America’s National Parks, one of the greatest conservation legacies in the world, contain more than 84 million acres of American treasures, from untouched wilderness to historic battlefields marred by war - all protected by the National Park Service.
On January 24th through 26th America’s Summit on National Parks – Taking Action for a New Century will take place, bringing together leaders of the NPS, as well as their partners, to discuss the future of America’s parks. This summit reminds us that in five short years, the 100th anniversary of the NPS will be upon us. 100 years of conserving America’s public lands and providing a wealth of educational, recreational, economic, and research opportunities.
As a backcountry ranger at North Cascades National Park, I am quite accustomed to the bombardment of questions that occur on a regular basis, so I was very interested to see the 36 actions that the NPS will take to achieve their goal of “connecting people to parks in the next century” in the Call to Action Plan. I was happy to see that a few of the actions are geared towards educating the public about public land stewardship.
Questions like, “where can I take my dog hiking?”, “What is the best trail to see old growth forests?”, and “How do I store my food to protect the wildlife and my dinner?” are expected and quite routine for the duties of a national park ranger, and I was always happy to answer them.
However, there is another level of questions that I often find myself answering with extended explanations, all surrounding the web of public land management. For example, last summer while patrolling a few miles up the Cascade Pass Trail, I came across a father and daughter breaking for a snack on a large boulder overlooking the valley. “So, when I was driving to the trailhead this morning,” he began, “I passed a sign that said I was entering the National Forest, and then a few miles later I saw a sign that said I was entering a National Park. So, what’s the difference anyway?” To the public’s credit, understanding the complexity of public land management is no easy task. In fact there are four land managing agencies, residing under two federal departments, who manage our public lands – the National Park Service, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the US Forest Service. I laid my own pack down and began my usual speech distinguishing the different rules and regulations that apply to both the national park and national forests, and how the distinction allows a variety of recreational opportunities while also protecting or utilizing the natural resources of both.
To make things more complicated, each of the four agencies also manages designated Wilderness. Wilderness with a capital “W” can be imagined as a type of security blanket that can overlay any public land, it is public land with the highest form of protection. “Designated Wilderness” is limited to non-motorized or mechanical recreation and is defined in the 1964 Wilderness Act as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled (unhindered or free from manipulation) by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain…an area of undeveloped federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural condition.” Designated Wilderness has five prominent characteristics based on the Wilderness Act, the land must be natural, undeveloped, untrammeled, have opportunities for solitude or unconfined recreation, and be unique in some way.
Another difficult aspect of understanding the four land managing agencies for the average recreational user is that simply knowing who manages the land may not tell you which rules and regulations apply. However you may be able to assume certain things, for example, by estimating how many people use the public land. Visitor use provides a big hint as to how the land is managed. National Parks receive the most visitors of all the agencies, and therefore their mission and policies focus on protecting natural resources from the damage that result from such high and concentrated use. Therefore, National Parks generally have more restrictions on the average user compared with Bureau of Land Management lands, for instance. In contrast, remote national forests may have fewer restrictions on the average recreationalist because the impact of their recreation is less concentrated and the forest is more resilient to the impact. However, there are exceptions to this. The Alpine Lakes Wilderness in Washington State, managed by the Forest Service, is such a hot destination that rules and regulations on the average user are stronger than some National Parks. It is best to check with each individual land unit you wish to visit for specific policies.
Back to the upcoming National Park Summit, I was also pleased to see that several of the actions needed to accomplish the NPS’s “Call to Action Plan” are already being implemented! For example, one of the items calls for better community involvement in national parks in their area. Through the Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance Program more than 50 communities goal have protected 33,230 acres of open space and parkland, created 1,991 miles of trails, and conserved 1,925 miles of river (nps.gov/rtca). This program is part of President Obama’s Great Outdoors Initiative and clearly shows his support for public land protection and accessibility.
To read more about the National Park Service vision for the next 100 years, as well as to learn more about the actions being taken in the five year “Call to Action Plan” check out, http://www.nps.gov/calltoaction/.