The National Parks System has been called America's best idea.
Some of the most spectacular sights on the continent are protected thanks to their special designation. That national status not only safeguards ecological and cultural history but also serves as an invitation to the public to enjoy them. In fact, more than 307 million people visited the country's national parks in 2015 alone, and the parks are among the few places people can soak up nature well away from the din of modern life.
So it would be natural to assume that most people support the creation of new national parks — but that would be a bad assumption.
What was true in 1872, when Yellowstone was dubbed the world's first national park, is still true today with the brouhaha over the creation of a park in the Maine Woods: There's almost always strong opposition when a proposal is made to add more land to the parks system.
From Utah to Maine, it's clear not everyone wants one
"What do the Grand Teton National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Glacier National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument all have in common? Besides their common designation as national parks and monuments, all these conservation areas were initially opposed by local people," writes George Wuerthner of The Conservation Land Trust. But the opposition certainly isn't limited to these parks; there has been push-back during some part of the process for most designations.
There's a range of good reasons why people rail against the creation of a national park, but some stretch the argument beyond facts and statistics. In the current fight against turning tens of thousands of acres of Maine Woods into a national park, the Maine Forest Products Council cites several reasons, including that the area isn't pretty enough to become a park, that the U.S. already has too much national parkland, and that we can't afford to turn the area into a park with the world population growing as it is.
In southeastern Utah, a coalition of American Indian tribes is proposing designating an estimated 100,000 archaeological sites within a 1.9-million acre area as a national monument to protect land they consider sacred. While the Obama administration is considering the "Bears Ears" monument proposal and sending U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to the sites this week to meet with proponents, the idea faces serious opposition from Utah's Republican leaders, many rural residents and a few Native Americans. Opponents say establishing the land as a national park would give the government "another layer of unnecessary federal control and close the area for development and recreation," ABC News reports. In Congress this week, Utah Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz are introducing their own plan for the land, which would protect some parts of the Bears Ears area while opening up a million acres for recreation and oil and gas development.
Why people often oppose new national parks
While some arguments may nudge the boundaries of reason, others are based on real and understandable concerns about how setting aside land for a park can affect surrounding towns. Those fears fall into roughly four areas.
Opponents of national parks typically voice the concern that cordoning off land will also close it to industry, a move that could hurt the local economy. Many argue that preserving wild lands does nothing to help locals and cuts off access to natural resources that could increase economic prosperity. But there are benefits of creating a national park that help offset the loss of income from forestry, mining and other activities.
"Visitation and spending directly related to nearby public lands such as national parks annually contribute billions to regional economies while creating hundreds of thousands of private sector jobs..." writes Headwaters Economics. "In today’s economy, the greatest value of natural amenities and recreation opportunities often lies in the ability of protected lands to attract and retain people, entrepreneurs, their businesses, and the growing number of retirees who locate for quality of life reasons."
Wuerthner points out the example of the Tetons. When President Franklin Roosevelt designated 210,000 acres of the picturesque range as a national monument in 1943, locals in Wyoming worried that Jackson would become a ghost town. Today, it's still a thriving town and a destination for outdoorsy types.
When the area became Grand Teton National Park in 1950, it ended decades of controversy about the park’s existence, and a 2016 report shows that in 2015, the park brought in more than 3 million visitors to the area who spent more than $560 million in the surrounding communities of Jackson, Teton Village and Dubois as well as the towns of Driggs and Victor in Idaho. Their visits supported more than 8,860 jobs in these communities.
Despite the historical record of national park designations being a boon for locals and visitors alike, it's a difficult leap of faith to believe that the income from a new national park will provide enough for a local area to not simply survive, but thrive. After all, not every national park is a Grand Teton or Yellowstone in terms of tourism. Even so, visits to national parks continue to rise along with the desire to connect with nature, unplug from the urban setting, and soak in the many benefits of being outdoors.
While national parks are geared toward creating ways for everyone to enjoy wide open spaces, many opponents voice concerns that they'll be deprived of the type of access they want — whether it's snowmobiling, hunting or other recreational activities.
The National Parks Service is tasked with maintaining the ecological integrity of an area, which means restrictions for visitors. Hikers are discouraged from going off-trail or camping outside of designated areas to minimize erosion, drones are banned to keep irresponsible operators from harassing wildlife, hunting is restricted, snowmobile use is restricted or banned. The regulations serve a purpose for preserving the health of an area and the overall enjoyment of all visitors. But these restrictions can feel like a burden to locals used to having free rein.
Again, Grand Teton National Park provides a historical example. Annette Hein writes, “At the peak of the controversy in the early 1940s, some Jackson Hole residents warned that National Park Service control of the area meant "your recreational privileges in Jackson Hole will be practically at an end. There will be 'don't' signs staring you in the face every mile or less," in the words of an unsigned letter circulated in the area at the time.”
While there are indeed a lot of "don'ts" associated with being visitor to a national park, the goal is responsible and conscientious behavior that provides maximum enjoyment with minimal impact.
As environmental consultant Lynn Scarlett writes in The New York Times, "Communities now brush up against parks, pollution drifts across the Grand Canyon, growing populations vie with parks and their wildlife for water and the relentless press for energy looms on park horizons."
Over all, the creation of a national park or a designation under the umbrella of the National Parks Service is what saves an area for the future and preserves that bit of land for any recreation at all, since it's spared from development and thoughtless overuse. Opponents ultimately benefit, despite a compromise in how they access the area.
When it comes to conservation, national parks are a boon to flora and fauna. But among locals, there can be an undercurrent of concern that the culture of an area will be lost. That might be a history of ranching — which is currently at the center of debate about creating a national monument near Grand Canyon National Park, which may mean the end of grazing rights for ranchers — or, in the case of the Maine Woods debate, the paper industry.
For over a century, the area within and surrounding the acreage that could become Maine’s new national park has been part of the paper industry. But the Great Northern Paper mill, the backbone company of the area, is no more. Even so, locals don’t want to risk creating a national park that would restrict access to timber surrounding the park for the forestry industry.
On the flip side, “Supporters view a national monument as a rare opportunity for economic development in a region that has witnessed the permanent closure of the paper mills that were the backbone of the local economy,” writes the Portland Press Harold.
“The paper mills are gone, and they’re never coming back,” said Brett Doe, the son of a police chief and grandson of a paper maker told The Washington Post. “The area is slow to realize that.”
The national park would protect an area “known for its exceptional habitat for wildlife, including for threatened and endangered species such as the Canada lynx and Atlantic salmon,” writes ThinkProgress.
The conservation of wildlife or a way of life doesn’t necessarily have to be an either-or proposition, but it does require compromise on both sides of the table.
Sometimes, opposition just comes down to simple politics — or rather, not-so-simple politics. The longstanding ties between people on the local and national level, or the interests of various industries large or small. Sometimes it comes down to a basic mistrust of the federal government’s motive for creating a national park or its ability to manage it properly.
In 2014, when the idea to re-designate Colorado National Monument as Rim Rock Canyons National Park was raised, there was a wave of opposition. The Colorado National Monuments Association points out that monuments operate under the same policies as national parks, so there would be no changes to the boundaries or how the area is managed with the new designation. Even so, concerns were based in large part on mistrust about motives and consequences of such a decision. A group called The Friends of the Colorado National Monument quickly gained ground by producing articles that spread doubt about the benefits of a national park designation.
Marjorie Haun wrote of the controversy, “Opponents of federal regulations and restrictions to commercial and private activity in western Colorado have, perhaps inadvertently, timed their campaign well, riding on a wave of mistrust for the Bureau of Land Management, National Parks Service, and government agencies in general.”
There's a long and storied history of opposition to the creation of national parks, and it can be a tangled web of interests and concerns. It's rare, however, to find a community that regrets a nearby park designation in the long run.
Parks are created for a variety of reasons — to preserve a place of distinct beauty, to preserve cultural and archaeological history, to protect extremely fragile ecosystems. Whatever the reasons may be, the creation of them ultimately benefits citizens overall, even if it doesn't seem that way at first.
As Wuerthner writes, "As citizens and conservationists, we ought to learn from these history lessons and look beyond parochial regional interests to advocate what is in the best long-term interest of the nation and that best preserves our collective natural heritage."
Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was originally published in June 2016.