I was not in charge of the planning, so after perusing the list of places we were to visit, I decided to look up the difference in designation for the various sites.
Turns out there are 28 types of designations for the 417 National Park “units.”
What initially comes to mind when someone says “National Park” are the 59 (generally) large areas of land that have been set aside owing to their natural features and are for public use – although within limits. Hunting, fishing, mining/oil extraction or exploration can all be prohibited in a national park.
A National Park can only be created by an act of Congress. The first such act was “An Act to set apart a certain Tract of Land lying near the Head-waters of the Yellowstone River as a Public Park” dated March 1, 1872 (17 Stat., Chap. 24, pp. 32-33 (1872)).
In 1906, Congress passed “An Act for the preservation of American antiquities” (34 Stat. 225 (1906)) which granted the President the power to:
…declare by public proclamation historic land-marks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States to be national monuments, and may reserve as a part thereof parcels of land, the limits of which in all cases shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected.
Today, these too are generally passed into law by Congress.
National preserves, as the name implies, are established to protect a certain natural resource. These are also created by law. The first one established by Congress was Big Cypress National Preserve (88 Stat. 1258 (1974)). They differ from national parks in that bans on the use of these lands are not as strict. The above-mentioned restrictions for national parks are not always true for national preserves. If it were not for the more open policies, many of these preserves could qualify as national parks.
But no matter how small or for what reason a Park site was created or how it is used, all park sites have equal status under law thanks to a 1970 amendment (84 Stat. 825 (1970)) to the Organic Act of 1916 (39 Stat. 535 (1916)), the latter of which created the National Park Service.