What’s a park for?


“Keep your nature out of my nature” — Aaron Lucich


First of all, what is a park? Zion is one, so is Yellowstone, Central, Yosemite, Gramercy, the Maasai Mara and Golden Gate Park. Then there’s Fenway, Candlestick and Comiskey Parks. They’re ball parks. Parks exist everywhere—in cities, towns, suburbs and wide open spaces. Most are public, but some are private (Gramercy and Zuccotti). They’re on every continent and serve many purposes, from entertainment to human refuge, from sport to wildlife and native plant protection, eco-system integrity and cultural, historical and natural preservation. There are even temporary parks created for county fairs, revivals and weekend events. And there are tiny urban parklets formed in San Francisco by people who fill a parking meter with coins, lay down some sod in the parking space, set up chairs and relax until the meter runs out. Their variety is limitless, but all parks have one thing in common. They are human creations and are, without exception, designed and managed primarily for human use.

In their very creation, parks create controversy. Some usurp private property, others displace native people. Still others turn pasture grazed by livestock into pasture for wild ungulates. Lands eyed by developers become public playgrounds, treasured hunting grounds are turned into reserves for the hunted. So while parks are ostensibly created for people, they also piss people off. That seems to be almost unavoidable. In fact, the fate of most every park is controversy.

As I traveled the planet researching a book about conservation refugees, many of whom had been displaced by national parks, I was surprised to find that one of the most heated controversies surrounding rural parks around the world is agriculture, and whether or not it should be allowed in any form inside a park boundary. The very sight of grazing cattle, plowed fields, silos, barns, vineyards and fishing boats inside a national park is horrifying to some nature enthusiasts, particularly those who believe that cultivated land can be stripped of agriculture, crisscrossed with asphalt roads leading to parking lots and tailored trailheads, and declared “wilderness.” Ironically, many of the people who oppose agriculture in parks near their communities also treasure fresh, locally produced foods.

Most rural American national parks that are not historic monuments were created on open, uncultivated land. Some displaced true wilderness. And most of them have remained free of agriculture, although roads, trails, lodges and over 600 commercial concessions have stripped most of them of any semblance of the wild places they once were. A few began their existence on land that had been grazed and cultivated for centuries, most notably Grand Teton, Great Smokey Mountains, Shenandoah, Apostle Islands and Cuyahoga Valley National Parks, as well as national lakeshores in Michigan and Illinois and the Point Reyes National Seashore, which are not legally parks, but are managed as such by the National Park Service. 

In some of those places, agriculture has been continued in some form since the park’s founding. In others, the cultural dynamic that created the landscape was replaced with idealized natural settings in keeping with the ideological and pastoral themes of the park service and its supporters. “Rewilding” is the word most frequently used to describe this process. In Cuyahoga, farming was stopped altogether, the park rewilded for a while, and then farms were reestablished. But Cuyahoga is an exception that I will return to in a moment.

The creation of Shenandoah National Park provides a better example of a fairly prevalent American attitude toward the notion of farming in parks. While there were still hundreds of productive farms and plantations in Shenandoah Valley, many of which had been cultivating the land for centuries, advocates of a national park described the entire area as “primeval wilderness.” In 1930, the State of Virginia issued a blanket condemnation of the area. The farmers challenged eminent domain but failed, and 465 families were evicted from their land. Homes and barns were razed or burned to prevent anyone from moving back in. The park service called for “a quick return to nature while cleaning up the landscape and preparing to receive visitors in large numbers.” In the time it takes to seed, grow and harvest a crop, 300 square miles of diverse and prosperous farmland was taken out of production.

But not all American parks are created equal. They are, in fact, remarkably different from one another, autonomously run as they are by park superintendents, who display a wide diversity of attitude toward agriculture and mariculture. Some won’t even consider it, while others are more open to the idea, like John Debo, former manager of Ohio’s 33,000-acre Cuyahoga Valley National Park, who willingly bowed to local pressure from the pro-ag Cuyahoga Valley Countryside Conservancy and reopened deteriorating but picturesque old farms that once existed in the park.

The conservancy was established in 1999 as a cooperating partner with the park, and for four years after Debo gave a green light to agriculture, it focused on rehabilitating and revitalizing the old farms. To preserve the area’s rural landscape, the “Countryside Initiative” invited farmers to live and farm inside the park, but only using sustainable methods appropriate for a nature reserve. Eleven rehabilitated farms are now in production.

Citizens of Cleveland and Akron can and do travel the short distance to the park to buy fresh produce, eggs, cheese, meat and wines made from restored vineyards. There are also two smaller national lakeshores on the Great Lakes—Sleeping Bear and Indiana Dunes—that have allowed farms to remain in operation, partly for educational purposes and partly for cultural reasons. Delaware Gap National Recreation Area has 3,000 acres in strictly controlled agricultural production. And subsistence farming of bananas, breadfruit, taro and coconut is allowed on a federally managed preserve inside the National Park of American Samoa.

The Adirondack National Park is experimenting with a fascinating compromise they call “wild farming,” which involves planting native pollinator corridors, building ponds, bird and bat houses and restoring riparian and wetland habitats while adopting non-lethal predator controls on local ranches and developing cropping systems uniquely adapted to each ecosystem in the bioregion. Those practices are combined with sustainable farming. The protection of biodiversity is the ultimate goal of wild farming, as it is in most national parks. The Adirondack project covers many acres of natural land and farmland, including a once-private farm now owned and operated by the Eddy Foundation.

That farm is inside a wildlife corridor called the Split Rock Wildway, which connects the park to the lake. Most of the area is covered by forest maintained in, or returning to, a natural state. The rest is composed of cultivated fields of organic fruits, vegetables, grains and mushrooms. The fields are crisscrossed with hedgerows of native fruit-bearing trees and shrubs. By all indications, the experiment is a huge success and could encourage other superintendents to consider similar projects elsewhere in the system, were it not for considerable public opposition to the whole idea of farming in parks.

In 1949, when Britain decided to follow America’s example and create a chain of national parks, there was virtually no uncultivated land left anywhere in the kingdom. Following the Shenandoah model by kicking thousands of farmers off land that had been grazed and cultivated for centuries to create parks for weary urbanites and tourists would have caused such a national uproar that the idea was dismissed without debate. The result: Parliament passed the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act, creating 15 rural parks in England and Wales, comprising about 5.5 percent of total land in the U.K. Seventy percent of the land is privately owned by about 300,000 people and virtually all the original farmland remains under cultivation, albeit limited by new rules and restrictions. All but 1 percent of the land inside Snodonia National Park in Wales is private, and 80 percent of it is in agriculture. The aim of Snodonia is to encourage land-management practices that meet the highest stewardship standards. The park is regarded worldwide as an ongoing experiment in cultural and ecosystem preservation.

Local planning authorities explicitly encourage development of farm accommodations and farm-based attractions inside the parks, while park officials share a commitment to support productive agriculture. Farmers do abide by strict regulations, but their main livelihood is still agriculture, and any hardships or reduced production are compensated for by the national government. About two thirds of the farms in U.K. parks augment their income with tourist attractions like bed and breakfasts, cafes, museums, galleries and regular farm tours. And few complain about the public trails and easements that transect their pastures.

Italy boasts the greatest biodiversity in Europe, not only thanks to a wide variety of ecosystems and geomorphological conditions, but also because of an ancient agricultural tradition that considers the land surrounding fields and pasture as vital to the health of crops and livestock as the cultivated soil itself. So the idea of farming in a protected area comes quite naturally to Italians.

Almost all of the country’s 24 national parks, encompassing more than seven million acres, or about 10 percent of the national landscape, contain small farms and ranches. Of a total of 230,000, about 500 are organic. Italians go to their parks to purchase fresh food. As it is in Britain, grazing in Italian parks is limited. The average animal-unit on private land in the country is about 2.1 per hectare, for example, while in national parks it’s about 0.7. So, as in the U.K., Italian livestock farmers in parks receive a subsidy to cover lost revenue from reduced herds and flocks. And to encourage conversion to organic production, the government rewards organic farmers with special grants for acting as “guardian stewards of nature.”

There are many more parks and protected areas around the world where agriculture is permitted, and even encouraged. Almost all of the 35,000 people living inside the Langtang National Park in Nepal, the first and foremost park in the Himalayas, depend on agriculture for their livelihood. The stunningly beautiful Saadani National Park in Zanzibar, Tanzania has only one rule for its farmers: no chemicals. National parks close to Canadian cities are beginning to allow the cultivation of food crops that will shorten the distance from field to table throughout the country.

In fact, in my travels I haven’t found a single country with national parks that doesn’t allow agriculture and mariculture in some of them. And cities throughout the world are converting ornamental plots in their public parks to fruit and vegetable production.

So what is a park really for? That remains a hard question to answer because so many of them are created around the world for so many purposes. While few if any were created to advance agriculture, many were formed to protect it. And the idea of combining food cultivation with human recreation, practiced on every continent but Antarctica, seems quite reasonable. Whatever becomes of the relationship between farming and recreation, trying them both at once, in the same place, seems like a worthwhile experiment in sustainable agriculture from which much can be learned about both farms and parks. 


Mark Dowie is an investigative historian living in the outskirts of Willow Point.