America’s Best Ideas: Parks, Preservation and Public Land

As we reach the end of the National Park Service’s much-celebrated centennial year, let’s have a little fun! Many people are familiar with the Parks’ iconic landscapes, but there’s a whole world of other views out there. How many of these fifteen less familiar gems from America’s best ideas can you identify? (Click to scroll through larger versions.)

Continue reading for the answers!





No cheating! Have a famous quote instead:

“Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed … We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in.”
― Wallace Stegner, The Sound of Mountain Water




Well, I expect many followers of my photography and connoisseurs of landscapes have by now picked up on the twist, but perhaps this will come as a surprise to some readers: None of these images are from America’s 59 National Parks. I love the Parks, and in no way do I wish to diminish their excellence or importance. But I fear that in the current political climate, our love for and celebration of the National Park system may come at the expense of awareness and understanding of the rest of our amazing public lands. The Parks are widely known, celebrated and promoted, and my guess is that a large percentage of Americans are under the impression that most of our nation’s best landscapes are protected in the Park system, and that our natural lands are well-protected generally. This is sadly not the case – on the contrary, our public lands are currently more threatened than they have been in many years.

About 13% of U.S. Federal land is held by the National Park Service, so it should come as no surprise that the remaining 77% contains the vast majority of America’s publicly-owned trails, campgrounds, recreational rivers, wildlife habitat, wildlife migration corridors, historic sites, archeological sites, Native American sacred sites and natural scenery generally. For the record, here’s a very partial list of remarkable things in the American west that are not in National Parks:

  • The oldest trees on earth (bristlecone pines in California’s White Mountains)
  • The highest peaks in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico (the highest peak in the Lower 48 and California is half in a park, but the side from which it’s usually climbed and photographed is not)
  • The deepest canyon in the U.S. (Hells Canyon in Idaho), plus many other remarkable river canyons (e.g. the Salmon, Smith, Desolation, Escalante, Cataract, Dolores, Royal Gorge, Paria, Salt, Taos Box, Rogue, Owyhee, Columbia Gorge)
  • The largest free-flowing (i.e. undammed) river system in the Lower 48 (Idaho’s Salmon River and its tributaries)
  • The world’s largest organism (Pando aspen grove in Utah, or possible a fungal colony in Oregon’s Blue Mountains)
  • The place furthest from a road in the Lower 48 (Wyoming’s Thorofare region); also the most remote locations in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico
  • Globally significant biodiversity hotspots such as Ash Meadows, Nevada with its 29 endemic species in 36 square miles of desert; or the Klamath-Siskiyou region, home to 3,500 plant species, 280 of which are endemic
  • Some of the greatest concentrations of prehistoric rock art in the western hemisphere (e.g. Coso Range in California; Nine Mile Canyon in Utah; Three Rivers in New Mexico)

Or consider the lands pictured above. They encompasses a variety of legal land categories, ranging from pretty well protected to no protection at all: National Monuments, designated wilderness areas, Wilderness Study Areas, National Wildlife Refuges and lands with no special status whatsoever. All these categories currently have groups lobbying to weaken or eliminate their protections. Conservationists received a welcome late Christmas gift with President Obama’s designations of two new National Monuments in Utah and Nevada, but those worthy designations have likely further galvanized an already energized opposition to conservation of our public lands.

2016 was a great year for recognition and celebration of our National Parks. But with all due respect to Ken Burns and Wallace Stegner, “America’s Best Idea” is not the Park system, but rather public land itself and its preservation. The Parks certainly have their own challenges and issues currently, but they are well-known and widely regarded as sacrosanct, and will almost certainly be the least threatened Federal lands in the coming years. My ambition in the new year is to bring more attention to our less-appreciated public lands. I hope that my fellow photographers, writers and the general public will be likewise inspired to spend more time beyond the Park boundaries, enjoying, documenting, celebrating and understanding the superb array of landscapes of which all Americans are still the fortunate owners.

Locations pictured:

  1. Notch Peak WSA, Utah West Desert
  2. Middle Fork of the Salmon Canyon, Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, Idaho
  3. Unnamed badlands, Esmeralda County, Nevada
  4. Borah Peak WSA, Lost River Range, Idaho
  5. Toiyabe Crest Citizens Proposed Wilderness, Nevada
  6. Lodore Canyon, Dinosaur National Monument, Colorado
  7. Petroglyphs, Inyo County, California
  8. Gallinas culture ruin, Rio Arriba County, New Mexico
  9. Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, New Mexico
  10. Desolation Canyon WSA, Utah
  11. Ice Lakes Basin, San Juan Mountains, Colorado
  12. Illinois River, Kalmiopsis Wilderness, Oregon
  13. Desert National Wildlife Refuge, Nevada
  14. Black Hills, Graham County, Arizona
  15. Thousand Island Lake, Ansel Adams Wilderness, California

7 thoughts on “America’s Best Ideas: Parks, Preservation and Public Land

  1. Great job Jackson!. As a park ranger at Zion NP, I appreciate your views about all of the federal lands. I was only familiar with the last photo at 1,000 island lake where I camped one night on a backpack trip towards Yosemite.. Which proves your point that there is a lot of beautiful land out there, not just in national parks. Hopefully it will all be protected.

    • Thanks, Michael! I didn’t realize you were a ranger.

      I put in the Thousand Island shot because I figured it would be the giveaway for a lot of people – plenty iconic, but not in a park.

  2. This is indeed a great post Jackson. These places are indeed incredible and with a camera in your hands, they are absolutely compelling. There are several national parks (not putting them down) that don’t have scenery near as grand as what you have highlighted here.

    Ever since my time in Texas, I have also had an affinity for the less well-known places. There is a long-running series on my blog regarding “seldom seen” places around Mount Shasta focusing on the same thing on a local level.

    Just to quibble on one of your images. Dinosaur National Monument is operated by the NPS. Like many other national monuments maintained by NPS, it is often counted as a smaller national park, held in similar regard. Think Devil’s Tower, Craters of the Moon, Bandelier, Natural Bridges. It may be obscure, but I feel its stature has been on the rise.

    Also, just for what it is worth, the Ritter Range (including Devil’s Postpile) was actually a part of Yosemite until 1906. The original park boundary was pretty arbitrary and was based on section lines rather than natural lines of demarcation. In 1906 the boundaries were adjusted to line up with the Merced and Tuolumne River watersheds. The Ritter Range section, until then called Yosemite East, was removed from the park and ultimately wound up in Inyo and Sierra National Forests. In no way was it cut due to quality of scenery but as a purely administrative move. The area was later established as the Mt. Dana-Minarets Primitive Area, then the Minarets Wilderness and then, in 1984, renamed the Ansel Adams Wilderness.

    • Thanks, Bubba! Yes, the Ritter Range is a great example of how an area’s inclusion in the park system or not is just as dependent on historical circumstance as natural value. And yes, Dinosaur and many other monuments are National Parks in all but name. But I think that name issue remains significant for a lot of people. I’ve certainly taken a lot of folks down the rivers in Dinosaur who thought that monuments were second-class lands – I hope we managed to change their minds! But beyond the outdoor rec/conservation demographic, monuments simply don’t receive the same attention and promotion as the parks, and there are groups who will try to exploit that difference in information, e.g. by pushing drilling right up to Dinosaur’s boundary.

  3. Thanks for this great post Jackson, and for reminding us that while the national parks are wonderful, there is so much more out there to see, to fight for, and to protect. I did not do the best on my quiz–I think I need to get out there and do some more studying!

  4. Thanks so much Jackson for sharing your beautiful photography. I picked the Lodore Canyon out. Just had a feeling Desolation would be there. I am right there with you being an advocate for our public lands. More people should advocate. If there is anything I can help with, just let me know. Aa friend forever from Desolation Canyon ARTA trip. Hugs, Joyce Tapy

    • Thank you, Joyce! I’m so glad you’re one of the relatively few who know Desolation Canyon firsthand. And I definitely have a lot of fond memories of our trip. Best wishes!

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