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Essay: What Makes a National Park?

Does Pinnacles National Monument deserve national park status? You may be surprised to know what Congress does—and doesn’t—consider when deciding.

Over time, wind and water has eroded the volcanic landscape at Pinnacles to create stunning rock formations.
Photo caption
Over time, wind and water has eroded the volcanic landscape at Pinnacles to create stunning rock formations.

At latest count, the United States has 58 national parks—from Acadia to Zion. See them all and you would see some impressive sights: Half Dome at Yosemite, the coral reefs of Virgin Islands, the deep blue of Crater Lake. You would also see old sections of the Erie Canal about 10 miles outside Cleveland at Cuyahoga Valley and thermal soaking pools and bathhouses at Hot Springs, Ark. The national park system is so diverse that you have to wonder: What makes a national park, anyway?

That’s the question that now faces Pinnacles National Monument, a 26,000-acre expanse of volcanic spires, chaparral forest, and California condors in Central California southeast of Hollister. In January 2011, senators Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) reintroduced a bill that would add Pinnacles to the pantheon of U.S. parks. The bill would also add 2,715 acres to the reserve. But does Pinnacles belong in such exalted company? Its rocks and birds aren’t exactly on par with the geysers and grizzlies of Yellowstone. Then again, neither are those bathhouses in Arkansas.

The idea of a national park has been around since 1872, when the United States government set Yellowstone aside “as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” Nearly 140 years later, these “pleasuring grounds” are as popular as ever. A record 3.6 million visitors came to Yellowstone in 2010, and national parks all together saw 54.1 million visitors—1.7 million more than the year before. Partly thanks to the PBS National Parks series by Ken Burns, Americans seem newly inspired by their shared treasures. It’s been seven years since a new national park—Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes—joined the group, so it’s no surprise that believers in the national park system are looking for new ground.

Many outside of Congress believe Pinnacles is worthy of the honor. “It’s a unique place,” says Neal Desai, Pacific Region associate director for the National Parks Conservation Association. He likes to go on long hikes past the reddish crags, poke around in caves, take in the April and May wildflowers, and generally enjoy the solitude of a wild place just 130 miles from the Bay Area. He doesn't often see condors, but he’s more of a walker than a bird-watcher. (The park is home to at least 30 endangered California condors, carefully managed by biologists to help them avoid power lines and other human-introduced dangers.)

If Pinnacles did become a national park, the changes on the ground would be subtle. Like Devils Tower, it is now a national monument. This means it’s already managed by the National Park Service, and it’s off-limits to hunters, flower pickers, and rock collectors. And visitors to a future Pinnacles National Park would still be able to climb rocks, explore caves, take their hikes—everything they’re allowed to do now. They’d just be doing so in a national park.

Still, Desai believes that the new status would mean something. Turning Pinnacles into a national park would bring attention to an area that tourists and locals often overlook. “When people hear about a national monument, they think about a plaque by the side of the road,” he says. “If it’s a national park, more people will visit, and hopefully they’ll come away inspired.”

Only Congress can designate a national park. The current roster of parks is so diverse that you may wonder what those senators and representatives were thinking (most likely not for the first time). There’s no simple checklist for deciding which places earn the title, but the National Park Service says any new park must: be “nationally significant.” To reach that standard a place must:

  • be “an outstanding example of a particular type of resource.”
  • offer “exceptional value of quality in illustrating or interpreting the natural or cultural themes of our nation’s heritage.” (That “nation’s heritage” clause surely helped Hot Springs and Cuyahoga get into the club.)
  • provide “superlative opportunities for recreation for public use and enjoyment, or for scientific study.”
  • retain “a high degree of integrity as a true, accurate, and relatively unspoiled example of the resource.”

With all that in mind, it’s hard to quibble with any park already on the list. From the Great Smoky Mountains to Hawaii Volcanoes, “superlative opportunities” abound.

Even when a piece of land hits all the right marks, national park status is far from certain. Moving Congress to action in today's divisive and sensitive political climate requires a lot of public support, and transferring a place from one government department to another by necessity involves bureaucracy. Several other proposed national parks—including Mount St. Helens in Washington, the Valles Caldera in New Mexico, and the north woods of Maine—may never get the invitation.

But looking at Pinnacles, the words “national park” just feel right. Desai says he knows of no groups that oppose the change. So if you really are planning that trip from Acadia to Zion, you should probably get ready to add another stop.

Photography by Mike Brake/Shutterstock

This article was first published in January 2012. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.