National Park vs. State Park: Understanding the Difference

America’s parks and forests are a part of its soul, inseparable from the country itself. Ask any traveler, and you’ll undoubtedly hear stories of Luray Caverns at Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, Half Dome at Yosemite National Park in California, or the vast expanse of the Grand Canyon. These natural wonders stand the test of time and today, people from around the world can marvel at the same natural beauty that the first people to blaze a trail across the west did hundreds of years ago.

Today, management and preservation of these lands falls largely to the men and women of the National Park Service and National Forest Service. It is their duty to preserve the land for future generations, and to educate visitors about the importance of the land. The park service’s mission statement reads:

The National Park Service preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations. The park service cooperates with partners to extend the benefits of natural and cultural resource conservation and outdoor recreation throughout this country and the world.”

Despite the connection many people feel to America’s national parks and forests, visitors may not be aware of the difference between the national park, state park, and national forest systems.

For the most part, differences amount to:

  • who owns the land,
  • how land is used, and
  • what branch of government manages the land.

National Park vs. State Park

According to nature advocacy group Outdoor Alliance, key differences between National Parks and State Parks are:

1.   Ownership.

All federal public lands are owned by U.S. taxpayers whose money goes toward maintaining national parks, forests, wilderness areas, wild rivers, and scenic rivers. That means that every person has a right to be there, and a say in how those lands can be used.

State parks are controlled by state governments and parks are required to generate funding. Residents of other states don’t get a say in how these lands are managed, and those that do have a say have less control than they would over federal public lands.

2.   Land Use

National park land is preserved and cannot be used for anything else. National forests are governed by a multiple-use mandate, and can be used for timber as well as recreation and sustenance of wildlife. Both are public lands. State park land can be sold to make up a budget deficit if the state government deems necessary, while national parks and forests cannot be sold without taxpayer approval.

3.   Governance

National parks and national forests are governed by branches of the federal government. National parks fall under the U.S. Department of the Interior, and national forests are run by the Department of Agriculture. Every U.S. taxpayer also has a stake in these resources. State parks are under the jurisdiction of state and local officials.

At both public and state institutions, employees are the backbone of the parks system. They educate visitors, preserve land and maintain recreation areas, and implement policy at the local level with help from local officials.

Why Conservation is of The Utmost Importance

Aside from the fact that public parks and forests bring in billions of dollars in revenue annually, they’re also home to hundreds of species of plants and animals which need to thrive to preserve the delicate balance of our ecosystem. Parks and forests provide a source of clean water and unpolluted air, and conserving the land allows for preservation of nonrenewable natural resources.

Instead of selling park land for development, advocacy groups and concerned citizens are pushing for a corporate sustainability model, in which businesses act to preserve the environment and minimize their impact on it.

How You Can Be Part of It

With a Bachelor of Arts degree in Environmental Studies from Virginia Wesleyan University, you can join over 20,000 men and women staffing our nation’s parks and forests. You’ll gain the knowledge and skills necessary to help protect and preserve these spaces, with a focus on science, economics, and ecology. And it can all take place online.

If you have a passion for conservation, want to know more about our place in the natural world, and are looking for a career that can help you do that every day, enroll now.