State Parks

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State parks are publicly owned lands set aside primarily for the purposes of recreation and environmental protection. As of 2002, 5,655 state parks, comprising more than 13 million acres, were distributed among all fifty states. These attracted nearly 800 million visitors. State park lands are generally intermediate in terms of level of development, opportunities offered, and management orientation. This puts most state park areas somewhere between the typically resource-oriented federal lands and the more user- and facility-oriented opportunities provided by local parks and recreation lands. They also tend to be intermediate in size between the larger federal parks, forests, and refuges and the smaller local parks and recreation areas. Finally and most importantly, state park lands tend to be closer to a majority of users than federal lands, with most U.S. counties containing one or more state park areas. With the majority of federal lands concentrated in the west and Alaska, state parks often offer the only easily accessible outdoor recreation opportunities for many Americans.

History of State Parks

States have been involved in the conservation, preservation, and designation of "public" lands and open space since before the "states" were "united." For example, the Massachusetts Bay Colony set aside more than 90,000 acres of land and water for public hunting and fishing through the Great Ponds Act of 1641. The state park concept also has a long history in the United States. In fact, the first "state park lands" were established by the state of California on a federal land grant in the Yosemite Valley in 1870 prior to the designation of Yellowstone in 1872 as the first National Park. However, the first "state park" did not have a very long history. The land was returned to the federal government in 1884 and was soon included in the third National Park, Yosemite National Park, in 1891.

Soon after Yellowstone National Park was established, a number of states started to address growing natural resource issues by setting aside lands for a variety of purposes, including forest conservation, watershed protection, as wildlife habitat, and for outdoor recreation. California and New Hampshire were among the first states to conserve and manage wildlife through creation of game commissions in 1878. The state of New York was the first to set aside state lands, although these early efforts were to protect forests and provide watershed protection, not for state parks. The designation of the first forest reserves through the Forest Preservation Act of 1885 directed the state purchase of lands to create the Adirondack and the Catskill forest reserves—parts of both later become state parks. Additionally, New York set aside Niagara Falls as a state reservation later designated as a state park. During the same year, Fort Mackinac was granted to the state of Michigan as public land that would eventually become a state park. Other states soon followed this lead. California, Colorado, and Ohio created new state boards of forestry. The first state park "systems," which included an agency designated to managed and develop lands set aside as state parks, were Illinois Division of Parks and Memorials and Indiana Division of State Parks established in 1919. Not long after, New York and Pennsylvania established park systems.

By 1921, many of the states had designated lands as state parks, and most of these had formed state park "systems." The first national conference for state parks was held that year in Des Moines, Iowa, with the mission of promoting the state park concept. Seven years later, the first professional association of state parks was formed as the National Conference on State Parks (NCSP). The development of the state parks was promoted and supported through a variety of efforts. The first director of the National Parks System, Stephen Mather, supported the formation of the state parks systems and played an important role in the formation of the NCSP. By World War II, most of the states had developed state park systems. By the early twenty-first century, all fifty states had established a state parks system. Most state parks were originally acquired as gifts, tax-delinquent lands, original state land holdings, purchased from private individuals or corporations, or federal lands turned over to the states.

The NCSP continued to provide state park advocates a forum to promote and expand state parks. In 1962, the National Association of State Park Directors (NASPD) was created by the NCSP. Since that time this association, along with the National Recreation and Parks Association, has continued to provide a forum for state park issues.

By 1993, state lands and waters collectively amounted to almost 80 million acres, which is approximately 5 percent of the nation's total. These lands, however, are not distributed evenly throughout the country. Just as most federally managed lands and waters are concentrated in the west, an area with the lowest population density, so are the state lands that include state parks. In fact, although the region accounted for just 18 percent of the U.S. population, it contains 65 percent of state lands. Southern states having almost one-third of the nation's population account for only 6 percent of state lands set aside. The north-central and northeast regions, with 27 percent and 23 percent, respectively, of the total population, have protected only 16 percent and 12 percent of state lands.

State Park Organization and Management

While all of the states have park systems managed by a department or a division of the state government, the focus, size, visitation, level of development, and amenities available within these systems vary widely. Most state park systems are modeled on the National Park system and originally tended to focus on providing passive outdoor recreation and contemplative leisure opportunities. As use increased, visitors demanded more services and opportunities; many park systems responded by increasing their focus on recreative leisure by expanding facilities and increasing amenities. By the early 2000s, the state parks systems spanned the spectrum from resourceoriented, rustic undeveloped lands, offering opportunities for dispersed recreation with associated facilities and amenities such as developed campsites and trails, to more fully developed user-oriented recreation attractions offering full service resorts, luxury accommodations, lodges, cabins, cottages, restaurants, golf courses, ski areas, swimming pools, and marinas. In fact, there are 115 resorts located in state parks, and just over one-half of the states have resorts in their state parks. Campgrounds, both developed and primitive, are by far the most common type of state park facility, but state parks also provide trails, water resources (including lakes, reservoirs, rivers, streams, and swimming pools), and picnic facilities.

The state park systems are managed by a number of different agencies and departments in the various state governments. Typically, state park systems are housed as a division or bureau in a department of conservation, natural resources, or environmental protection, much the same as the National Park Service is an agency within the U.S. Department of Interior. However, this is not always the case: some are located in tourism or recreation departments, while in a few states they operate as independent cabinet-level departments. Additionally, the management styles vary considerably across the states. Some state parks focus primarily on preservation and offer little in the way of developed amenities, while others offer highly-developed facilities, including a range of recreation opportunities and even full-service resorts. Still others remain primarily undeveloped wildlands focusing on the provision of dispersed outdoor recreation opportunities. Many state park systems have shifted their management focus toward nature-based tourism, heritage tourism, and ecotourism. This alliance with tourism has increased park visitation and helped grow park budgets.

State park systems comprise a variety of units, including state parks, state natural areas, state recreation areas, state historic areas, and state water-use areas (such as lakes, rivers, and beaches). In most systems all units are designated as "state parks." There has been a movement to reorganize the state park systems along the lines of the NPS structure, with the more natural undeveloped parks retaining the designation of "state park" while the more developed areas are classified as "state recreation areas." Units protecting and interpreting historic features are being designated "state historic parks" along with a variety of other terminology. However, some state park systems, Florida for example, are moving away from the various and sometimes confusing multiple terms and returning to designating all of their units as "state parks."

State parks are supported financially through a variety of sources, including state general funds, fees, grants, and gifts. Nationally, $1.8 billion dollars were spent for operating expenses in 2001, with less than one-half of that coming from state general funds. Most state park systems derive some of their income from user fees, including visitor entrance fees. Additionally, many states receive federal funds and matching grants from the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) to help fund acquisition and construction of new parks, infrastructure, and visitor facilities. Another duty that usually is handled by the individual state park agencies is writing the State Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plans. This document is a five-year plan required for states and local outdoor recreation agencies to be eligible for monies from the LWCF.

State Park Statistics

The way states organize and categorize natural resource lands varies widely. This makes a discussion of "state parks" somewhat confusing. Some states separate the management of lands "officially" designated as "state parks," while others manage all state outdoor recreation lands within one agency. These other lands are sometimes designated as state recreation areas, state wildlife-management areas, state forests, state historic sites, state trails, state preserves, state wilderness areas, and so on. Additionally, some state park areas contain sizable holdings of non-state-owned lands. New York's Adirondack Park, for example, covers more than 6 million acres, making it the largest U.S. "state park," but much of this acreage is not state owned. While the "park" is constitutionally protected to remain "forever wild," it is actually a patchwork of public, private, and corporate lands. However, this "state park" is managed by the Adirondack Park Agency, an independent state agency that is not part of the New York State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation Commission, the official state agency that manages the other state parks. For this discussion, state park lands are lands that are managed by the agency that is responsible for state parks. The data for this discussion comes mostly from the NASPD's Annual Information Exchange (AIX) and the individual state park agency Internet sites. The NASPD has a limited membership of fifty, each member representing one state, and is organized into six geographic regions.

State park acreage continues to increase, but generally these increases are not keeping pace with state population increases and state park visitation. Between 1975 and 1995, the number of state parks grew from 3,804 to 5,541, an increase of 31 percent. State park acreage also increased during the same period but not as much, going from 9,838 to 11,807 acres, an increase of 17 percent. Visitation, however, increased by 31 percent, from just over one-half million visitors in 1975 to almost three-quarter million in 1995, while the total U.S. population increased only 19 percent, suggesting overall population growth isn't accounting for all of the increases seen in state park visitation. During this time, the number of day visitors increased more (from 465,302 to 686,483, a 32 percent increase) than overnight visitation (which grew by only 13 percent, from 51,488 to 59,121). Staffing has increased, but much slower than visitation, up by only 8 percent, and most of this increase was in part-time staff. State parks' operating budgets increased 73 percent, and operating revenue (income mostly from entrance and user fees) increased by almost 80 percent, while capital expenditures actually shrank by 16 percent.

See also: Botanical Parks, City Parks, National Parks, Park Movements


Center for State Park Research. Home page at

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Donnelly, Maureen P. "Economic Impacts of State Parks: Effect of Park Visitation, Park Facilities, and County Economic Diversity. Journal of Park and Recreation Administration 18 no. 3 (1998): 57–72.

Ibrahim, Hilmi, and Cordes, Kathleen A. Outdoor Recreation: Enrichment for a Lifetime, 2d edition. Champaign, Ill: Sagamore Publishing, 2002.

McLean, Daniel D. "State Park Systems in the United States." In Outdoor Recreation in American Life: A National Assessment of Demand and Supply Trends. Edited by H. Ken Cordell, et al. Champaign, Ill.: Sagamore Publishing, 1999.

McLean, Daniel D., Amy Hurd, Brent Beggs, and Deborah Chavez. "Trends in State Park Operations: A 10 Year Perspective." Available from

McLean, Daniel D., and Russell E. Brayley. "State Parks: A Diverse System." Paper presented at the 2000 Social Aspects of Recreation Research Symposium, Tempe, Ariz. February 2000.

National Association of State Park Directors (NAPSD). Home page at

John Confer

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