Zion Canyon National Park

Yosemite park

Few issues in the West have been as divi­sive as pub­lic lands. Con­ser­va­tion, recre­ation, min­ing, log­ging, ranch­ing, fish­ing, camp­ing and wilder­ness are often at odds. The divides are usu­al­ly seen along urban-rur­al lines and left-right polit­i­cal lines. But, when nation­al pol­i­tics seem more divid­ed that ever, pub­lic lands offer some­thing rare indeed: some­thing most agree on.

A recent poll of the west’s inter­moun­tain states prove that love of pub­lic lands cross­es par­ty lines.

West­ern­ers Just Wan­na Have Fun
The poll revealed how deeply west­ern­ers val­ue access to pub­lic lands and out­door recre­ation. 82% want­ed greater access to pub­lic lands for fish­ing, hunt­ing, camp­ing, hik­ing and oth­er types of out­door recre­ation. The sup­port crossed par­ty lines and was equal­ly strong from peo­ple who lived in the sub­urbs, the cities, and small towns. By con­trast, only 22% want­ed more empha­sis on job cre­at­ing indus­tries on pub­lic lands.

Habi­tat Rocks
But west­ern­ers don’t just care about whether they can get a camp­site or ride their moun­tain bike. Both Repub­li­cans and Democ­rats rat­ed “pol­lu­tion of lakes, rivers, and streams” as of equal impor­tance to employ­ment. When asked which was more impor­tant: pro­tect­ing clean water, air, and recre­ation or pro­duc­ing ener­gy and jobs, West­ern­ers went for water, air, and pub­lic lands by a fac­tor of more than 3:1.

Clean Jobs
Jobs are also tak­ing on a green tinge. When asked what kinds of jobs they want­ed to bring to their state, the most pop­u­lar answer was solar, wind, and renew­able ener­gy. Out­door recre­ation was seen as a bet­ter source of jobs than oil and gas. 85% approve lim­it­ing oil and gas drilling and pro­tect­ing envi­ron­men­tal­ly sen­si­tive places even in oil, coal and gas depen­dent Wyoming.

Zion Canyon National ParkWe Like Our Land Managers
When small towns strug­gle, the fin­ger often gets point­ed at the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment which owns large por­tions of land that gen­er­ates tim­ber for local mills and range­land for cows. But sup­port for the agen­cies is strong. Approval rates for the Park Ser­vice, For­est Ser­vice and Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice ranged between 76% and 82%. Only 25% dis­agreed with the work of the Bureau of Land Man­age­ment, the least under­stood agency.

Keep It Public 
When asked if pub­lic lands should be giv­en to states, the answer was a resound­ing no. In Utah and Neva­da, where new pro­tec­tions of Bear’s Ears and Gold Butte was “con­tro­ver­sial,” the sur­vey revealed that these Nation­al Mon­u­ments aren’t that con­tro­ver­sial at all. Uta­hans and Nevadans sup­port them by dou­ble-dig­it margins.

In Feb­ru­ary, Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Jason Chaf­fetz of Utah intro­duced a bill to sell off more than 3 mil­lion acres of pub­lic lands to pri­vate inter­ests. He was hit by an imme­di­ate back­lash from across the polit­i­cal spec­trum. Hunters, fish­ers, out­door gear com­pa­nies, hik­ers, and campers flood­ed his inbox and Insta­gram feed. He with­drew the bill a week later.

We All Agree
Chaf­fetz shouldn’t have been sur­prised; love of pub­lic lands is built into the cul­ture of the West. We flock here for the wide-open spaces, not to make a fast buck. The peo­ple sur­veyed were more Repub­li­can than Demo­c­rat, more con­ser­v­a­tive than lib­er­al or mod­er­ate. But the val­ue of pub­lic lands and out­door recre­ation rings out loud­ly across the board. When he start­ed the Nation­al Park Ser­vice, Stephen Math­er saw pub­lic lands as a meet­ing ground where Amer­i­cans from all back­grounds and walks of life could enjoy their nation­al her­itage togeth­er on the trails and around the camp­fire. Here’s to that.


Ken Burns called the Nation­al Parks “America’s Best Idea.” They’re cer­tain­ly on the short list of Amer­i­can inno­va­tions. But the suc­cess sto­ry that’s been the Nation­al Park sys­tem owes it suc­cess to a series of small coin­ci­dences, acts of rebel­lion and things that seemed minor at the time. These ten moments have shaped the Nation­al Park sys­tem and will influ­ence our Parks in the next 100 years.

The Pho­tog­ra­ph­er and the President
In 1864, the Civ­il War was rag­ing. With the nation drown­ing in the blood of the bat­tles of Cold Har­bor, Spot­syl­va­nia and Wilder­ness, the beau­ty of a small moun­tain val­ley 3,000 miles away must have seemed insignif­i­cant to Abra­ham Lin­coln, who was expect­ed to lose the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in 1864. But when an obscure, failed gold min­er-turned pho­tog­ra­ph­er showed up with a set of giant pho­tographs, the Pres­i­dent listened.

His name was Car­leton Watkins, and his 130 mam­moth plates were the first images east­ern­ers saw of Yosemite Val­ley. In the midst of a war, Lin­coln pro­posed mak­ing Yosemite invi­o­late. To build sup­port, Cal­i­for­nia Sen­a­tor John Con­ness (one of Yosemite’s high­est peaks now bears his name) walked the pho­tos around Con­gress per­son­al­ly. Twelve years before Yel­low­stone was declared an actu­al Nation­al Park, the con­cept was born.

“I So Declare It”
In 1903 Ted­dy Roo­sevelt asked an aide if there was any law that pre­vent­ed him from issu­ing an exec­u­tive order pro­tect­ing the birds of Pel­i­can Island from hunters. When the aide said he did­n’t think so, Roo­sevelt said sim­ply, “Very well. I so declare it.” The Nation­al Wildlife refuge sys­tem was born. Three years lat­er, a nation fret­ting about the “end of the fron­tier” passed the Antiq­ui­ties Act, which allowed the pres­i­dent to cre­ate nation­al mon­u­ments with the stroke of a pen.

TR need­ed no encour­age­ment. He imme­di­ate­ly declared Dev­ils’ Tow­er a nation­al mon­u­ment. Ever since, the Antiq­ui­ties Act has offered a con­ser­va­tion anti­dote to Con­gres­sion­al grid­lock. All but four sub­se­quent pres­i­dents have used it to pre­serve wild places. The her­itage of the Antiq­ui­ties Act includes Mount St. Helens, John Day Fos­sil Beds, New­ber­ry Crater, Paria-Ver­mil­lion Cliffs, Grand Stair­case-Escalante, Cas­cade-Siskiy­ou Nation­al Mon­u­ment and the San Juan Islands.

A Borax Baron Runs The Parks
By the ear­ly 1900s, the U.S. gov­ern­ment had acquired a chunk of nation­al parks, includ­ing icons like Yel­low­stone, Yosemite and Crater Lake, and a ran­dom smat­ter­ing of nation­al mon­u­ments and civ­il war bat­tle­fields. Most were man­aged by the army until the Nation­al Park Ser­vice was cre­at­ed in 1916. Woodrow Wilson’s choice to run the agency was a head-scratch­er: an inde­pen­dent­ly wealthy New York borax mag­nate named Stephen Math­er. But what a choice it was.

Math­er uni­fied the lands into a coher­ent agency, pro­fes­sion­al­ized the staff, aggres­sive­ly added new parks and made the Park Ser­vice once of the most respect­ed fed­er­al agen­cies. When Con­gress balked at the cost of adding the Mari­posa Grove of giant sequoias to Yosemite, Math­er bought it with his own cash on the spot. He wel­comed cars to the parks, a move that extend­ed their mass appeal beyond wealthy rail­road tourists and cre­at­ed a nation of sup­port­ers, but which also opened the parks to the risks of being “loved to death” decades lat­er. He led the Park Ser­vice until the stroke that led to his death 14 years later.


John D. Rock­e­feller Jr. Gets Impatient
One of Mather’s deputy Horace Albright’s first pri­or­i­ties was to add the area around Jack­son Hole and the Grand Tetons to Yel­low­stone. When the bill died in the Sen­ate after ranch­ers fought back, Albright enlist­ed John D. Rock­e­feller Jr., who vis­it­ed the area incog­ni­to, to the cause. Rock­e­feller qui­et­ly bought up land with the inten­tion of donat­ing it to the park. But the con­flict over the Tetons raged bit­ter­ly for two decades and Math­er died in 1930. Rock­e­feller lost patience and broke the stale­mate. He wrote a let­ter to FDR say­ing that if the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment wouldn’t accept his land gift, he’d sim­ply sell it on the open mar­ket to any­one. He was almost cer­tain­ly bluff­ing, but his threat forced FDR’s hand. Also in the midst of a war, FDR des­ig­nat­ed Jack­son Hole Nation­al Mon­u­ment in 1943, and Grand Teton Nation­al Park took on the form it holds today sev­en years later.

War­ren Hard­ing Climbs the Nose
In 1958, War­ren Harding—the climber, not the President—spent an unheard-of 45 days cling­ing to the ver­ti­cal wall of El Cap­i­tan. He and Mark Pow­ell endured three storms 2,500 feet above ground on the first ascent of El Cap­i­tan by what is now known as “The Nose” route. Hard­ing, one of the most noto­ri­ous, hard-drink­ing, rebel­lious char­ac­ters of the Yosemite climb­ing scene, used Himalayan ideas to basi­cal­ly invent big-wall climb­ing, with por­taledges that allowed climbers to live on the wall for extend­ed peri­ods of time. In the 15 hours he and Pow­ell spent on the final por­tion, Yosemite gran­ite and Camp 4 became house­hold names. On his first ascent of The Wall of Ear­ly Morn­ing Light 12 years lat­er, a news crew would be wait­ing at the top.

A New Jer­sey Wait­er goes to Utah
In 1956, a wait­er from New Jer­sey got a job as a sum­mer ranger in Arch­es Nation­al Mon­u­ment. His name was Edward Abbey. He spent sum­mers on the slick­rock and returned to wait­ing tables in Hobo­ken in the win­ter. His notes even­tu­al­ly became Desert Soli­taire, a lyri­cal reflec­tion on the Utah desert that lured two gen­er­a­tions of explor­ers to explore the slick­rock canyon coun­try of the South­west (this writer was one of them). His fierce cri­tique of “indus­tri­al tourism,” led the Park Ser­vice to w rel­e­gat­ed him to a fire look­out. If they want­ed to silence Abbey, it was the worst move pos­si­ble: it gave him plen­ty of time to write. The Mon­key Wrench Gang, his most famous work, was writ­ten at Numa Look­out in Glac­i­er Nation­al Park.


Between Dec. 4 and 6, 1966, 14 inch­es of rain fell on the Grand Canyon’s North Rim. The water came down the slick­rock in tor­rents. A flash flood roared down Crys­tal Creek, dump­ing boul­ders into the Col­orado at mile 98, in the heart of the Upper Gran­ite Gorge. The debris fan con­strict­ed the riv­er to a quar­ter of its pre­vi­ous width, instant­ly cre­at­ing a new rapid. A mas­sive boul­der mid­stream cre­at­ed an enor­mous recir­cu­lat­ing hydraulic, now known as “the eater” and “the maw,” or just “the hole.” Crys­tal became the most feared rapid on the Col­orado overnight. Sim­ply nam­ing the sequence of rapids in the heart of the Grand Canyon—Horn Creek, Gran­ite, Her­mit and Crystal—will cause any boater to take a deep breath.

If some­one told you that a sin­gle bill could for­ev­er pre­serve nation­al parks, mon­u­ments and pre­serves equal to the entire state of Cal­i­for­nia, most peo­ple would say “it will nev­er hap­pen.” But it already has hap­pened. In 1980, Con­gress passed the Alas­ka Nation­al Inter­est Lands Con­ser­va­tion Act, the sin­gle bold­est stroke of con­ser­va­tion ever. It was bold­er still con­sid­er­ing the U.S. was only a few years removed from the OPEC oil embar­goes and Alaskan oil was in demand. ANILCA gave us house­hold names like Glac­i­er Bay, Kat­mai and Kenai Fjords, and an expand­ed Denali Park. We also got park­lands you might nev­er have heard of: Cape Kursen­stern, Ani­akchak, Kobuk Val­ley and Yukon-Charley. In oth­er words, with­out ANILCA, Alas­ka wouldn’t be Alaska.

Denali is Denali Again
On August 15, 2015, Barack Oba­ma ordered the Sec­re­tary of the Inte­ri­or to make a sub­tle but telling sym­bol­ic move: renam­ing the high­est peak in North Amer­i­ca Denali instead of Mt. McKin­ley. The park itself was re-named Denali as park of ANILCA in 1980. Human habi­ta­tion in the region goes back 11,000 years before Pres­i­dent McKin­ley took office. One of the less savory aspects of the Nation­al Parks’ lega­cy is dis­place­ment of native peo­ples. When parks were estab­lished, most were already inhab­it­ed by Native Amer­i­cans who lost their homes in the process. Obama’s ges­ture is a step toward acknowl­edg­ing this his­to­ry. And Denali (“High One” in Athabaskan) is also a more fit­ting name for the continent’s high­est peak.

The Dawn Wall Goes Free
At 3:30 p.m. on Jan. 14, 2015, Tom­my Cald­well and Kevin Jorge­son topped out at the top of El Capitan’s Dawn Wall. They were the first to free-climb the entire 3,000-foot face, rat­ed 5.14+, an endeav­or close­ly fol­lowed by social media. The free-climb­ing of the route first aid-climbed by Hard­ing and Dean Cald­well (no rela­tion) in 1970 brought big walls back to the climb­ing fore­front after three decade of focus­ing on short sport climbs and rock gyms.

Those are some moments that drove the first hun­dred years of our Nation­al Parks. What will the next cen­tu­ry bring?

The Nation­al Park Ser­vice might be best known for its col­lec­tion of amaz­ing Nation­al Parks, but along­side the 58 Nation­al Parks that span the coun­try, there are also an addi­tion­al 350 units with­in the Nation­al Park Ser­vice (408 total). Some of these addi­tion­al areas are small, some are huge and all offer sig­nif­i­cant cul­tur­al, his­tor­i­cal and envi­ron­men­tal val­ues that are worth check­ing out. And while the list is long, to help you under­stand the mean­ing behind the dif­fer­ent NPS des­ig­na­tions, as well as give you an idea of which ones to vis­it, here is a com­plete list of the dif­fer­ent units with­in the Nation­al Park Service.

©istockphotoNation­al Parks
The cream of the crop in the NPS, there are 58 Nation­al Parks spread through­out the coun­try with each pro­vid­ing their own unique land­scapes to explore. From the bot­tom of Grand Canyon Nation­al Park to the peak of Mount Rainier Nation­al Park, from the vis­tas of Shenan­doah Nation­al Park to the soli­tude of Isle Roy­al Nation­al Park, unbe­liev­able beau­ty can be found around every cor­ner of our nation’s Nation­al Parks, all wait­ing for you to explore.

Nation­al Monument
The dis­tinc­tion between a Nation­al Mon­u­ment and Nation­al Park is that a Nation­al Mon­u­ment holds with­in itself objects of his­tor­i­cal, cul­tur­al, and/or sci­en­tif­ic inter­est. For exam­ple, the George Wash­ing­ton Birth­place Nation­al Mon­u­ment has clear his­tor­i­cal val­ue, the Stat­ue of Lib­er­ty Nation­al Mon­u­ment holds deep­en­ing cul­tur­al val­ue, and the John Day Fos­sil Beds Nation­al Mon­u­ment is a great place for sci­en­tif­ic discovery.

©istockphotoNation­al Preserve
Of the 19 Nation­al Pre­serves super­vised by the NPS, 10 of them are in Alas­ka. Not much dif­fer­ent than the Nation­al Parks, Nation­al Pre­serves dif­fer by per­mit­ting cer­tain resource extrac­tion with­in their bor­ders. That means you can fish, hunt, and trap in both Denali and Gates of the Arc­tic Nation­al Park and Pre­serve, and oil extrac­tion is reg­u­lat­ed by the Park Ser­vice in Big Thick­et Nation­al Pre­serve in Texas.

©istockphotoNation­al His­toric Park & Nation­al His­toric Site
Of the 78 Nation­al His­toric Sites, every sin­gle one of them focus­es on one par­tic­u­lar build­ing or grounds where his­to­ry took place (i.e. MLK Jr.’s home at the Mar­tin Luther King Jr. Nation­al His­toric Site). A Nation­al His­toric Park on the oth­er hand gen­er­al­ly goes beyond the spe­cif­ic site and has a larg­er area to explore (i.e. Cha­co Cul­ture Nation­al His­tor­i­cal Park). With­in these two cat­e­gories also lies the NPS’s only Inter­na­tion­al His­toric Site, Saint Croix Island.

©istockphotoNation­al Bat­tle­field Park / Mil­i­tary Park / Bat­tle­field / Bat­tle­field Site
Nation­al Bat­tle­field Parks, Mil­i­tary Parks, Bat­tle­fields, and a sin­gu­lar Bat­tle­field Site (Brices Cross Roads) make up the 25 bat­tle sites pre­served by the NPS for their his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance. A few famil­iar bat­tle sites in these cat­e­gories may include Anti­etam Nation­al Bat­tle­field, Rich­mond Nation­al Bat­tle­field Park, and Get­tys­burg Nation­al Mil­i­tary Park.

©istockphotoNation­al Memorial
With­out too much of a stretch of the imag­i­na­tion, Nation­al Memo­ri­als are des­ig­nat­ed to com­mem­o­rate cer­tain events or peo­ple sig­nif­i­cant to nation­al his­to­ry. The most com­mon­ly asso­ci­at­ed place for memo­ri­als is Wash­ing­ton D.C. which includes memo­ri­als such as the Lin­coln Memo­r­i­al and Viet­nam Vet­er­ans Memo­r­i­al, but there are also many oth­ers includ­ing Flight 93 Memo­r­i­al in Penn­syl­va­nia and Wright Broth­ers Nation­al Mon­u­ment in North Carolina.

©istockphotoNation­al Recre­ation Area
Nation­al Recre­ation Areas with­in the Unit­ed States are main­ly run by the NPS, but oth­ers fall with­in the sanc­tion of the Bureau of Land Man­age­ment and the For­est Ser­vice. Of the Nation­al Recre­ation Areas man­aged by the NPS, many are cen­tral­ly based on water reser­voirs includ­ing Lake Chelan Nation­al Recre­ation Area in Wash­ing­ton and the first NRA, Lake Mead, in Ari­zona. Oth­ers are based on sur­round­ing metrop­o­lis­es includ­ing the first “Urban Nation­al Park”, the Gold­en Gate Nation­al Recre­ation Area.

©istockphotoNation­al Seashore and Nation­al Lakeshore
What the NPS lacks in cre­ativ­i­ty for their nam­ing process, they make up for in a wide range of scenic beau­ty. As in the title, Nation­al Seashores and Lakeshores are areas of land bor­der­ing great bod­ies of water, and whether you get to vis­it the Cape Cod or Point Reyes Nation­al Seashore, or you check out Apos­tle Islands and Indi­ana Dunes Nation­al Lakeshore, you are guar­an­teed quite the sight and appre­ci­a­tion for these near water locations.

©istockphotoNation­al River
There aren’t too many Nation­al Rivers under the NPS, only five in fact, but as you can guess they cov­er a lot of ground. Includ­ing in this cat­e­go­ry is the Buf­fa­lo Nation­al Riv­er, which is one of the few remain­ing undammed rivers in the Unit­ed States, and the New Riv­er Gorge Nation­al Riv­er in West Vir­ginia which is a mec­ca for kayak­ers, climbers, and base jumpers from across the world. Also includ­ed in this list are Big South Fork Nation­al Riv­er and Recre­ation Area, Mis­sis­sip­pi Nation­al Riv­er and Recre­ation Area, and the Ozark Nation­al Scenic Riverways.

©istockphotoNation­al Reserve
Fit­ting right in with Nation­al Pre­serves, a Nation­al Reserve is an area of cul­tur­al or bio­log­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance pro­tect­ed from fur­ther devel­op­ment. And like pre­serves, the two Nation­al Reserves with­in the NPS also offer some of the best recre­ation oppor­tu­ni­ties you can find includ­ing the rock climb­ing at City of Rocks Nation­al Reserve in Ida­ho and scenic hikes to be found at Ebey’s Land­ing Nation­al His­toric Reserve in the Puget Sound of Washington.

©istockphotoNation­al Parkway
Nation­al Park­ways are per­haps the only units with­in the NPS that rep­re­sent true auto­mo­bile trav­el. But we’re not talk­ing about the Auto­bahn here, instead, the 4 Nation­al Park­ways — Blue Ridge, George Wash­ing­ton Memo­r­i­al, John D. Rock­e­feller, and the Natchez Trace Park­way — all encour­age plen­ty of pullovers and a strict speed lim­it that hov­ers around 35 miles per hour.

©istockphotoNation­al Scenic Trail
While there are a num­ber of dif­fer­ent Nation­al Scenic Trails, Nation­al His­toric Trails, and Nation­al Recre­ation Trails in the Unit­ed States, the NPS only offi­cial­ly claims three Nation­al Scenic Trails under their reg­u­la­tion. These three trails are the 450-mile Natchez Trace Nation­al Scenic Trail, the mul­ti-sport Potomac Her­itage Nation­al Scenic Trail, and per­haps the most famous trail of them all, the Appalachi­an Nation­al Scenic Trail.


The Nation­al Park Ser­vice has con­ve­nient­ly pro­vid­ed us with yet anoth­er excuse for enjoy­ing the great out­doors in 2013 by offi­cial­ly announc­ing its list of fee-free days for the year ahead. Over the course of the next 12 months, the NPS has des­ig­nat­ed 13 days to be a part of the fee-free pro­gram, grant­i­ng access to more than 2000 nation­al parks, forests, wildlife refuges and oth­er fed­er­al lands at no charge.  Con­tin­ue read­ing