It might be August 2015 and President Obama might have almost a year and a half left in office but the scent of lame duck is cooking strong in the White House kitchen. Campaign 2016 is, amazingly, already in full swing and Obama himself has moved on to the “policy moves I can only make knowing I’m going into retirement” phase of his presidency. While the world focuses way to early on Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, I’m choosing to focus way to early on which part of the nation could become the 60th national park during the next president’s term. What we do know is we will almost certainly get a new national park added to the list. Creating national parks is a presidential past time with the only 20th century presidents not to create a national park during their tenure being Gerald Ford (hardly surprising given the whole “Nixon thing” going on during his abbreviated presidency) and Dwight D. Eisenhower (who wanted to remove a tree in Augusta National which is a sin onto itself…or at least it was until God decided the tree had to go Himself). Even Ulysses S. Grant, Benjamin Harrison, and William McKinley established parks when establishing national parks was barely a concept in the 19th century.
Creating national parks is an act that few can really argue with. Setting aside land for the public and protecting the environment from business interests is as liberal as liberal gets while protecting wilderness, investing in local tourist industries, and ensuring public access to lands the public owns are conservative values that any conservative can get behind. So barring what would statistically be a major surprise, we should be getting at least one national park between 2017 and 2020.
So the question is, what new park as we going to get?
Valles Caldera National Park, New Mexico
As crazy as it is to say New Mexico has only one national park, and most of it is underground. This despite the fact that lying smack in the middle of the state lies a massive collapsed volcanic caldera that houses grasslands and low-lying peaks, hot springs, lava tubes, and other geothermal features, as well as New Mexico’s largest elk herd.
Cerro la Jara, a rhyolite dome within the Caldera.
Most of the Caldera lies within the Valles Caldera National Preserve that was created in 2000 by then President Clinton after nearly two decades of land acquisition and haggling. The administration and certain mineral rights in the Caldera are complex but not insurmountable. The Preserve even borders the Bandelier National Monument which preserves ancient Pueblo ruins (specifically built between the 1100’s and 1600’s) and boasts 70 miles of hiking trails.
Pueblo dwelling within Bandelier National Monument.
The National Preserve itself is almost 90,000 acres in size and when added to the adjacent Bandelier Monument the total size increases to 123,000 acres. This would make it a fairly sizeable park for the park system clocking in between Redwood and Zion in terms of acreage.
Maine Woods National Park, Maine
Arguably the loudest advocacy group requesting a new national park lies in Maine. Maine boasts the largest undeveloped wilderness east of the Mississippi and its northwest woods have inspired artists like Henry David Thoreau and Edna St. Vincent Millay for generations. Activists are calling for the protection of 3.2 million acres that will act in conjunction with Baxter State Park which is already in existence and located in the middle of the proposed park. At 3.2 million acres it would be the sixth or seventh largest park in the country depending on where it falls in rank around Glacier Bay National Park which also checks in at 3.2 million acres. It would be the second largest park in the lower 48 and by far the largest east of the Mississippi. Maine Woods National Park is/would be home to myriad species including moose, bear, brook trout, and migratory songbirds, along with several endangered and threatened species, including Canada lynx, Atlantic salmon, wood turtle, Bicknell’s thrush, yellow lampmussel, and Tomah mayfly.
Mount Katahdin is the highest point in Maine and the center piece of Baxter State Park. Maine Woods National Park would preserve millions of acres of Appalachian forests, lakes, and mountains.
In terms of accessibility this would be a no brainer. Instantly this would be among the most popular parks in the country being a day trip for residents of Boston, Albany, New York City, Hartford, Providence, Montreal, and Quebec City. It would rank next to Acadia National Park and Shenandoah National Park as the most accessible parks for visiting Europeans. The sticking point is property rights. While most of this region of Maine is undeveloped wilderness, almost none of it is Federal publicly owned land. The State of Maine has a good deal of the land classified as “Maine Conserved Lands” but it’s not clear what that exactly means. Maine has a registry of conservation easements which appears to be what these lands are but that implies that these parcels of land are owned by private individuals with an agreement with the state to preserve their wilderness characteristics. Regardless, the parcels in this agreement are a hodgepodge of small and large land units scattered throughout the proposed park. To create a cohesive national park the Federal government would have to acquire the property rights from individual land owners piecemeal, likely at extravagant cost. In an age of austere government and strained budgets that seems farfetched but it’s not unprecedented. In the 1920’s and 1930’s a combination of Federal funds and privately raised money combined to purchase the land and evict many residents within the boundaries of what is today Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
Marianas Trench National Park, Northern Mariana Islands & Guam
This is my favorite on the list because it would be unprecedented and also relatively easy. According to International Law, the United States through its possession of the Northern Mariana Islands and Guam owns the waters and seafloor that includes the deepest oceanic trench on Earth. In 2009 President George W. Bush made this area a national monument and it’s not hard to see how Congress could up the ante and turn that monument into a full-fledged park.
The Mariana Trench Marine National Monument consists of 60,938,240 acres. The monument consists of submerged lands and waters of the Mariana Archipelago. It is divided into three units. First is the Islands Unit which includes the waters and submerged lands of the three northernmost Mariana Islands: Farallon de Pajaros, Maug, and Asuncion. Second is the Volcanic Unit which includes the submerged lands within one nautical mile of 21 designated volcanic sites. Lastly is the Trench Unit which is the submerged lands extending from the northern limit of the Exclusive Economic Zone of the United States in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands to the southern limit of the Exclusive Economic Zone of the United States in the Guam.
This park would automatically be the most remote park in the system. Currently Kobuk Valley in Northern Alaska enjoys that title with visitation numbering a little over 7,000 people in 2014 (American Samoa National Park missed this dubious award by a few hundred visitors). It’s easy to imagine that a park that is based entirely underwater would receive a bit less, especially when the main “attraction” in the park, the 6.8 mile dive to the Challenger Deep, the lowest point on Earth, cannot be reached save by hyper-expensive submersible descent of which only four have ever been made.
The Italian built and U.S. Navy operated “Trieste” became the first vessel to reach the bottom of Challenger Deep.
That being said, making the trench a national park would be an unprecedented environmental win. The waters and seafloor of the park would be off-limits to fishing and the overall environmental health of the Pacific would be seriously discussed on the floor of Congress less the species and reefs of the park continue to be strained by the myriad of environmental concerns that plague the Pacific Ocean. In addition the Mariana Trench and Challenger Deep would add one of the great geologic features of the Earth to a system that already includes the largest canyon in the world and the tallest mountain, lowest land point, and biggest swamp in North America.
Mt. St. Helens National Park, Washington
Why should a national park encompass an active volcano that killed 57 people 35 years ago? Because national parks are precisely meant to protect and display these types of natural and historical events. Since the destructive zone was set aside as a National Volcanic Monument the area has been highly visited, many trails, viewpoints, information stations, campgrounds, and picnic areas have been established, and climbing to the summit of the volcano has been allowed since 1986. National parks come with an inherent amount of danger. Heat stroke, dehydration, lost hikers, climbing accidents, animal attacks, even muggings and violence by other people all happen every year in the park system. The park system even includes parks dedicated to active volcanic systems such as Lassen Volcanic and Hawaii Volcanoes. Even Yellowstone National Park, one of the crown jewels of the system, straddles a massive magma chamber that will one day destroy the park and change the face of North America.
Mt. St. Helens reflected on Spirit Lake
Moving on from the terrifying, Mt. St. Helens National Park would protect 110,000 acres of Washington wilderness including the pristine Spirit Lake. The destructive power and resilience of nature would be on display as the park’s main feature would be the recovering slopes of the volcano itself. For bold hikers the slopes and summit of the volcano would be a sight that would rival any other in the park system.
John Muir National Park, California (Muir Woods)
It always stood out to me that Theodore Roosevelt has a park named after him but the patron saint of American conservation does not. Roosevelt to be sure is well deserving of such a title having visited parks in the west as a sitting president, created three national parks, and set aside countless national monuments (including the Grand Canyon). But while Roosevelt started the idea of presidential creation of parks and protection of land, John Muir started the idea altogether. His legacy certainly lives on but it would be fitting for the system to add a park with his name on it.
Redwoods in Muir National Monument
Luckily for the NPS, John Muir Woods National Monument is already very much in existence. Muir Woods National Monument protects roughly 550 acres of old growth redwoods just outside San Francisco as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area that protects the park, the Presidio, Alcatraz, and a number of other notable Bay Area locations. Muir Woods would be the smallest national park, 5,000 acres less than the smallest park in the system: Hot Springs National Park. It would be among the most visited though, and the strand of redwoods it protects is among the most vulnerable wood groves in the world. With the explosive growth in the Bay Area nothing would hammer home the importance of conservation and the legacy of John Muir than ensuring this grove, no matter how small or large, stands beside titans like Yosemite and Yellowstone. It would also be a testament to American equality that a little known woodsman from California would have a national park named after him allowing him to stand next and equal to one of the greatest presidents in American history.
Misty Fjords National Park, Alaska
Another national monument, this area protects nearly 2.3 million acres of pristine wilderness on the extreme southeastern end of Alaska. John Muir spoke of Misty Fjords as an “Alaskan Yosemite” due to its similar geology and glacial sculpted valleys. The monument is pock-marked with gorgeous glacial valleys with sheer walls rising and falling thousands of feet from the inlets below. It protects northwestern rainforests, glaciers, and all kinds of species from the salmon to the grizzly. Misty Fjords would be a spectacular bookend in the Alaskan Panhandle to northern Glacier Bay National Park.
Deep glacial valleys and pristine Pacific inlets are a trademark of Misty Fjords
The problem with Misty Fjords is that it takes away yet another few million acres from Alaska for the sole purpose of conservation and tourism. Alaskan parks don’t receive the large influx of visitors the lower 48 parks do due to their remoteness (Denali receives around 500,000 visitors a year but the drop off to the other parks is steep to say the least) and the state is already wary about the sheer amount of its land that is under Federal jurisdiction and protection while the state economy is dependent on resource extraction and export. Then-president Jimmy Carter proclaimed the national monument in 1978 as part of his sweeping push to establish protected lands and parks across Alaska. Every Alaskan national park except Denali was created on December 2, 1980 through the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act as Carter was preparing to leave office. Misty Fjords was likely left off the list because Alaskan opposition was so strong to the act that placing two large national parks on the Alaskan Panhandle would only strengthen legislative opposition. Perhaps more importantly, the largest deposit of molybdenum in the world lies within the boundaries of the monument and transferring this deposit from the Bureau of Land Management (which can develop it) to the National Park Service (which would protect it) is going to be an economic and strategic sticking point for a long time.
Cedar Breaks National Park, Utah
Cedar Breaks is another National Monument that has been the subject of being upgraded to a full-fledged national park. In 2006 county officials floated the idea of combining the monument with the adjacent Ashdown Gorge Wilderness, Flanigan Arch, and several private land holdings to create a roughly 15,000 acre national park that would join Utah’s existing “mighty five” national parks (Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reed, and Zion).
The Amphitheater at Cedar Breaks National Monument
The monument currently displays a mammoth natural amphitheater while the gorge, located within the Dixie National Forest, displays a sheer walled and spectacularly colored canyon. Located throughout the proposed park are thousand-year old Bristlecone Pines as well as the source of the Mammoth Creek. Volcanic Rhyolite tuff, sandstone, and layers of iron and manganese laden rock have painted the area a palette of browns, yellows, and reds which led Native Americans to name the amphitheater “Circle of Painted Cliffs.” Countless canyons, hoodoos, cliffs, and spires made mining and other economic activity in the area impractical but have preserved an amazing corner of Utah.
Palo Duro Canyon National Park, Texas
This one is a stretch because Palo Duro is already a fully protected Texas state park and if there is one thing Texans don’t like to do, it’s hand something over to Washington. Transferring Palo Duro to federal control would be unnecessary in terms of protection and Texas Parks and Wildlife would be loath to lose one of their system’s crown jewels. But even as a Texan who loves Palo Duro and Texas Parks and Wildlife there is something to be said about an area being a national park. The title highlights the importance of the park not just to a state or region but to the nation as a whole. To list Palo Duro next to parks like Everglades, Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain, and Olympic would put this spectacular canyon in the company it deserves.
The iconic Lighthouse Rock in Palo Duro Canyon
Palo Duro Canyon is the second largest canyon in the United States at 70 miles long and 6 miles wide at its widest, behind only the grandest canyon in the world. The canyon drops suddenly from the flatter than flat fields of the Texas Panhandle into a rocky waterfall of browns and reds cascading down to the hoodoos, washes, and spires of the canyon floor. Several trails and many first class facilities are already in existence notably the Lighthouse Rock Trail which currently is and would be the signature hike of the park. The park would preserve a unique canyon floor ecosystem and exposed rock layers dating back to the Permian Period.
Dinosaur National Park, Colorado/Utah
Dinosaur National Monument straddles the Uinta Mountains and is best known for its abundant paleontology sites and intact dinosaur skeletons. An ancient river system swept remains from the Jurassic Period and compression solidified these remains as solid rock. From there the buried remains were uplifted when the Uinta Mountains formed and the erosion that is characteristic of the Utah landscape revealed them to us today. Dinosaur would be a fantastic addition to the park system. It’s a long time and well-known park, many well-known trails have already been carved out, and much of the infrastructure already exists. The Quarry and its iconic Dinosaur Wall would be impressive additions to the system as would a park dedicated primarily to the protection and study of the country’s dinosaur fossils.
Picture of a paleontologist in 1923 excavating in the Quarry are of Dinosaur National Monument
Dinosaur has been a national monument since then President Woodrow Wilson created it in 1915 but a growing movement is bubbling in Utah to turn the longtime national monument into a full-fledged national park. Utah Representative Bob Bishop is finalizing a sweeping plan that would elevate Dinosaur to a national park, create a new Jurassic National Monument in central Utah, enlarge Arches National Park, protect an additional three million acres in eastern Utah but open up a little under 400,000 acres to oil and gas development. The idea is to boost Utah’s already lofty status as an outdoor mecca while promoting energy development. While a balance between interests seems to be achieved, the sticking point is a potential presidential veto. One of the stipulations to the legislation would be taking away presidential authority to create national protected lands via the Antiquities Act in several Utah counties. This arrangement exists in Alaska and Wyoming but presidents are always wary of relinquishing power. Bishop plans to introduce this legislation this fall so if it passes and President Obama agrees Dinosaur National Park would become the 60th national park. If Obama is not willing to relinquish Antiquities Act authority, refuses to allow oil and gas exploration on formerly protected lands, or the act fails to pass congress then Dinosaur will remain a national monument for years to come.
Craters of the Moon National Park, Idaho
Tucked in the green beauty and snow-capped peaks of Idaho lies a black and desolate landscape that seems to belong on an alien world and not Earth. This is Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve. This area protects a three flood basalt lava flows along the Great Rift of Idaho including the deepest known rift on Earth at 800 feet. 25 volcanic cones dot the park as well as several dozen district lava flows dating from 2,000 years old to 15,000. Like Death Valley National Park little vegetation and wildlife endures in the harsh conditions and pioneers in the 19th century used old Indian trails to skirt the flank of the fields rather than subject their animals hooves, and their own feet, to the sharp heat absorbent black rocks that can reach 150 degrees in hotter months.
Idaho or Io?
The monument was created in 1924 by then President Calvin Coolidge to protect the unusual volcanic features and since the monument has been subject to lobbyist efforts to upgrade it to a full national park. Ranching and hunting interests on the vegetated parts of the park have been a major sticking point (hence why Craters of the Moon is currently a national monument and preserve…allowing for manged hunting and ranching). Nevertheless the addition of one of the most unusual areas of the United States with its numerous developed facilities and long monument history would be a great addition to the park system.
Honorable Mention: Canyon de Chelly National Park, Arizona/Navajo Nation
Canyon de Chelly won’t be a national park for many years if not ever due to its sacred nature with the Navajo Nation. A handful of residents continue to live in the canyon to this day and hiking is permitted but only on designated trails or in the presence of a Navajo guide. Due to the open nature of national parks this set up only really works as a national monument and that is probably for the best out of respect for the Navajo.
Spider Rock at the center of Canyon de Chelly
That being said the canyon itself is something to behold and definitely worthy of being at the highest level of protected area in the country. The canyon features steep walls, Indian ruins, spectacular vistas, and the iconic Spider Rock. Overcoming the legislative and cultural hurdles to open this spectacular area up to protection and recreation are too high to practically occur and they probably shouldn’t occur at all given the Navajo’s wishes for the area but this area certainly must be mentioned on any list of places deserving to be elevated to a national park.