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What it does 

National protected areas are features or sites that the US federal government has determined to be significant and worthy of protection. These sites take many forms and can be monuments, parks, preserves, or recreation areas – to name a few. There are many different reasons why a site might be designated a protected area. Some sites – like Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument – hold special symbolic or historic value. Other sites might be protected because they have notable aesthetic, recreational, cultural, or scientific value. Many of these protected areas – such as the Grand Canyon or the Great Smoky Mountains – have become culturally iconic images of the United States.

Protected Areas of the United States

 
Background 

In 1872, the first ever national park – Yellowstone – was established as a public good “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” Yellowstone’s founding sparked a worldwide movement to preserve natural spaces for the enjoyment and enrichment of the public. Though the concept of a “national park” first originated in the United States, today there over 1,000 parks in over 100 nations around the world.

By Daniel Mayer (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Calciate Springs at Yellowstone National Park, Image by Daniel Mayer (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons​

 
Relevant Science 

National Park System (1872)

As described by the Library of Congress, “National Parks are spacious land . . . areas essentially in their primeval condition and so outstandingly superior in beauty to average examples of their several types as to demand preservation intact and in their entirety for the enjoyment, education and inspiration of all the people for all time.”

Although sites in the National Park System can sometimes be difficult to categorize due to their diversity, each site is given a designation that attempts to best capture the nature and uses of site. As determined by Congress in 1970, all units within the system have equal legal standing. This means that all sites within the National Park System have equal protection under the law. The National Park System falls under the purview of the Department of the Interior.

Designations within the National Park System include:

 * National Park

 * National Historical Park   

 * National Recreation Area   

 * National Parkway

 * National Monument

 * National Memorial

 * National Seashore

 * National Trail

 * National Preserve 

 * National Battlefield

 * National Lakeshore

 * Affiliated Areas

 * National Historic Site    

 * National Cemetery

 * National River

 * Other Designations    

Information on the National Park and National Monument designation are detailed in following pages. For more information on other designations, please visit the National Park Service website here.

Tuxyso / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons
Typical view of Joshua Tree National Park with impressive rocks and Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia). The photo is taken from the parking lot close to the Banana Cracks Formation​. Image by Tuxyso / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons​.

National Forests & Grasslands (1891)

Two other forms of nationally protected lands are national forests and national grasslands. These sites differ from national park sites in that they are managed by the US Forest Service, a division of the US Department of Agriculture. In total, the Forest Service manages a system of 154 national forests and 20 national grasslands

Despite being run by separate Departments, national forests serve many of the same roles as national parks such as recreation and public enrichment. In some cases, national forests flow geographically to and from park sites and monuments (e.g. Yellowstone National Park is almost entirely surrounded by national forests). The forest service provides a full list of recreation activities and their allowed locations on an interactive map located here.

Land management of national forests also encompasses non-recreation-related activities including: (1) research and (2) resource management.

  1. Research topics include forestry, rangeland management, biological and physical sciences, socioeconomics, forest uses, and more.
  2. Resource management includes livestock grazing, mineral and energy production, wood products, energy transmission corridors, mushroom picking, and more.

By U.S. Forest Service (U.S. Forest Service) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Crooked River National Grassland, Oregon in fall. Image by U.S. Forest Service (U.S. Forest Service) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
 

National Wildlife Refuge System (1903)

Maintained by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, wildlife refuges are protected multiuse conservation and recreation areas. The first ever US wildlife refuge – Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge – was designated by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903. Since then, the National Wildlife Refuge System has grown to include more than 560 refuges.

In total, wildlife refuges provide habitat for more than “700 species of birds, 220 species of mammals, 250 reptile and amphibian species and more than 1,000 species of fish”. More specifically wildlife refuges also house and protect more than 380 threatened or endangered species of plants and animals.

The National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997 outlined six areas of wildlife-dependent recreation appropriate on refuges: (1) hunting, (2) fishing, (3) wildlife observation, (4) wildlife photography, (5) environmental education, and (6) environmental interpretation.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also works to meet conservation challenges including: urban encroachment, habitat fragmentation, water quality degradation, climate change, and increasing demands for energy development and extraction.

For an interactive map of wildlife refuge sites, click here.
By Walter Siegmund (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Uppler Klamath Lake canoe trail, Upper Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, Oregon. By Walter Siegmund (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

National Monuments (1906)

The official National Monument designation was established in 1906 when Theodore Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act into law. This legislation authorized the President to “protect landmarks, structures, and objects of historic or scientific interest by designating them as National Monuments.”  The first ever landmark to be designated a national monument was Devils Tower – pictured to the right – in Wyoming. 

The Antiquities Act was the product of a generation-long effort over the last quarter of the 19th century in which educators and scientists banded together to safeguard public lands. In practice, the National Monument designation the Department of the Interior to protect designated sites so that they might be preserved for the enjoyment and enrichment of future generations.

Over time, many of these sites have become iconic symbols of American values and ideals. For example, the Statue of Liberty is an internationally recognized symbol of freedom and has come to represent “hope and opportunity for those seeking a better life in America.”
By B D (Devil's Tower select (3) 1.1) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Devil's Tower at Sunrise, Devil's Tower National Monument, Wyoming. By B D (Devil's Tower select (3) 1.1) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

National Wilderness Preservation System (1964)

Established by Congress in 1964, the National Wilderness Preservation System is composed of undeveloped Federal lands administered by differing agencies including: (1) the Bureau of Land Management, (2) the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, (3) the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, and (4) the National Park Service. The purpose of the wilderness system is to protect and manage undeveloped Federal land such that the natural conditions of the land are preserved.

Read more here.
By WilderAddict (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Barbours Creek Wilderness, Virginia. By WilderAddict (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

National Wild and Scenic Rivers System (1968)

The National Wild and Scenic Rivers system – first established by Congress in 1968 – is jointly administered by four federal agencies: (1) the Bureau of Land Management, (2) the National Park Service, (3) the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and (4) the US Forest Service. Together these agencies work to ensure the protection of selected rivers in accordance with the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

Rivers are selected based on the criteria that they “possess outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural or other similar values.” The Act also details that selected river be “preserved in free-flowing condition, and that they and their immediate environments shall be protected for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations.”

For a more detailed overview of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, please follow this link.
By Doug Wertman (Flickr: Overlooking The Buffalo River) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Buffalo River, Arkansas. By Doug Wertman (Flickr: Overlooking The Buffalo River) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

National Marine Sanctuary System (1972)

The Office of National Marine Sanctuaries – a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) – is responsible for guaranteeing the protection of more than 600,000 square miles of aquatic habitat in the form of 13 national marine sanctuaries and 2 national marine monuments. These sanctuaries represent a variety of habitat types – such as reefs, coastlines, and bays. The Office of National Marine Sanctuaries tracks the health of habitats, maintains recreational locations for fishing and diving, preserves historically significant shipwrecks, and supports commercial industries such as tourism, fishing, and kelp harvesting. Sanctuaries also serve as natural classrooms where students and researchers can learn more about marine science and stewardship.

A list of all sanctuaries and monuments including information about each can be found here, and more information can be found at the National Marine Sanctuary FAQs page.
By Emma Hickerson, NOAA FGBNMS Research Coordinator. (NOAA Photo Library: sanc0486) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0) or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, Texas. By Emma Hickerson, NOAA FGBNMS Research Coordinator. (NOAA Photo Library: sanc0486) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0) or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

National Estuarine Research Reserves (1972) 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is also responsible for the management of 29 coastal estuarine systems. An estuary is a water body and surrounding wetland notable for its brackish water – a mix of fresh and salt water. Estuaries are usually found where fresh water rivers meet salt water oceans. Through the research reserve network, NOAA provides funding and guidance to coastal states to ensure good stewardship of the estuary systems.

Healthy estuaries provide many services – both to the natural environment and humans. Estuaries filter water, protect habitats, and can act as a buffer against rising seas and storm events.

For an interactive map of the National Estuarine Research Reserves, click here, and for more information on estuaries and the economic and ecologic services they provide, follow this link.
Kachemak Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. A beautiful array of starfish , sea urchins and mussel shells in the rocky intertidal zone of Kachemak Bay. By NOAA National Estuarine Research Reserve Collection. Public Domain.

Kachemak Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. A beautiful array of starfish , sea urchins and mussel shells in the rocky intertidal zone of Kachemak Bay. By NOAA National Estuarine Research Reserve Collection. Public Domain.

National Marine Protected Areas (2000) 

Established by Executive Order 13158 in May of 2000, National Marine Protected Areas are defined as “...any area of the marine environment that has been reserved by federal, state, territorial, tribal, or local laws or regulations to provide lasting protection for part or all of the natural and cultural resources therein.”

Functionally, Marine Protected Areas are defined by five key characteristics: (1) area, (2) level of protection, (3) permanence of protection, (4) constancy of protection, and ecological scale of protection. Further clarification on the interpretation of these criteria can be found here.

The NOAA’s Marine Protected Areas Inventory details all Marine Protected Areas in US Waters and can accessed here, and an informative infographic concerning Marine Protected Areas in U.S. Waters is linked here.
 

National Landscape Conservation System (2000)

Primarily administered by the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the National Landscape Conservation System was created in 2000 with the goal of protecting significant landscapes, and includes approximately 36 million acres of Conservation Lands. These spaces are protected under multiple designations, with an overall goal to conserve special features and provide opportunities for “hunting, solitude, wildlife viewing, fishing, history exploration, scientific research, and a wide range of traditional uses.”

Designations included within the National Landscape Conservation System include:

 * National Monument

 * National Conservation Area   

 * Wilderness Area   

 * Wilderness Study Area   

 * National Wild and Scenic River  

 * National Scenic Trail

 * National Historical Trail    

 * Cooperative Management   
       and Protection Area 

 * Forest Reserve

 * Outstanding National Area

 

 

A full map of National Conservation Lands and their uses can be found here.

 
Primary Author 
Alexander Yoshizumi
Editor(s) 
Daniel Copple; Alexandra Sutton Lawrence, Ph.D.
Energy Subcategory 
Recommended Citation 

Duke SciPol, "Science Module: Protected Areas of the United States" available at http://scipol.duke.edu/content/science-module-protected-areas-united-states (12/06/2017).

 

 

License 
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