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Our National Parks: New Models

The Cape Cod National Seashore represents a new type of partnership between the National Park Service and communities to preserve areas of land across the country.

Yellowstone was the first national park in 1872 and it set the standard for many that followed – Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Sequoia, Mount Rainier and others.

These parks are all large areas of public land managed by the National Park Service. But there are few such opportunities anymore; all the land is spoken for, most of it privately owned. As a result, new models of national parks have evolved. Many are also large, but they’re cooperatively owned and managed.

These innovative national parks are based on an increasingly rich network of collaborators and partners. The National Park Service plays a vital, but variable role in these parks, often managing small parks that might serve as core sites, and offering technical assistance and perhaps a little funding to catalyze the effort.

Cape Cod National Seashore in 1961 was an early experiment in how to create a national park in the midst of long-settled landscapes. Some strategic lands were purchased for the park, but the park also includes parts of six thriving Cape Cod towns.

The National Park Service worked with these communities to draft local zoning ordinances that help protect the environmental and recreational values of the area. And a park advisory commission with local representation oversees management of the park.

This innovative and collaborative approach is now flourishing. It’s been instrumental in establishing national parks in urban areas where acquiring land for parks is prohibitively expensive.

And many of the country’s national trails are also partnership-based. For example, much of the work of maintaining the Appalachian Trail is conducted by more than 30 local trail clubs.

The most recent manifestation of these partnership-based parks is a growing system of nearly 50 National Heritage Areas around the country. These are large lived-in landscapes that tell distinctive regional stories. The National Park Service provides guidance and support, but governance is in the hands of the people who live there. Abraham Lincoln National Heritage Area is a good example, a 42-county region of central Illinois that provides insight into Lincoln’s character and personal development.

Even the original national parks have benefited from this more collaborative approach as they find they must work more closely with surrounding communities to effectively protect lands inside the park.

Many of today's park superintendents can still use a map and compass and start a fire, but they’ve added other, more contemporary skill sets as well, such as fostering partnerships, managing advisory boards, fundraising and even speaking other languages.

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