks are being assessed on the environment’s capabilities of adapting to change in climate. The hopes of these movements is to better understand how to manage the detrimental effects of climate change as it pertains to each park (Monahan et al. 2014).


5. Why are the so many dang tourists?


The image of National Parks is very positive in the eyes of the public and possibly plays a large role in the good reputation of the western regions in our country. As it turns out, only education and income levels are what mainly determines which tourists are most strongly attracted to national parks. Most of the tourists who pursue the parks are impulsive, adventurous, and action-oriented individuals who view the parks as the perfect vacation spot. They are the types of people who want to explore the great outdoors and escaping people (Mayo, 1975). However…are they really avoiding the crowds nowadays?

Tourism at parks is an ever growing number these days. From 1904 to 2017 a total of 13,918,617,696 people have visited our nation’s parks. 13 BILLION!! From around 100 thousand in the early 1900s to over 300 million in the early 2000s – and the number is just going up and up every year! (National Park Services, 2017) Tourism has been accused as “loving a park to death” (Eagles et al. 2007, p. 72).  And indeed this is true. High levels of tourism in national parks has the potential to lead to detrimental environmental impacts including destruction of species habitat, disruption of migratory patterns, or negative impacts on water or air quality (Eagles et al. 2007).

Grand Canyon National Park Tourism (nps.gov)


6. How are the animals doing in these parks?

National Park Service if you can keep it (weeklystorybook.com)

Given the fact that human population in America is ever growing and taking up more and more land, national parks are really the only place that much of our nation’s animals and plants have to go.  However, the fact of the matter is that our national parks are just too small to support many large mammalian species! All around park boundaries exists the construction of new roads, housing developments, and vast deforestation. This forces species to be isolated within park boundaries. In a way our national parks are said to be becoming islands of natural habitat that are entirely surrounded by manmade oceans. (Newmark, 1995)

As a result of this isolation of species, large mammals have been exhibited striking losses in many of our parks. Many parks have seen loses as big as 35-40% of the species originally found there. Larger parks such as Yosemite or Mount Rainier are close behind these smaller parks, loosing more than 25% of the original species. The parks are no longer the vast expanses of open nature that they were 70 to 90 years ago and we must adopt our conservation efforts to account for this. No longer should we focus our attention on the parks themselves but also the surrounding areas, or sooner or later we may not have parks left (Newmark, 1995).


7. Where do women fit into this thing?

At the start of the creation of national parks, the Park Service held a male-defined culture. Not many women were represented within ranger ranks and even as the organization began to grow, women were primarily hired in clerical positions. Old-time rangers believed that their job was solely a man’s work and could not be adequately accomplished by a woman in the same role. Women have historically struggled to be heard in settings that were related with the outdoors. The male-driven culture of conservation eventually led to women creating their own environmental organizations run entirely by women (Norwood et al. 1997).

National Park ranger female meme (pinterest.com)

In the national parks system women brought a culture that focused on communication rather than confrontation. Women also found less intrusive ways to organize landscape designs within the national parks and were more willing to be the ones to speak out against those who threatened national park integrity than the men had been. Little is known about the presence of women in the history of our national parks, yet they took on a larger role than many might initially think (Norwood et al. 1997).


8. How about people of color?

It has been long noticed that one main thing missing from our country’s national parks are people from racial and ethnic minority groups. But just why is that? Well it’s quite simple really. The US national parks were literally built on top of upper- and middle-class ideals of what ‘pristine’ nature is…in a sense, national parks were designed to represent a ‘White nature’. They were originally designed in a way that made exclusion of minority groups inevitable (Byrne et al. 2009).

I know what you’re thinking. That’s a historical explanation for its, but why is it an on going problem? There have been a number of possible explanations for that very question. First and foremost it has been speculated that it is a result of marginality – that minority groups are unable to visit national parks as a result of economic disparities.  It has been suggested that minority groups as a whole (but more specifically black Americans) historically suffer from economic disadvantages and therefore cannot afford the luxury of visiting a national park. Another reasoning is that it is due to differences ethnicity – that minority groups are underrepresented due to the fact that they hold cultural values that differ from white Americans. Lastly, there is their underrepresentation stems from discrimination – that minority groups do not feel welcome in national parks and therefore do not visit them. Findings have indicated that there is not just one explanation for why we do not see minority groups adequately represented in our national parks, but rather all three possibilities play a role in this issue (Krymkowski et al. 2014).


9. How about that government shut down?

National Park Service Arrowhead (nps.gov)

Both national parks as well as national monuments were previously managed on an individual basis within the US Department of the Interior. Stephen Mather and J. Horace McFarland both played influence roles in the push to create an independent agency to be in charge of national parks. They spearheaded campaigns and wrote articles that eventually lead to the creation of the National Park Service (NPS) in 1916. Up until 1966 effortswere put toward conserving unique landscapes within the country. However, as NPS celebrated its 50th anniversary, a new emphasis was placed on an effort to make the parks more accessible to the public (Everhart, 1983).

Government Logic (memecenter.com)

Since the National Park Service is an agency of the US Federal Government and therefore must operate under the same conditions that the government itself operates under. Essentially meaning, if the US Government shuts down…our national parks shut down along with it. In both 2013 and 2018 Congress failed to pass a bill to provide funds to the government and so the government went into a full shut down. What this meant for national parks and other units controlled by the NPS is that they had to close their doors. Now, I know what you’re thinking, it’s hard to close the doors on national parks given the fact that they a essentially protected landscapes. In these cases, park staff were required to close visitor centers, museums, memorials, full-service bathrooms, and essentially any other indoor structures they maintained. All events including educational sessions, hiking tours, and even weddings were cancelled. In reality, a government shut down can’t prevent visitors from taking  walk in the woods or through the desert, however, it can cause significant financial hits for the NPS and its employees (Gardner, 2018).

Donald Trump’s Stance on the Environment (imgflip.com)


10. Which National Park should be at the tippity top of your bucket list?

It’s the hottest, driest, and lowest national park in America – how could that not make it automatically end up at the top of your bucket list? Death Valley National Park straddles the border of California and Nevada and is one of the most diverse environments in the United States. Landscapes include: below-sea-level salt flats, canyons, valleys, sand-dunes, badlands, as well as towering snow-capped mountains. If those didn’t catch your attention yet – have you

Mysterious moving rocks.
Jeffery Aiello (nps.gov)

heard about Racetrack Playa? It’s been a phenomena and an unsolved mystery for a long time now, so you’ve been missing out it you haven’t. Racetrack Playa is a dried lake which has hundreds of tracks left by moving rocks. Yes…MOVING ROCKS! It has been since discovered that these rocks move when a specific thickness of ice forms on the ground’s surface and the rocks are then moved at unbelievably slow speeds (2-5m/min) in directions  determined by the wind and water flow beneath the ice sheets (Norries et al. 2014).

One internet craze that I stumbled upon while doing research for the listicle were people absolutely obsessed with finding and reading one-star reviews of national parks. And I can’t help but say I joined the craze for a bit myself. Below you’ll find ones for Yellowstone, the Badlands, Arches, and of course, Death Valley. I hope you can appreciate these as much as I did.

Yellowstone yelp review
Badlands yelp review
Arches yelp review
Death Valley yelp review















Byrne, J., & Wolch, J. (2009). Nature, race, and parks: past research and future directions for geographic research. Progress in Human Geography, 33(6), 743-765.

Eagles, P. F., Halpenny, E. A., Moisey, R. N., & McCool, S. F. (2007). Tourism in national parks and protected areas: planning and management. Wallingford: CABI Publishing.

Everhart, W. C. (1983). The National Park Service (2nd ed.). Boulder, Colo: Westview Press.

Gardner, J. (2018, January 20). What Does the Government Shutdown Mean for National Parks and Park Visitors? Retrieved March 04, 2018, from https://www.npca.org/articles/1733-what-does-the-government-shutdown-mean-for-national-parks-and-park-visitors

Hansen, A. J., Piekielek, N., Davis, C., Haas, J., Theobald, D. M., Gross, J. E., . . . Running, S. W. (2014). Exposure of U.S. National Parks to land use and climate change 1900–2100. Ecological Applications, 24(3), 484-502.

Krymkowski, D. H., Manning, R. E., & Valliere, W. A. (2014). Race, ethnicity, and visitation to national parks in the United States: Tests of the marginality, discrimination, and subculture hypotheses with national-level survey data. Journal of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism, 7-8, 35-43.

Mayo, E. (1975). Tourism and the National Parks: A Psychographic and Attitudinal Study. Journal of Travel Research, 14(1), 14-21.

Monahan, W. B., & Fisichelli, N. A. (2014). Climate Exposure of US National Parks in a New Era of Change. National Park Service, 9(7).

Newmark, W. D. (1995). Extinction of Mammal Populations in Western North American National Parks. Conservation Biology, 9(3), 512-526.

Norris, R. D., Norris, J. M., Lorenz, R. D., Ray, J., & Jackson, B. (2014). Sliding Rocks on Racetrack Playa, Death Valley National Park: First Observation of Rocks in Motion. PLoS ONE, 9(8).

Reports, F. S. (2018, February 23). Gateway Arch National Park gets presidential seal of approval. Retrieved March 04, 2018, from http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/metro/gateway-arch-national-park-gets-presidential-seal-of-approval/article_d5d582c3-4d30-53a1-854b-f1aa1c488ca3.html

Runte, A. (2010). National parks: the american experience. Lanham: Taylor Trade Publishing.

Sellars, R. W. (2009). Preserving nature in the national parks: a history: with a new preface and epilogue. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Spence, M. D. (2000). Dispossessing the wilderness: Indian removal and the making of the national parks. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

10 Most Visited Units of the National Park System(2017) National Park Services. Retrieved from: https://www.nps.gov/subjects/socialscience/upload/Visitation-historic-and-top-10-sites-2017.pdf


One Reply to “Exploring Our Nation’s Playground: A Closer Look at National Parks in America”

  1. So I didn’t actually get to go through every fact in the short amount of time we had! You had some great information! Like wow, I didn’t know about the Indian Removal. I don’t want to sound like a critic, so for the lack of time forgive me because I might!

    I would suggest making some minor edits to shorten some paragraphs. For example in the John Muir paragraph I think you could just state “John Muir is considered the founder…” instead of “A man by the name of…”

    I would also consider making the lines with your facts larger than the text in the paragraphs. In the second paragraph under point three theres a section where you have regular text and bold, and theres a space that needs to be there.

    Goodluck! I hope these few edits help.

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