Surprise Finds Top List of Best National Parks

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Jim Nepsted, a spokesperson for Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, added that Bayfield has "resisted all attempts at crass commercialism, and they have not let in any chain motels or restaurants."

Other high scorers include lesser-knowns like Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland, Canada; Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska; Great Basin National Park in Nevada; and Kenai Fjords National Park in Alaska.

Six of the survey's top 16 parks are in Canada, a fact that Tourtellot says stems from Canada's conservationist approach to its parks.

"The difference between the United States and Canada is that the first job of the parks service in Canada is to preserve the environment," Tourtellot said. "In the U.S., the parks are there to preserve the environment and promote outdoor recreation. What if the recreation is harming the environment? These competing mandates make it more difficult to manage when they conflict."

Collaboration Counts

The other end of the spectrum—the parks that are facing the most trouble—are all located in the southeastern United States. Everglades National Park/Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida scored lowest for a host of environmental problems that threaten its very existence.

"Enchroachment by housing and retail development has thrown the precious ecosystem into a tailspin," said one panelist, "and if humankind doesn't back off, there will be nothing left of one of this country's most amazing treasures."

Great Smoky Mountains National Park ranked second to last in the survey, due to its heavy traffic and air pollution, as well as for its gateway towns of Gatlinburg, Tennessee; Cherokee, North Carolina; and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, which one panelist called "glorified amusement parks."

All hope is not lost for such places, however. Tourtellot noted that parks with low scores can stage comebacks, particularly if the parks and their neighboring communities join forces.

Long at odds with one another, Great Smoky Mountains National Park and its nearby towns have recently come together to curb pollution and bring the gateway villages more in line with the park's natural beauty.

"Air pollution is our biggest problem, and years ago the cities didn't want to hear about it," said Bob Miller, a park spokesperson. "Now they are advocates and are putting pressure on the people who enforce air quality."

Local leaders, he said, are already beginning to see the benefits of change.

"They are talking about improvements," Miller said. "It's going to take time, but we feel like we have turned a corner."

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