Could one of them be our next national park?


It’s not even new to say it anymore: the best national parks face a dilemma of overcrowding. In 2021, forty-four National Park Service units set visitor records and, for the first time in history, Great Smoky Mountains passed the 14 million visitor mark.

Last year, 50% of total recreational visits took place in just 6% of all parks, said Will Shafroth, president and CEO of the National Park Foundation, when I emailed him. about the current crisis. “We need more people to know that there are over 420 NPS sites across the country and many of them are in people’s backyards,” he said.

Dan Ritzman, director of the Sierra Club’s Land, Water and Wildlife campaign, noted that this increase in visitation comes at a cost. “We are certainly concerned about the impacts of increased visitation to these areas,” he said, citing Yosemite, Zion and Rocky Mountain.

Although reducing visitation pressure to upper parks will require a variety of tactics – such as increasing funding, raising awareness of lesser-known public lands, and improving access to NPS units closer to urban areas – some legislators, like US Senator Angus King, suggested it was a supply and demand issue. A logical steam vent for the influx of crowds is simple: create more parks.

“Expanding opportunity in our parks and public lands must be part of our national recovery,” U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich (DN.M.) said in a statement to Outside. “These lands are our lands, and they heal us in ways few things can.” Senator Heinrich was a key advocate in advancing White Sands into park status, seeing his bill succeed after a big community effort and two years in Congress changed his designation in 2020.

But it’s hard to legislate to elevate an area to legendary national park status, and members of Congress routinely introduce bills to improve a lake or a notable national monument, only to have them pulled down during the committee process. A vote for final approval (from both houses of Congress) can take years.

We’ve tracked the top candidates for the areas most likely to become America’s 64th National Park, based on local support and pending legislation. Ultimately anyone can guess, but these three landmarks are well on their way to being recognized by the parks.

Chiricahua, AZ

(Photo: Dukas/Universal Images Group/Getty)

Often billed as a “rock wonderland”, Chiricahua National Monument, in southeastern Arizona, is known for its “unique landscape of rhyolitic rock formations created by massive volcanic eruptions and the subsequent erosion of this rock by wind, water and ice over millennia “, said Naaman Horn, spokesman for the National Park Service. . An eight-mile paved scenic drive and 17 miles of daytime hiking trails criss-cross the 12,025-acre space, bringing visitors face-to-face with miles and miles of towering pinnacles and delicately eroded balancing rocks. The monument is also a historic Apache homeland.

There is currently two active invoices aiming to change the title de Chiricahua, the last of which was introduced in the House of Representatives in February 2022. Support for this park designation has already passed in the Senate, and so far the Department of the Interior has supported both bills and is working to establish a Tribal Commission to ensure protection and access to traditional plant and mineral resources, as well as sites. historical cultural and religious. A formal vote of the House of Representatives is still required to designate the unit.

Delaware Water Gap, New Jersey and Pennsylvania

Delaware water gap
(Photo: Posnov/Getty)

Covering 66,741 acres of forested hills, dozens of cascading waterfalls, over 100 miles of trails and a 40-mile strip of the mighty Delaware River, Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area is one of the most popular natural sites in the country, receiving more than 4.5 million visitors a year. Grassroots organizations like the Sierra Club are rallying behind a huge grassroots effort to raise national awareness of the region. In January of this year, the Warren County Board of Commissioners of New Jersey voted unanimously on a resolution that could turn “the Water Gap” into a national park, but recently rescinded that support until they receive more information on traffic, parking, boundaries, funding, and hunting. Ultimately, an act of Congress is required for final approval.

If a proposal is accepted, it would be the New Jersey and Pennsylvania’s first national park, adding to the rare nine parks east of the Mississippi River, providing outdoor access to millions of city dwellers in neighboring states. “This extra level of conservation [will] provide them with the additional resources needed to deal with the increased visitation that would come with protecting national parks,” said Dan Ritzman of the Sierra Club.

Ocmulgee Mounds, Georgia

The Earth Lodge
(Photo: Open Space Institute; Mac Stone Photography)

There are public records dating back to 1935 that highlight efforts to create a national park from the culturally significant and ecologically diverse lands that make up Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park in central Georgia, said Seth Clark, executive director of the Ocmulgee National Park and Preserve Initiative. Not only is the Ocmulgee River Corridor home to endangered species of wild plants and animals and a fantastic place for anglers, it is also home to 17,000 years of human history, dating back to the Paleo-Indian period.

The more than 800 archaeological sites for which the park is named began excavation during Roosevelt’s New Deal and contains the only known example of a ceremonial spiral mound in North America, believed to have been constructed around AD 900. “Our coalition views the preservation of these lands in true partnership and consultation with the Muscogee (Creek) Nation as a necessary act of atonement worthy of the nation’s most vaulted public land designation,” said Clark, who is also the interim mayor of nearby Mâcon. If the NPS’ Ocmulgee River Corridor Resource Special Studyinitiated in 2019, succeeds, it could become Georgia’s first national park.

No matter where you visit this summer, outdoor enthusiasts will need to get creative if they want to experience the pristine, unfettered nature that the ideal of a national park is supposed to offer. “For park visitors, it’s always a good idea to ‘find out before you go’. If you are considering a trip to a well-known park, call the park first and ask about ways to avoid the crowds and find out about other lesser-known parks nearby to add to your trip as well,” said Will Shafroth of the National Park Foundation.

Park attendance should climb even higher in the years to come, there’s no better time than now to do a little research, dig deeper, and discover one of the underrated gems among the National Park Service’s 423 sites.


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