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Wild Green

Former Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman on environmental issues from climate change to composting.


In Praise of State Parks and Other Unsung Public Lands

 by Keith Goetzman


Tags: state parks, national parks, public lands, National Public Lands Day, outdoor recreation, wilderness, wildlife, environment, Keith Goetzman,

Blackwater Falls State Park, West Virginia 

“National parks get all the glory,” writes Jesse Smith at The Smart Set, but he says state parks deserve props, too. Smith notes that what many state parks lack in epic grandeur, they make up for with accessibility:

The state park system is arguably more diverse than its national counterpart. This seems counterintuitive, considering the 58 national parks are made up of biological and geological features that range from volcanoes to giant sequoias, glaciers to dry deserts. But the epic-ness of the national parks gives the system a kind of sameness—a collection of Big Wonders.

State parks can at first seem a bit tame in comparison—many consist of forest, hiking trails, maybe a lake with a swimming beach. They’re meant to provide easy access to the natural world (when budget cuts aren’t reducing it, that is). None of us can visit on a whim, say, the deepest lake in the Western Hemisphere, formed by a collapsed volcano. But in the two free days we have each week, we can fairly easy get to Lums Pond State Park or Cherry Creek State Park or Mashamoquet Brook State Park.

Smith notes that there are more than 6,000 state park units in the nation, attracting more than 725 million visits a year. “And yet you’ll never see the state parks on any kind of national calendar, on the face of any coin.”

Smith’s point is well taken, though I would add other state-administered public lands to the beautiful-and-overlooked category, including state forests, recreation areas, and wildlife areas. And although the small, charming state parks he mentions are well worth appreciating for their modest wonders, some state parks, especially in the West, cover serious acreage and/or have Big Wonders that actually rival those of many national parks. California’s redwood-packed Humboldt State Park and Utah’s stunningly panoramic Dead Horse Point State Park come immediately to mind.

There are also lots of federally administered lands outside the national parks that get comparatively short shrift in the shadow of El Cap, including national forests, wild and scenic rivers, wildlife refuges, and marine sanctuaries.

A little-known holiday, National Public Lands Day, celebrates virtually all these public lands, from grand to podunk, this Saturday, September 25. Learn about volunteer projects from habitat restoration to boardwalk building on the National Public Lands Day website.

Come to think of it, I’ve now got one more reason to suggest that no one become too obsessed with visiting all 58 national parks in some sort of life-list exercise: With all these other lands open to us, it’s simply not necessary to do so to take in the great natural sweep of our nation.

Source: The Smart Set, National Public Lands Day 

Image by Alaskan Dude, licensed under Creative Commons.