This presentation was part of A Century of Design in the Parks Symposium, Santa Fe, New Mexico, June 21-23, 2016.

By Heidi Hohmann, ASLA


The role of recreation in the National Park Service (NPS) has always been somewhat ambiguous. As historian Larry Dilsaver has pointed out, “The national parks were for inspiration and education of the people not, as many supposed, for recreation per se.” Indeed, the Organic Act did not use the term “recreation” in defining the purpose of the National Parks; rather, it stated that parks were to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects” they contained while concurrently providing for their public “enjoyment.” However, as the NPS evolved in the 1920s recreation became an increasingly important, if unstated, part of the NPS mission. By the 1930s, the agency was seeking to solve what they termed the “park and recreation problem,” or the need to provide recreation facilities to an industrializing nation whose workers enjoyed unprecedented leisure time. As a result, the NPS proposed a new park typology—the recreation area—that was distinct from other parks in its lesser “caliber” of scenic value and greater focus on active pursuits. Though the recreation area was originally meant to function at the state or regional level, in developing the typology, the NPS soon found itself managing numerous recreation areas across the country throughout the 1940s and 50s. Eventually, following the passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964, the national recreation area (NRA) took its place as the counterpoint to the wilderness area, the two typologies creating a park use continuum with the traditional national park at its center. In 1963, an executive order officially defined the NRA as a federal land holding managed with a priority for recreation purposes and situated in close proximity to large population centers. Today there are 41 NRAs of disparate size and character, located in wilderness, rural, and urban areas, and managed by the NPS, the USFS, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).

This paper traces the historical, political, and physical development of the national recreation area (NRA), from the 1930s, when it was prototyped as the problem-solving “Recreational Demonstration Area;” to the 1940s, when it became a means of NPS mission expansion in collaboration with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) on large reservoir properties; to the 1950s when, during the Echo Park Dam controversy, it became a symbol of overdevelopment in national parks; and to the 1960s, when a four-year review of national recreational resources resulted in its redefinition as a federal class of lands outside the sole purview of the NPS. Explicating this complex history of the NRA, using landscapes such as Lake Mead, Glen Canyon, Chickasaw, and Gateway National Recreation Areas as examples, expands our understanding of the NPS in the post-World War II era beyond the usual “Mission 66” story. An awareness of the historical context for this typology is also important as these resources, congressionally designated after 1963, become eligible for inclusion on the National Register.


Heidi Hohmann, ASLA, is an associate professor of landscape architecture at Iowa State University, where she has taught since 2000. A licensed landscape architect, she previously worked for URS Corporation in Minneapolis, the National Park Service in Boston, and Heritage Landscapes in Charlotte, Vermont. She has a B.S. from Yale University and a M.L.A. from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. She has completed numerous cultural landscape projects, most recently for Brucemore, a National Trust property; Platt National Park Historic District; and Rim Rock Drive in Colorado National Monument. She is currently researching the history of the Minneapolis Park System.