October 31

Do We Need National Preserves? Yes. Here’s Why.

By: Korrin L. Bishop

Earlier this month, in light of the Trump administration’s review of 27 national monuments, we took a look at the many different types of National Park Service (NPS) designations. Understanding these designations is an important step in being an effective advocate for public lands. In this post, we will take a closer look at one type of designation and answer the question: Do we need national preserves?

Spoiler alert: Yep.

As a reminder, national preserves are designated by Congress. These lands typically have similar characteristics to national parks, but resource extraction, such as mining or hunting, is allowed. The types of resource extraction that are allowed depends on the enabling legislation for the preserve.

To better understand the need for national preserves, let’s look at Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserve. That’s right—it’s both a monument and a preserve.

Subalpine Meadow

President Taft established the actual cave as a 480-acre national monument in 1909 due to its historic and scientific interest. The cave is a rare marble solution cave formed when underground water and naturally occurring acids dissolved the rock as they passed through pores and fissures. Cave Creek runs through the cave for two-fifths of a mile. This stretch of water is named the River Styx, and in 2014, Congress designated it the first subterranean National Wild and Scenic River (NWSR).

As the saying goes, we all live downstream. In order to protect the cave’s fragile ecosystem through which the creek flows, Congress needed to protect its surrounding watershed. So, at the same time that the River Styx received its NWSR designation, Oregon Caves National Monument grew a 4,070-acre National Preserve. This designation allows NPS to manage the land in a way that still allows locals to recreate and hunt in the area, but that also preserves its ecological integrity.

Bigelow Lakes from the Trail

Previously, the national preserve land fell under the Forest Service’s jurisdiction. While the National Park Service is a part of the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI), the Forest Service falls under the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). These two departments have different missions, which carry over to their corresponding agencies:

National Park Service

“The National Park Service preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations. The Park Service cooperates with partners to extend the benefits of natural and cultural resource conservation and outdoor recreation throughout this country and the world.”

Forest Service

“The mission of the USDA Forest Service is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. Motto: Caring for the land and serving people.”

One is about unimpaired preservation, the other is about sustainable use. When the Oregon Caves National Preserve fell under the jurisdiction of the Forest Service, the land could be used for a variety of deleterious activities, such as cattle grazing. It was an activity that might have met the needs of the people, but didn’t do much for protecting the resources.

Lake surrounded by trees

Cattle, it turns out, like to hang out by the water. Nestled in its wildflower-rich subalpine meadows, Oregon Caves National Preserve has two lovely pools of water called Bigelow Lakes. As a result of cows hanging out in these wetlands, a beautiful flowering plant aptly named “shooting stars” began to die off. Along with the flowers went a rare blue butterfly species that relied specifically on shooting stars for their survival.

With the national preserve designation came a new mission and approach to the land’s management. In time, the cow-free lakeshore regained its historic vegetation, and once again natural resource specialists began to spot those blue butterflies.

Siskiyou Mountains

The Forest Service is an important and necessary agency, but sometimes unique biota can be better protected in other ways. National preserves provide this option.

To recap: A National Monument led to a National Wild and Scenic River, which led to a National Preserve, which ultimately leads to the protection of an incredible cave system and a pretty blue butterfly to boot. Yes, we need national preserves.

Korrin L. Bishop is a freelance writer with a focus on environment, outdoor recreation, and social justice. She has publications in Misadventures, Adventure Journal, and Sierra Magazine. Learn more about her work on her website.