Project Overview

State, Local, and City Parks and the Worthless Lands Thesis

Faculty Sponsor

William Meyer (




A much-debated thesis advanced by the historian Alfred Runte holds that national parks in the United States from the 1860s onward were created only on lands that had little value for conventional uses: agriculture, grazing, and mining in particular. Runte's "worthless lands" thesis implies that the values of preservation and recreation were consistently subordinated to that of economic development in the American context. A corollary of the argument is that parks created at sub-national levels should have displayed the same pattern and should have been justified by their sponsors in similar terms. The project will test these expectations in two ways: comparing the locations of parks created by state, local, and city governments in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to measures of economic land potential (such as slope, elevation, soil quality, and remoteness from urban centers or transportation routes), and examining the rationales provided in public discussion for the sequestering of land from development for park purposes. The principal focus will be on New York State, but other parts of the country may also be examined for useful comparisons if time permits. The tasks of the students will center on GIS analysis of how spatial patterns of parks relate to measures of land potential.

Student Qualifications

Completion of GEOG 245, Geographic Information Systems

Number of Student Researchers

One or two students

Project Length

8 weeks

Applications open on 10/03/2023 and close on 02/28/2024

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If you have questions, please contact Karyn Belanger (