Parks and Public Lands in Appalachia: What’s What When It Comes to Our Parks?

You’ve probably seen it on social media or the news this week, but the National Park Service – the government agency that manages our country’s national park system – is having its 100th birthday this year. This means the grand, bold idea that allowed for places like the Great Smoky Mountains, Shenandoah, Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks to thrive has been around in a formal sense for a full century.

In light of this anniversary, we thought that it would be helpful to talk about about our parks and public lands in the Cumberlands and the central Appalachians as a whole. Why? Parks and public lands are a cornerstone of our region’s economy, and the Appalachians have one of the highest densities of public lands compared to most other parts of the country. In spite of this, though, there’s still some confusion in parts of the region about what these parks are and how they are developed and managed. To go into the details, let’s start with what public lands are to begin with:

What Are “Public Lands?”

If you’re an Appalachian resident, chances are that you’ve spent some considerable time in a park or on publicly owned lands in our area at some point in the past, possibly even recently. These places include our National Forests, National Parks, State Parks, and state wildlife management areas, among others. But what makes these areas special? The key word in describing these types of places is “public” – that is, these are lands literally owned by the people and managed for the people, rather than for a single landowner, family or corporation.

If this idea seems a little bit radical, that’s because it is: prior to the development of America’s public lands system, the notion of having large swaths of land accessible to all people, regardless of race, sex, or economic status, mostly didn’t exist. While some of our public lands were originally set aside for protecting wildlife, others were protected to provide access to remarkably scenic areas or places where outdoor recreation (hiking, hunting, fishing, and the like) could be abundant. Regardless of their purpose, though, the nature of all of our public lands is the same: access to everyone, regardless of their background or social status.

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This preserve in Russell County, Virginia is managed by Virginia’s state government, not a federal agency.

Who Manages Our Public Lands?

Even if public lands are owned by everyone, they can’t just simply sit there untouched and unmanaged. As a result, agencies operated through the government are charged with overseeing, planning, and implementing the management and stewardship of our parks and other public areas. This includes developing and maintaining roads, campgrounds and trails; managing wildlife and fighting wildfires; enforcing laws within park boundaries; and, in some cases, granting permits for activities such as logging, drilling, or mining.

Having a government agency enforce rules at places that are owned by everyone might seem counterintuitive, but it’s not necessarily the case that the public has no say or involvement in how public lands are managed. Plans to develop or alter areas within public lands are subject to public comment and feedback (which officials do take seriously), and volunteer opportunities abound in our nation’s public lands to help with everything from trail maintenance to working in campgrounds and visitor centers.

Here in central Appalachia, the agencies that manage our parks and public lands differ and fall into one of several groups. The USDA Forest Service oversees our national forests (places like the Jefferson and Daniel Boone National Forests), while the National Park Service – an entirely different agency – manages national parks such as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the New River Gorge National Recreation Area, and Cumberland Gap National Historical Park (among others). An entirely different group of agencies, funded and managed at the state level, is in charge or our state parks, wildlife management areas, and state preserves. It’s a common misnomer in Appalachia that “the government” unilaterally manages all of this land – instead, decision-making happens through a number of agencies, depending on the type of park or area, and involves the public to a great degree.

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Kiosks like this one on Southwest Virginia’s High Knob, planned and built by volunteers, are a perfect example of how the public can become involved in managing and caring for our parks and public lands.

What And Where Are Central Appalachia’s Public Lands?

Thanks to the agencies mentioned above, it’s relatively easy to find parks in our region. Use this interactive map to search for National Parks (highlighted in dark green), this map to locate National Forests, and the following links to locate state parks in Virginia, our state’s Wildlife Management Areas, and Virginia’s Natural Area Preserves (note that not all preserves are open to public access). As a resident of the U.S. or the state of Virginia, you are actually a part owner of these unique places. (Note that other states, such as Tennessee and Kentucky, have their own separate public land systems.)

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Cumberland Gap’s Hensley Settlement

What Do Public Lands Mean for Appalachia?

Unlike the common misconception that parks and public lands in Appalachia just “sit there,” taking away from our communities’ opportunities for economic growth, parks and other public lands are a stable foundation for our regional economy. These places pump millions of dollars into local communities each year thanks to hunting, fishing, hiking, horseback riding, and a host of other activities. And this economic benefit is growing each year as our region increasingly banks on ecotourism and outdoor recreation as ways to revitalize our economy.

In addition, our region is seeing some new public lands developed, some right in our backyards. A new Clinch River State Park is in the works for far southwest Virginia, and east Tennessee has seen an outstanding new public area (Rocky Fork State Park) come online in the past few years. New parcels of federal land are also occasionally added or transferred to other agencies each year. It’s also important to note that none of our public lands in Appalachia are currently developed by the government “taking” land forcibly from citizens. All new parks are created today only by purchasing land from willing sellers. The idea that a shadowy government group is actively planning to steal land from local residents is a myth with no basis in reality.

If some of this information seems new, then go out and experience a park for yourself! Hiking is a wonderful way to introduce yourself to our local public lands, and the Cumberlands are home to some of the best. While all of the hikes featured on this site are located on publicly-accessible land, the links below feature some of the best trips for getting a feel for what one of our nation’s most unique and successful ideas has to offer:

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