The official list of national parks is filled with iconic places: Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, to name a few.
Rock Creek Park, which was created by Congress in 1890 and runs through the heart of the nation’s capital, is nowhere on that list. Instead, the National Park Service has relegated Rock Creek to the category of “other designations.”
D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) wants to change that.
Norton is asking Congress to rename it “Rock Creek National Park,” which would move the country’s oldest urban park into the big leagues, where she says it belongs.
Redesignating and renaming the park would make its historical significance clear to visitors and members of Congress, Norton said. And that might help her when she lobbies for funding to maintain the park, which has a nearly $53 million maintenance backlog.
“It occurred to me that people may not recognize that this is the urban equivalent to Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks,” said Norton, who introduced a bill this month to redesignate and rename Rock Creek.
The 1,700-acre park, which is twice the size of New York’s Central Park, was the third federal park designated by Congress, following Yellowstone and Sequoia. It is owned and operated by the National Park Service.
But some members of Congress who drive its wooded parkways daily may not realize they are passing through one of the country’s oldest national parks, said Norton, the District’s nonvoting representative.
She introduced the bill for the first time in 2015 in celebration of Rock Creek Park’s 125th anniversary. It was referred to the House Resources Committee but never taken up. The National Park Service does not currently have a position on Norton’s bill, said spokeswoman Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles.
“This should not be controversial,” Norton said. “It’s a question of getting attention.”
The list of 11 properties in the “other” category, where Rock Creek is currently listed, include Maryland’s Catoctin Mountain Park and Fort Washington Park and Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts in Virginia.
Author and naturalist Melanie Choukas-Bradley said that few visitors she leads on walks through the 32 miles of hiking trails are aware of Rock Creek’s history. In addition to hiking trails, the park has tennis courts, a historic mill, a nature center with a planetarium, horse stables, and trails for biking and horseback riding.
The park was even the inspiration for “Rock Creek Park,” a funky 1975 ode by the Blackbyrds, the jazz-fusion band led by trumpeter Donald Byrd and some of his Howard University students.
“It would become more of a destination for people if ‘national park’ was in the name,” said Choukas-Bradley, who wrote “A Year in Rock Creek Park,” about her daily explorations of the park.
Rock Creek Conservancy, a nonprofit group that works to protect the park, supports the name change, said Matthew Fleischer, the group’s executive director.
“Here we are sitting in the nation’s capital, and no one know it’s a national park,” Fleischer said. “Let’s make it so.”
Fleischer, who grew up in the D.C. area, said he did not think people would mind the name change. “I think they would love it,” he said. “But if people know it’s a national park and still want to call it Rock Creek Park, then they can go for it.” Norton said she anticipates that D.C. residents will stick with the name they have always known. But she said that would not bother her.
“It matters to me what the people in Congress call it,” she said. “Congress needs to understand this is not just a local park.”
Norton said she is “not naive” and does not believe the name change and new designation will automatically come with increased funding. But she said increased recognition of the significance of Rock Creek will help her make her case to Congress.
Given the mounting maintenance backlog and President Trump’s move to cut the budget of the Interior Department, which controls the National Park Service, now is an opportune time for the name change, Fleischer said.
This month, Trump also proposed shrinking the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments by more than 1.1 million acres and more than 800,000 acres, respectively.
Norton said the feedback she has received from residents about a name change has been largely positive. But not everyone is convinced it is necessary.
“It must be a slow day on Capitol Hill,” said Greg Boyd, a researcher and former D.C. public school teacher. “Of all the things Norton could be doing.”
Boyd, who is running as an independent to represent Ward 1 on the D.C. Council, said he is a fan of Norton but thinks her bill “seems to be odd and extraneous.”
If the name were to change, new signs would be needed throughout the park, Fleischer said. But the timing could be perfect: Rock Creek Conservancy is working on a new plan for signs now, he said. The group hopes to raise about $100,000 to cover the costs of new signs, which it anticipates it will finish at some point in 2018, Fleischer said.