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Breaking Down the Recent and Coming Changes to the National Park System

Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore has officially become the 61st (or 62nd, depending on how you count) unit of the National Park System with a “national park” designation. Photo Credit: Flickr user: Paul J Everett in 2008 https://www.flickr.com/people/paul_everett82/ [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]
Calendar year 2018 ended on a low note for the National Park System in the midst of a partial Federal government shutdown.   With the budget negotiations to keep the Federal government open consuming almost all of Congress’ attention in November, December, and January, that left a lot of unfinished business that Congress was unable to get to before their 115th Session ended in early January.   Fortunately, the newly elected Congress began the 116th Session by immediately taking up many of the pending public lands provisions that had received Committee hearings and debates over the previous two years in the 115th Session and sent many of them to the President’s desk for signature.   Here’s a recap of what you need to know:

I’ll begin with the news that Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is now Indiana Dunes National Park.  On Friday February 15, the President signed into law the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2019.  This is the law the prevented another government shutdown from beginning on February 16 by providing budget authority to the National Park Service (and all other Federal agencies that weren’t previously funded) through September 30, 2019.  Normally, any law with the words “Appropriations Act” in the title is supposed to be limited to just providing funding – and is not supposed to be making other changes to permanent law.   However, advocates for redesignating Indiana Dunes were so persistent that they managed to get their provision tucked into this must-pass legislation keeping the government open so as to ensure that it was enacted into law.  Thus, congratulations to Indiana Dunes on being redesignated as the 61st “national park” of the United States (or alternatively, the 62nd depending if you count “Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts” as a “national park.”)

The USS Arizona Memorial and the other Pearl Harbor Sites in World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument are being redesignated as the Pearl Harbor National Memorial. Photo Credit: Stan Shebs in 2002 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]
Most other proposed bills relating to the National Park System aren’t so lucky to be tucked into must-pass legislation.  Instead, it has now become common practice that whenever a two-year session of Congress begins wrapping up, a giant “omnibus” piece of legislation is crafted to bring together a large number of public lands provisions that had been debated in Committee over the previous two years.  The idea behind the “omnibus” is to include something for almost everyone in Congress, and thus ensure its passage.   So it was little surprise when the “omnibus” public lands bill for the 115th Congress (2017-2018), the Natural Resources Management Act, passed the Senate earlier this week by a vote of 92-8.   The House of Representatives is almost certain to pass this legislation sometime next week.  Its possible that they may even pass it without amendment, which would send the legislation directly to President Trump for his signature to be enacted into law.

Presuming that happens,  here is what you need to know about how the Natural Resources Management Act will impact the National Park System.

First up, the existing World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument is being broken up, creating a new addition to the National Park System.   The “Valor” National Monument was always an odd creation from the moment that President George W. Bush created it in 2008 by combining the existing then-designated USS Arizona National Memorial with several other sites around Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, the site of the Tule Lake Internment Camp in California, and three World War II sites in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska.   The USS Arizona Memorial and the other sites around Pearl Harbor are redesignated as the Pearl Harbor National Memorial.   The Tule Lake Unit of the Monument is redesignated as the Tule Lake National Monument, and this will effectively become the 419th Unit of the National Park System upon passage of the legislation (unless something very surprising happens between now and then).  The Alaskan areas of the monument are redesignated as Aleutian Islands World War II National Monument, and they will continue to be managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and so will not be part of the National Park System.

The Medgar and Myrlie Evers Home in Jackson, Mississippi could soon become the newest addition to the National Park System. Photo Credit: Jud McCranie in 2018 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]
Next, the bill authorizes the establishment of two new units of the National Park System:

  • Medgar and Myrlie Evers Home National Monument in Mississippi
  • Mill Springs Battlefield National Monument in Kentucky

Medgar and Myrlie Evers were famed civil rights activists, and this national monument will protect the home where they lived in Jackson, Mississippi from 1956 up until Medgar’s asssasination in 1963.  Mill Springs Battlefield is located near the town of Nancy in south-central Kentucky.  In January 1862, it was the site of the first significant Union victory during the Civil War.

Neither site will become the 420th unit of the National Park System just yet.  Instead, both sites will become full-fledged national parks upon the acquisition of land for the sites by the National Park Service.  In that sense, they join a pool of candidates that for that distinction that includes:

  • Ste. Genevieve National Historical Park – an early French settlement in Missouri that was first authorized last year (and whose authorized boundaries will be modified in this legislation in order to help move the process along);
  • Coltsville National Historical Park – the 19th-century industrial village centered on arms-making in Hartford, Connecticut that was authorized back in 2014;
  • the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial – first authorized in 1999, the memorial commission is currently hoping to complete construction on a site near the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC by May 8, 2020;
  • the Adams Memorial – first authorized in 2001 at the height of the popularity of David McCullough’s Pulitzer-Prize winning biography of family patriarch John Adams, the effort to memorialize the family has struggled with fundraising, but this legislation extends the authorization for the memorial until 2025 and establishes a Commission to try and jump-start these efforts;
  • Ronald Reagan Boyhood Home National Historic Site – first authorized in 2002, the National Park Service and the Ronald Reagan Boyhood Home Preservation Foundation were not able to agree on a selling price for the site in Dixon, Illinois, and so land acquisition won’t happen until that changes.

So, if you’re keeping track at home, it is likely that the 420th unit of the National Park System will be one of Mill Springs Battlefield National Monument, Medgar and Myrlie Evers Home National Monument, Ste. Genevieve National Historical Park, or Coltsville National Historical Park – but there is always the possibility that the President could declare a brand-new national monument under the Antiquities Act even before land acquisition for any one of those authorized (or soon-to-be authorized) parks happens.

Ocmulgee National Monument will soon be getting the much-more descriptive name of Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park. Photo from 2015.

The Natural Resources Management Act,once enacted will also make a large number of name changes to the National Park System:

  • Camp Nelson National Monument in central Kentucky, designated just a couple months ago to preserve a training ground for African-American Union soldiers during the Civil War gets renamed as Camp Nelson Heritage National Monument;
  • Fort Sumter National Monument, where the Civil War began in Charleston, South Carolina, gets renamed as Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie National Historical Park;
  • Golden Spike National Historic Site in northern Utah, where the first trans-continental railroad was completed on May 10, 1869 gets renamed Golden Spike National Historical Park, just in time for their 150th Anniversary;
  • Honouliuli National Monument, the Japanese prisoner of war camp that was also used for internement of Japanese-American civilians on Oahu, in Hawaii, gets renamed Honouliuli National Historic Site;
  • Ocmulgee National Monument, which preserves paleo-Indian archeological sites that are up to 17,000 years old, pre-Columbian American Indian mounds that are about 1,000 years old, and the historic culture of the Creek Nation in the city of Macon in central Georgia gets renamed as Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park;
  • Reconstruction Era National Monument in and around Beaufort, South Carolina, where the process of building a new life for recently-emancipated African-Americans began, gets renamed Reconstruction Era National Historical Park;
  • Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, the estate of the famed sculptor Agustus Saint-Gaudens in central New Hampshire gets renamed as Saint-Gaudens National Historical Park.

All of those name changes would take place immediately upon enactment.

With that, those are all the changes to the units of the National Park System in the proposed legislation as it passed the Senate.  It remains possible that the House of Representatives may add a few changes of their own as they consider the legislation this week.   In my next post, I will put together a summary of all the changes to the National Park System outside the those designated as official units.

This is Part I of a three-part series on changes to the National Park System in early 2019.  Check out Part II and Part III.

Updated on February 18, 2019 to correct errors and clarify the order of which Parks will become the 419th and 420th Units of the National Park System.

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When Is a National Park Not a National Park?

The National Colonial Farm in Piscataway Park is part of a national park that isn't a national park.  Photo from 2010.
The National Colonial Farm in Piscataway Park is part of a national park that isn’t a national park. Photo from 2010.

This is Part 3 in a series on Counting the Parks, click here for Part 1 and Part 2.

One of the more unusual oddities about the 401 U.S. National Parks  is that some of them are national parks without being national parks.   What do I mean?

Just take a look at the names of the of the following parks, all of which count towards the total of 401 U.S. National Parks:

You may notice that all of these parks are missing the word national.   They are simply parks, not national parks, even though all of them are run by the National Park Service.   All of the above are within day-trip distance of Washington, DC – and so all seem to owe their designation in some way to the special history and relationship of our Federal government to the Nation’s Capital.   Here’s a bit more-detailed run-down of each of these six.  I will have to do a follow-up post on two other parks that also included in this group:

Catoctin Mountain Park is easily the most-scenic out of these six.  Located on the Maryland-Pennsylvania border, it protects from development the area immediately surrounding the Camp David Presidential Retreat.   Recreational opportunities include several hiking trails and campgrounds, including several cabins and lodges.

Chimney Rock is one of several scenic spots in Catoctin Mountain Park.  Credit: Alicia Lafever, nps.gov
Chimney Rock is one of several scenic spots in Catoctin Mountain Park. Credit: Alicia Lafever, nps.gov

Fort Washington Park is perhaps surprisingly included in this category, rather than being designated a national monument or a national historic site.   This is one of at least a half-dozen national park sites that preserves the story of coastal defenses in the United States during the 19th Century (coastal defense forts were built to last – so they tend to make good historic sites.)   Fort Washington is located in Maryland, just downstream of Washington, DC on the Potomac River.   Today in addition to historical programs, it is a very popular picnic site for the local community.

Greenbelt Park is located in the planned community and Washington, DC suburb of Greenbelt, MD.   Greenbelt is one of three planned communities that arose out of the Great Depression, the others being Greenhils, OH near Cincinnati and Greendale, WI near Milwaukee.  I’ve often thought that it would be interesting for Greenbelt Park to develop a visitor center and exhibits dedicated to the history of urban planning in this country – but for now it is primarily a recreational park of mostly local interest.   If you are planning to visit the Nation’s Capital and would prefer to camp, rather than get a hotel room, then Greenbelt Park is the place to go – as it is a very short drive from the Greenbelt Metro Station.

Piscataway Park is located not that far from Fort Washington Park in southern Maryland.   It was originally set aside to preserve the natural view from Mount Vernon, George Washington’s historic estate, on the Virginia side of the Potomac River.  (Interestingly, Mount Vernon would rank near the top of any list of “most famous places in the U.S. that are not national parks” – but that’s a topic for anotherpost.)   In addition to preserving the sightlines for moder-day visitors to Mount Vernon, Piscataway Park also hosts the National Colonial Farm – a living history park of Colonial Farming practices.   This makes it one of at least three living history colonial farms in the National Park System, along with the Claude Moore Colonial Farm on the George Washington Memorial Parkway in Northern Virginia and the farm at the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial in Indiana.

Prince Wiliam Forest Park is very similar to Greenbelt Park in primarily a recreational park primarily of local interest near Quanitco Marine Corps Base,  a little more than an hour south of Washington, DC in northern Virginia.  There are several hiking trails in the park,  including the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail, as well as a large campground, and the park loop road is very popular with joggers and bicyclists.  There are also a number of interpretive displays here on the role of the Civilian Conservation Corps in building this park during the Great Depression.   This park also has more than a few hidden gems, including a historic pyrite mine and a tree stump from a petrified forest.

DSC03393
This petrified tree stump is one of the surprising hidden gems to be found at Prince William Forest Park.

 

Finally, Rock Creek Park is located right within Washington, DC itself.   Its interesting to note that it was established by Congress all the way back in 1890, four days before Yosemite National Park was established – making it one of the oldest parks in the U.S. National Park System.  Although it is more than twice as large as New York’s Central Park – it is largely managed as wild area, rather than as manicured landscape.  Among the recreational highlights of the park are a Planitarium at the Rock Creek Park Nature Center, as well as horse stables.

All told, none of these six parks would be at the top of one’s list if you were visiting the United States from another country, or even if you were visiting the east coast from the other side of the country.   With that being said, all of them have their highlights and interesting bits of history to investigate, particularly if you are attempting to be a “park completist.”

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