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Friday, September 16, 2011

National Park System: Establishing New Units

Carol Hardy Vincent
Specialist in Natural Resources Policy

The National Park System (System) includes 394 diverse units administered by the National Park Service (NPS) of the Department of the Interior. Units generally are added to the National Park System by acts of Congress, although the President may proclaim national monuments on land that is federally managed for inclusion in the System. An act of Congress creating a Park System unit may explain the unit’s purpose; set its boundaries; provide specific directions for land acquisition, planning, uses, and operations; and authorize appropriations for acquisition and development. Today, there are more than 20 different designations (i.e., titles) for units of the National Park System, reflecting the diversity of the areas. There is no statute that sets out and defines all the designations, and Congress has discretion in choosing the type of designation for a unit being established.

Before enacting a law to add a unit, Congress often first enacts a law requiring the NPS to study an area, typically to assess its national significance, suitability and feasibility, and other management options. When Congress directs the NPS to prepare a study, the agency must assess whether an area contains natural or cultural resources that are nationally significant, constitutes one of the most important examples of a type of resource, and is a suitable and feasible addition to the Park System. The agency also is to consider certain factors established in law (e.g., threats to resources) to promote the consistency and professionalism of the studies.

The Secretary of the Interior is required by law to recommend annually to Congress a list of areas for study for potential inclusion in the National Park System. The Secretary also must submit to Congress a list of areas previously studied that contain primarily historical resources, and a list of areas with natural resources. Previously studied areas are to be ranked in order of priority for consideration of addition to the Park System. For FY2010-FY2012, the Obama Administration has not submitted lists of areas for potential study for addition to the Park System. Instead, the Administration is focusing on completing authorized studies and other current responsibilities, such as facility maintenance.

The addition of units to the National Park System sometimes has been controversial. Some discourage adding units, asserting that the System is “mature” or “complete,” while others assert that the System should evolve and grow to reflect current events, new information, and reinterpretations. A related issue is how to properly maintain existing and new units given limited fiscal and staffing resources. Differences exist on the relative importance of including areas reflecting our natural, cultural, and social history. The adequacy of standards and procedures for ensuring that the most outstanding areas are included in the Park System also has been debated.

It is generally regarded as difficult to meet the criteria and to secure congressional support and funding for expanding the National Park System. Thus, another issue has been whether particular resources are better protected outside the National Park System, and how to secure the best alternative protection. Certain areas that receive technical or financial aid from the NPS, but are neither federally owned nor directly administered by the NPS, include affiliated areas and national heritage areas. Some programs give places honorary recognition. The NPS also supports local and state governments in protecting resources through grants for projects and technical assistance.

Date of Report: August 24, 2011
Number of Pages: 10
Order Number: RS20158
Price: $29.95

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