More land protected by private owners than the American National Parks system

Here is an interesting fact: private landowners have protected more land than all of the National Parks system.

More than 56 million acres of private land have been voluntarily conserved across the country, according to the latest National Land Trust Census, which is released every five years by the Washington, D.C.-based Land Trust Alliance (LTA). For context, that’s double the size of all land in national parks across the lower 48 states.

“Land trusts are in a position to address many of society’s ills,” says Andrew Bowman, president of the LTA, in a statement about the census. “How do we stem a national health crisis and provide opportunities for people to exercise and recreate? Land is the answer. How do we secure local, healthy and sustainable food? Land is the answer. And land even has a role to play in mitigating climate change.”

Thanks to the flexibility of private land conservation, those 56 million acres play a wider range of roles than we typically expect from state or national parks. The owner of a small forest may prohibit any construction or public access, for example, while another may allow some hunting and fishing, or may even turn it into a community park with hiking trails. A family that owns a farm, meanwhile, could decide to protect certain parts of their property — like a stream buffer or a flowering meadow — while reserving their right to build structures or clear pastures elsewhere…

And while it’s not always as accessible as a national park — often by design, for the sake of wildlife or for the privacy of people who live there — protected private land is still valuable for public recreation, too. The census counts nearly 15,000 private properties with public access, including more than 1.4 million acres owned by land trusts and another 2.9 million acres under easement. More than 6.2 million people visited U.S. land-trust properties in 2015, according to the LTA, for the kinds of friluftsliv outdoor activities that boost public health without much public investment.

I’m guessing those landowners that do this like that both the National Parks and private owners are conserving this land. On the other hand, does this figure suggest that the National Parks system is not the best to preserve land? It may be the best way to preserve land for public use – and the busiest National Parks are indeed often overrun with visitors – but perhaps is not the best approach in the long run.

Chicago to get its first national monument: Pullman Park district

George Pullman’s factory town on Chicago’s south side is to be named a national monument next week:

President Obama will designate Chicago’s Pullman Park district, an iconic site in African American and labor history, as a national monument next week, according to White House officials.

The area, which includes nearly 90?percent of the original buildings that rail car magnate George Pullman built a century ago for his factory town, was the birthplace of the nation’s first African American labor union. The president will travel to Chicago Feb. 19 to make the designation in person, said White House spokesman Frank Benenati in an e-mail…

“The people who are part of the Pullman legacy helped to shape America as we know it today,” Lynn McClure, Midwest senior director for the National Parks Conservation Association, said in a statement. “Pullman workers fought for fair labor conditions in the late 19th century and the Pullman porters helped advance America’s civil rights movement… Thanks to the president, Pullman’s story will soon be remembered and recounted for the millions of people that visit America’s national parks each year.”…

Chicago is one of the only major cities in the U.S. that does not have a national park.

Status-anxious Chicago now gets a national park and at least one symbol that its history is important. Some of the earlier discussion about this possible monument had to do with development opportunities; now that there may be a steady stream of visitors to the site, how can it help promote economic development? I’m not sure what I would imagine growing up around such a site; souvenir shops? Restaurants to help feed visitors?

Should environmentalism promote pristine wilderness or more urban parks?

Debates over the legacy of John Muir pose an interesting question for environmentalists: to support pristine wilderness or more urban parks?

Christensen and others see Muir’s beliefs as antiquated in the face of 21st century environmental challenges that the bushy-bearded Scot could not have imagined: population growth, urban sprawl, demographic shifts, climate change.

The debate boils down to Muir’s primary ethic: The wilderness is a temple to be left undisturbed, so man occasionally can experience nature in its purity. That precept helped shape a century of conservation, ensuring that there would be unspoiled wilderness for succeeding generations…

To Christensen and others, however, Muir’s notion that immersing people in “universities of the wilderness” — such as Yosemite — sends the message that only awe-inspiring parks are worth saving, at the expense of smaller urban spaces…

Critics also see a correlation between the emotional, biblical language of Muir’s writings and the demographic makeup of national park visitors and the ranks of the largest environmental organizations — mainly aging, white Americans.

The Sierra Club, which Muir founded, and the Audubon Society are struggling to connect with California’s diverse population, particularly Latinos, who polls show are among the most devoted environmentalists in the state. A strong and diverse membership in California, where Latinos are expected to become a majority by 2050, is important to influencing political decisions and raising funds to support missions of conservation and environmental education.

Interesting issue. A few thoughts:

1. One could argue that there really aren’t many natural places completely undisturbed by human activity. Even the supposed “pristine wilderness” of the New World discovered by Europeans was really land that had been cultivated and altered by people for a long time.

2. The majority of people in the United States and in many countries now live in urbanized areas where they may have little time or resources for “pristine nature.” But, urban nature is a very human-altered form: for example, the design of Central Park in New York City is very intentional with its rock formations, water features, and set of paths and pedestrian areas (let alone space for vehicles and large buildings).

Chicago Tribune: President Obama should name Pullman a national park to jumpstart economic development

The Chicago Tribune editorializes that economic development in Chicago’s Pullman neighborhood would get a huge boost from being designated as a national park:

Pullman needs swift, decisive action via executive order to jump-start economic development. Damaged by the death of manufacturing, Chicago’s Southeast Side and Pullman need exactly this type of federal nudge. The local residents can’t do it. The city can’t do it. The state can’t do it. You can do it.

The dainty row houses of Pullman remain a testament to the one-of-a-kind development George Pullman brought to Chicago. From the wisps of a prairie, he built and then owned one of the country’s first factory towns. The workers who built his upscale passenger rail cars lived in housing on the property. Most of that housing remains in its original dollhouse state.

Designating Pullman a national park would make the Pullman campus a tourist and train enthusiasts’ destination and spur entrepreneurs to open businesses in the surrounding area.

Mr. President, show us another neighborhood like Pullman. Show us another community with its rich history — the site of a major labor strike and the birthplace of the first recognized black labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.

If you won’t award it national park status, then show us another way to save Pullman. Tell us you plan to build your presidential library there, one of many locations courting you.

This is an interesting appeal for economic development: only making a historic site within a downtrodden urban neighborhood a national park can help. Tourism and history can be big business today. Additionally, this park would be close to the 9 million plus people in the Chicago metropolitan region who don’t have many other nearby choices in national parks.

Still, it strikes me as a bit of an odd appeal. A national park should be designated as such because of the site’s merit or because of the surrounding neighborhood which needs some help?

Turning Chicago’s Pullman neighborhood into a national park

Some are hoping to create Illinois’ second national park in Chicago’s Pullman neighborhood:

Pullman would be one of the more unusual sites for a national park and among the easiest to reach. The Metra Electric Line has two stops in the community of about 8,900 residents. It also would be one of the least bucolic.

Two residents said they’re pushing for the park because the increased tourist traffic would help sustain retail businesses that otherwise can’t survive in the neighborhood. A massive Wal-Mart is scheduled to open nearby this summer, but the area has been barren of dry cleaners, salons, restaurants and coffee shops for years…

At the request of former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. and the state’s two U.S. senators, Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk, the National Park Service is in the midst of studying the neighborhood’s suitability as a national park site, said Mike Reynolds, the park service’s Midwest regional director. The study should be complete by May.

“Pullman’s significance is of no question,” Reynolds said when asked what the study would conclude. “Then we have to ask is there another one like it already out there in our (parks) system? In this case, I doubt there is. … Finally, we come to feasibility — the how, what, where. That’s the challenging issue in this case.”

The neighborhood is indeed historic and I’m sure the neighborhood and the city of Chicago love the idea of more tourists. I imagine there is a lot of potential here, particularly for school groups who could visit and to highlight Chicago’s important industrial past.

I don’t know the particulars of the National Park System but I am in favor of more urban sites. We need to preserve nature as well as notable urban locations that have heavily influenced American history.

McMansions in Zion National Park?

McMansions are often associated with sprawl but what happens when such homes are proposed for national park land?

There are 11,640 pieces of private land inside U.S. national parks. From Yosemite to Yellowstone, many have homes either built or being built on them. The land was owned before the national parks existed or ended up inside them as the parks expanded, according to the National Park Service.

Will Rogers, president of The Trust for Public Land, asked how big of an issue this is, he said, “It’s a really big deal. It’s like putting a fast food chain in the middle of the National Mall.”

He’s particularly concerned about what critics call a “McMansion” being built on a bluff overlooking a valley in Zion. Julie Hamilton was shocked to see it during a hike. “All of a sudden there’s this big house up on hill,” she said. “It’s like, are they going to build more? What’s happening here?”

What’s happening is budget cuts. In the 1960s, Congress established the Land and Water Conservation Fund — $900 million a year paid for with offshore drilling royalties from oil companies. That money was historically used to buy up private lands in national parks when landowners decide to sell. But two-thirds of the oil money is now routinely spent by Congress on other programs, leaving the parks unable to compete with wealthy buyers.

What if the homes being built weren’t McMansions but more modest structures? How about a green McMansion? Would these be more acceptable or is this really about any private development at all within national parks?

I suspect this is one of those cases where McMansion is a very effective to term to use because it contrasts strongly with the image of national parks. National parks equal pristine, rural land. McMansions evoke the idea of sprawl and SUVs. It is one thing to talk about homes or perhaps cottages, a term that might evoke images of Thomas Kinkade-like residences, but another to call them McMansions.