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The National Parks: More Than Just Outdoor Recreation

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The National Parks: More Than Just Outdoor Recreation

Zion National Park, established to protect scenic beauty and unique geological features in Utah. Courtesy of the National Park Service

The mention of our national parks system often conjures up images of popular travel destinations like Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, or the Great Smoky Mountains. National parks are regarded as areas of great natural beauty that offer opportunities for hiking, camping, boating, and other outdoor recreational activities. In actuality, when President Woodrow Wilson signed the Organic Act in August of 1916, it was not the primary purpose of the National Park Service to provide recreational opportunities. The original intent was "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."

The Diversity of our Parks System

Today, of the 390 units of the National Park System, only 58 are designated as "national parks." The classification system used by the National Park Service includes 18 other designations, including descriptive listings such as lakeshores, seashores, and battlefields, and others titles that can't be neatly categorized because of the diversity of resources within them.

Many of the important events in our nation's history are interpreted in the national parks system, including the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, the Supreme Court Decision (Brown vs. Board of Education) aimed at ending segregation in public schools, and the Johnstown Flood, one of the worst disasters in American history. Many of our national historic sites tell the stories and preserve the legacies of important individuals who helped to shape our nation's past and present, including notable African-Americans, Hispanics, and women. Parks celebrate inventors like the Wright Brothers and Thomas Edison, writers like Eugene O'Neill and Edgar Allan Poe, and also recognize the contributions of many of our past presidents. National historic sites, battlefields, and military parks tell the stories of important conflicts during our nation's history, including the Revolutionary War, the Civil War. and more recently the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

And Then There's Recreation...

The National Park System today comprises 390 areas covering more than 83 million acres in 49 States, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, Saipan, and the Virgin Islands. Even with the rich historical interpretation provided by National Park Service, statistics still show that the most visited parks are usually those that include great scenery and/or provide opportunities for outdoor recreation. In 1998, the five most popular destinations included the Blue Ridge Parkway, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Lake Mead National Recreation Area. and Gateway National Recreation Area. Only one of the top 20 most visited sites was a national historical park or national historic site.

Whether your interest is history, geography, biology, zoology, archeology, or simply enjoying the great outdoors, the national park system definitely has something to captivate your interest. Teachers and students can take advantage of a variety of excellent educational resources available at our parks system, including opportunities to learn through the Parks as Classrooms Program and Teaching with Historic Places. Also, volunteering and seasonal or full-time jobs can provide valuable training and experience, and afford the chance to explore some of the most beautiful protected lands and wilderness areas that the country has to offer.

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