SPRINGS IS THE SMALLEST NATIONAL PARK
by Whit Gibbons
June 29, 2008
I had a
new experience while visiting a national park last week. I asked a local
at a filling station how to get to the park. He said, "You're in
the park now. This is it. The whole town."
I'm not sure
if I said "huh?" or just thought "huh?" But I know
I said, "Okay, thanks," though I had no idea what he was talking
about. I thought national parks had entrances where you pay to get in
and visitor centers where you buy coffee cups or T-shirts to show friends
you went to the park. But I was sitting in downtown Hot Springs, Arkansas.
Turns out that a portion of the town itself is indeed designated as part
of the park. The park also includes the forested areas and geologic formations
surrounding one end of the city, including the famous Bathhouse Row. I
was perplexed. Does Hot Springs actually qualify as a national park on
a par with Yosemite, the Great Smoky Mountains, and the Everglades?
is yes. Not only is the site a true national park, by some interpretations
it was the first national park! Even before Yellowstone, some say. Congress
set aside Hot Springs Reservation in 1832, the first federal land to be
intentionally protected from commercial exploitation. Those who take the
position that the first national park was Yellowstone, in 1872, note that
it was designated as a national park at that time. Hot Springs did not
receive the official national park designation until 1921, although the
habitats had been protected even before Arkansas was a state. The semantics
of who was first is not what is important. The key issue is that both
preserve the integrity of natural ecosystems in their regions.
Park Service (NPS) has 391 protected areas that are national treasures,
and each has its exclusivity and reason for being. All are part of the
National Park System, which includes national monuments, national seashores,
and historic sites. Every state except Delaware has at least one. However,
of these 391 notable areas, only 56 are officially designated as certifiable
national parks approved by Congress. Each of these is distinctive because
of regional uniqueness and because they protect their particular ecosystems,
including geology, plants, and wildlife. As the U.S. Department of the
Interior states, the purpose of a national park is "to conserve the
scenery, the flora and fauna, and any natural and historical objects within
its boundaries for public enjoyment in perpetuity."
is the smallest national park, with 5,839 acres. The next smallest ones
are Virgin Islands National Park on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands
with 14,689 acres and Congaree National Park in South Carolina with 21,
867 acres. Compare these with the more than 2 million acres of Yellowstone
or the eight parks in Alaska, of which two have more than 7 million acres
each and another three have more than 3 million acres each.
center at Hot Springs, where uniformed NPS officials provide tours and
information to visitors, is in the Fordyce Bathhouse, one of the elegant
health spas privately built on federal land in the early 20th century.
The purported healing waters that arise naturally from the ground throughout
the immediate region have attracted such well-known personalities as Al
Capone, Babe Ruth, and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
thermal waters of Hot Springs are produced through the process of geothermal
heating. Rainwater from a large area percolates into rock fissures, moving
down as much as 8,000 feet over thousands of years. The water is heated
by the natural increase in temperatures at such depths. Due to the geologic
formations in that section of Arkansas, the heated water is eventually
expelled to the surface, creating the warm to hot springs of the area.
The process is different from volcanic heating, which produces Old Faithful
and other heated waters in Yellowstone National Park.
of whether Hot Springs is considered the first national park, Congress
did the right thing when it protected the mountaintops and forests that
surround the hot springs, thus preserving the first U.S. habitat for posterity.
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