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Our National Parks: Beyond Boundaries

Neal Herbert
Bison along Rose Creek in Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park. Often the boundaries of parks are defined by politics more than ecological realities.

Visitors to our national parks may notice that the boundaries of many parks are marked by straight lines. These lines are political boundaries that have little relevance to ecological realities.

Yellowstone is a good example. There, home ranges of bison, grizzly bears and wolves extend well beyond park boundaries. Consequently, these iconic animals wander in and out of the park, putting them in jeopardy when they leave the park. Watersheds are another example of ecological systems that don’t comport with park boundaries. There’s excitement about addressing this issue through a new, landscape level approach to conservation.

National parks might serve as vital cores of larger protected areas. Surrounding lands – national forests, fish and wildlife refuges, state parks, lands owned by non-profit groups, even some private lands – would serve as important buffer areas and wildlife migratory routes. Proposals for a “Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem”, “Yellowstone to Yukon”, “Greater Grand Canyon”, “Crown of the Continent”, and “Path of the Pronghorn” are examples of this approach.

There’s a strong rationale for a landscape scale approach to conservation of historical and cultural areas as well. Many large lived-in landscapes warrant protection, but it’s not feasible and probably not even appropriate to think that these areas could be conventional national parks.

Instead, small national parks might serve as the core of these areas, working in concert with local governments and citizen’s groups to protect key components of the larger area’s history and natural history. In fact, these new models of parks – called “national heritage areas” – are now a growing part of the national park system.

Transboundary parks can be an effective way to address the inherent constraints of international borders. The best-know example is Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, joining Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada with Glacier National Park in the US. Established in 1932, this was the first of the more than 170 such international parks around the world.

The National Park Service also has “sister park” relationships with protected areas in nearly 20 countries based on issues of common resources and management issues. For a more comprehensive international approach, the World Heritage Convention has established a global network of more than 1,000 World Heritage Sites, including nearly 20 US national parks.

The National Park Service also administers a suite of funding and technical assistance programs to serve the conservation and recreation needs of local communities across the US.

National parks play a vital role in conserving our natural and cultural history, but their power is magnified when they extend their reach beyond park boundaries.

Robert Manning is the Steven Rubenstein Professor of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Vermont.
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