Cuyahoga Valley National Park is a federally protected, 32,572-acre park located in northeast Ohio. Within park boundaries one can find dense forests, majestic bald eagles, steep ravines, cascading waterfalls…and farming?
Yes, Cuyahoga is home to not only a variety of wildlife and natural features but also privately farmed land.
Through a very special program called the Countryside Initiative, ten farmsteads are leased throughout National Park Service land. Although unusual and oftentimes followed with a reaction of panic from those who are understandably worried about losing treasured parkland, this practice is common in European countries. In the United Kingdom, farming is considered to be one of the most viable and successful methods of land management. If farmed sustainably, the land will maintain good fertility, provide clean water and healthy wildlife habitat, and stay protected from urban development. And that is exactly what the Countryside Initiative is experimenting with in the U.S.
There are 419 sites managed by the National Park Service. These range from parks and shorelines to monuments, and all of them are at grave risk from a lack of funding and limited resources to maintain them. The Trump administration proposed nearly $500 million in budget cuts to our national parks in 2020. This would be a huge blow to the already struggling department. Not to mention, visitation of the National Park System has steadily increased, with about 330 million visitors annually from 2016 to 2017. This, paired with climate change and aging facilities, make funding and proper maintenance of our parks more critical than ever.
Leasing some of the land out to farmers could help address these challenges. By assigning farmsteads to privately owned individuals, these farmers could then take proper stewardship of the land, soil, and park buildings that would otherwise be stuck with unstable funding sources and improper preservation. For Cuyahoga Valley, this aligns well with Ohio’s rich agricultural history. Already surrounded with pastoral landscapes and old farmhouses of the 1980s, this Valley is home to many historically cherished farmsteads that can now be restored and used sustainably, while also conserving the park.
As you can imagine, leasing a chunk of land within National Park boundaries is a competitive and well-regulated process. Prospects must lay out their sustainable farming practices in detail to ensure that they are acting with the best interest of the resources in mind. No trees can be cut, and no holes can be dug without permission on a local, state, and federal scale. These farmsteads can also act as a source of education and outreach for the visiting public. Canal Corners Farm & Market, a leased farmstead in Cuyahoga Valley, offers educational programs for schools and hosts theatre productions in the “Big, Red Barn”, a historical dairy barn from the early 1900s. Preserving this area’s ties with agriculture can also benefit the local community and encourage people to make the connection between farm and table.
While this unique land-use model wouldn’t work in every park across the U.S., Countryside Initiative does hope to bring their program to other National Parks in the coming years. Such a program could help to fix our broken food system while also addressing the needs of some of the most beautiful land our country has to offer. Only time will tell if such a partnership can thrive.
How would you feel about allowing sustainable-use farming into areas of our National Parks?
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