Surprise Finds Top List of Best National Parks

Hope Hamashige
for National Geographic News
June 27, 2005
Visiting a national park conjures images of pristine, untrammeled
wilderness. Whether traveling to see geological wonders or historical
landmarks, visitors head out to parks in search of clean, quiet spaces
to escape the din of urban life.

To find out which parks meet those expectations—and which fall short—the National Geographic Sustainable Destinations Resource Center recently conducted a survey of 55 national parks in the U.S. and Canada. The results, which appear in the July/August issue of National Geographic Traveler, offer a few surprises.

Traveler geotourism editor Jonathan Tourtellot spearheaded the survey, which solicited findings from 300 expert panelists in such fields as park management, archaeology, and historic preservation.

"The winner was a big surprise to me," Tourtellot said, "because I had never even heard of it."

Best Parks

British Columbia's Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site was the surprise top scorer. If you've never heard of it either, you're probably not alone. Located in the Queen Charlotte Islands off the central coast of British Columbia, the park welcomes a mere 3,000 visitors—all arriving by boat or floatplane—each year.

Beyond a simple scorecard of the parks themselves, the survey also offers assessments of the parks' surrounding communities, the so-called gateways from which visitors launch their outdoor excursions.

At a time when parks are struggling with overcrowding, increased pollution, and gaudy development, the highest scorers like Gwaii Haanas turned out to be more isolated, less well-known, and surrounded by communities concerned with preserving their cultural integrity.

The panelists, who responded to the survey anonymously, noted that Gwaii Haanas's low visitation helps keep its environment pristine. But the park also scores high for its relationship with the nearby Haida Nation.

"The strong co-management of the park with the Haida people has significantly improved the management of this park," one panelist wrote in his findings, "and it largely retains it wilderness character and cultural significance."

The top park in the United States, like Gwaii Haanas, is not widely visited, either. Fewer than 200,000 travelers visit Wisconsin's Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, a group of 21 islands on Lake Superior. And since most visitors pass through on sailboats or kayaks, their environmental impact is minimal.

Also like Gwaii Haanas, the Apostle Islands earned points among panelists for the relationship between the park and its nearest town, Bayfield. "Bayfield is a delightful gateway community providing authentic Great Lakes atmosphere," one panelist noted.

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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