October 10

The Outdoor Enthusiast’s Quick Guide to Park Designations

By: Korrin L. Bishop

Five months ago, the Trump administration began a review of 27 national monuments to determine potential changes to their designations. As of September 17, reports indicate that Interior Secretary Zinke recommended changes to at least ten—including shrinking Bears Ears, Grand Staircase-Escalante, Gold Butte, and Cascades-Siskiyou. The exact details of those changes have yet to be disclosed.

Most people have a concept of what a national park is. If places like Yosemite or Yellowstone were suddenly up for review, it would be easy for the public to grasp the implications of that, to feel the urgency behind what a change in protections could do to those iconic granite peaks or majestic geyser basins.

But, “national park” is just one of several designations the National Park Service (NPS) uses to set aside land. The locations that fall under this designation are special, but the lands outside of them hold important magic, too. To be good stewards for our public lands, we need to be able to understand the other designations: Why are they important? How are they designated? Where are they located?

Below is a quick reference list on NPS land designations to help guide your advocacy efforts. Backpackers’ voices are critical to the future of these places we love.

National Park: Must be created by an act of Congress. Generally areas with extraordinary natural beauty, geology, and ecosystems. Activities such as mining or hunting are prohibited. Example: Glacier National Park (below; photo: Korrin Bishop)

Photo of Glacier National Park

National Monument: Designated by the President through a public proclamation, as authorized by the Antiquities Act of 1906. Typically includes landmarks or other objects of historic or scientific interest. Example: Oregon Caves National Monument (below; photo: Jamie Furlan)

Photo of cave formations

National Preserve: Designated by Congress. These lands typically have similar characteristics to national parks, but resource extraction, such as mining or hunting, is allowed. Which types are allowed depends on the enabling legislation for the preserve. Example: Mojave National Preserve (below; photo: Korrin Bishop)

Photo of Mojave Desert

National Historic Site / National Historical Park: A national historic site is a single historical feature, such as the Liberty Bell. Designations began with the Historic Sites Act of 1935. Congress authorizes most, but secretaries of the Interior established several. A national historical park is a historic area encompassing more than a single item. Example: Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park (below; photo: Korrin Bishop)

Photo of bike path along C&O Canal

National Memorial: Commemorates a historic moment. Site where it’s located doesn’t have to be historically connected. Designated by Congress. Example: Mount Rushmore National Memorial (below; photo: Korrin Bishop)

Photo of Mount Rushmore

National Battlefield / National Cemetery: National battlefield is a general title covering national battlefield parks, national battlefield sites, and national military parks. American Battlefield Protection Act of 1996 clarifies they must be “sites where historic battles were fought on American soil during the armed conflicts that shaped the growth and development of the United States.” Park service also manages 14 national cemeteries associated with historic sites and national battlefields. Example: Gettysburg National Military Park (below; photo: Korrin Bishop)

Photo of Gettsyburg Battlefield

National Recreation Area: Typically located on a large reservoir with a focus on water sports or in an urban area to preserve scarce open spaces. The President’s Recreation Advisory Committee established criteria for designation in 1963 and required an act of Congress. Example: Golden Gate National Recreation Area (below; photo: Kristen Grace)

Coastal photo at Golden Gate Rec Area

National Seashore / National Lake / National River: Congress designates national seashores and national lakes as preserved coastal areas with natural or recreational significance. Level of development varies by location, and hunting is allowed at many. National rivers have several sub-categories, such as scenic rivers, wild rivers, and recreational rivers. Congress authorized the first in 1964. Remainder established with passage of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, which aimed to curb development that would harm the wild and scenic nature of these waterways. Example: Merced River (below; photo: Kris Laurie)

Photo of the Merced River in Yosemite

National Parkway: Intended for scenic driving along roadways paralleling parklands. Often connect cultural sites. Example: Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park (below; photo: Korrin Bishop)

View of Shenandoah National Park

National Trail: Scenic or historic long distance trails authorized under the National Trails System Act of 1968. Example: Continental Divide National Scenic Trail (below; photo: Kris Laurie)

Photo of trail marker on Continental Divide

Affiliated Areas / Other Designations: “Affiliated areas” utilize technical or financial aid from the NPS, but are outside of the NPS system. “Other designations” represent NPS units with unique titles, all eleven of which reside in the Washington, D.C. metro region, such as Rock Creek Park (below; photo: Korrin Bishop).

Photo of Rock Creek Park

A detailed list of all 400+ NPS-designated and affiliated sites can be found here.

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.