Is the National Park Service trying to do too much?

River Raisin

(Photo credit: River Raisin battlefield site awaiting development, courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

For a long time, Delaware was the only state that did not have its own National Park Service unit. But that distinction was lost on March 25, 2013 when the First State got its own national monument, created by President Obama under the authority of the Antiquities Act. The First State National Monument, once up and running, is supposed to honor Delaware’s contribution to the United States and its distinction as the first state to ratify the Constitution—hence the term “First State”. It will eventually encompass a number of sites of historic interest in Delaware (plus a small piece of neighboring Pennsylvania), including the New Castle Court House Museum and the John Dickinson House. There are now NPS units in every state in the Union.

On the same day, Obama created four other national monuments across the country: the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad NM in Maryland; Río Grande del Norte NM, New Mexico; San Juan Islands NM, Washington state; and Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers NM in Ohio. These aren’t the first new additions to the park service under President Obama’s administration. In October 2012, he announced the creation of the Cesar E. Chavez NM in Keene, Calif., in honor of the late labor and civil rights activist. And in Obama’s first term he has used the Antiquities Act to establish the Fort Monroe NM in Virginia. At the same time, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar designated Paterson Great Falls National Historic Park in New Jersey. And back at the start of Obama’s term, the River Raisin battlefield in Michigan was designated a National Battlefield. As with all of these sites, however, much of the land within that unit’s borders remains undeveloped and will require significant funds for construction, landscaping, and staffing (see image above).

This brings the total of park service units apparently to 401. (It is a little difficult to keep track, as the numbers sometimes seem to be a bit squishy and inconsistent; but 401 is the number most often cited, so I’ll go with that for now.) But here’s the question I have: Is the National Park Service spreading itself too thin? As the National Parks Conservation Association readily points out, the park service’s budget has been flat or declining for years, and this year’s sequester has bit even deeper into the budget. At the same time, the agency keeps adding new units to the system. These units all incur significant start-up costs and ongoing staffing and maintenance expenses. How can the system keep operating with any degree of effectiveness if it keeps growing without the funds to pay for that growth? Inevitably, the existing units are going to suffer, or have to increases their visitor use fees, or both.

The trouble is, most people who have looked into the park service’s growth say that, especially in recent decades, it has not been particularly well planned out. Rather, growth has been haphazard and dependent more on the whims of politicians in Washington, DC than any sort of planning by the NPS. The nature of the park service’s development has been a factor here. Once the service moved beyond its stewardship of the original core set of national parks and into areas of cultural and historic preservation, its defining mission became more diffuse and fuzzier (see, e.g., Rettie, 1996, 2013). Historic preservation is a fine goal for the park service; I am behind it 100 per cent. But there’s no doubt that the inclusion of hundreds of new units into the park system on cultural and historical grounds muddied the waters a bit. The park service’s doors were opened to a variety of pressure groups who were motivated by political and economic factors as much as the intrinsic value of the site to be protected. This process, known to some as “park barrel” spending, was a driver of a good deal of the park service’s post-war expansion—and, it should be noted, included natural as well as historical and cultural acquisitions. This expansion wasn’t bad; I think it was, overall, a good thing. Most of the units thus created were of real natural or cultural value. And as long as the funding from Washington, DC kept increasing, all was well. But when that funding flatlines or drops off, maybe it’s time to retrench.

One reason the park service grew to encompass such wide swathes of the United States was the political benefits of such expansion. Put simply, politicians in communities across the country pushed for the creation of NPS units in their constituencies. The expansion would benefit both the park service and Washington. Senators and congressmen with NPS units operating in their states and congressional districts would be more likely to support funding for the system as a whole, as long as they got their piece of the growing pie.

Today, a striking feature about the National Park Service is its widespread diffusion throughout the United States. Its units—including not only the 58 national parks but also all the other parks units—now cover every state in the country, as well as Puerto Rico and the U.S. territories of Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Basically, a park service that began by administering a handful of national parks out West in the early 20th century grew not only by acquiring new natural parks in rural areas across the country, but also by adding many more new historical and cultural park units much closer to the big urban population centers of the Eastern United States. So today its units inhabit districts and states dominated by both Republicans and Democrats; they provide much-needed jobs and sources of income—both from federal dollars and tourism—to areas often in sore need of such income.

Last year I wanted to look at how the park service operated at the Senate and Congressional district level for a talk I was giving, so I dug into this a little. I found that 260 voting districts (not including Washington DC or territories under US administration) have at least one, or part of one, NPS unit within their boundaries. And the breakdown is pretty even: 60.4% of Republican districts contain at least one NPS unit, compared to 65% of Democratic districts. And if you look at the number of units within each district, Republicans have a slight advantage, at 1.47 to 1.19. Interestingly, though, shifting the focus to the Senate, the Democrats seem to have the edge there: States that have two elected Democrats contain a total of 263 units within their borders, compared to 147 units for states that elect two Republicans; states with one each have 165 units.

Finally, a note on the counting. These numbers for NPS units are a bit fuzzy. As I was counting state by state, district by district, there were some overlaps, caused by the fact that some parks are split between two or more states or districts; the numbers also include things like national scenic trails. But overall, I think there’s enough here to say that the park service, whether by accident or design (more the former), has managed to spread itself across the country’s partisan divide pretty well.


Frequently Asked Questions. First State NM. National Park Service. Available at

Rob Lovitt (2013). Explore the five new national monuments Obama designated. Available at

Walter F. Naedele (2013). Obama signs Del. monument proclamation. Available at

Dwight Rettie (1996). Our national park system: Caring for America’s greatest natural and historic treasures.

Dwight Rettie (2013).


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