While perusing a state map, you may have run across an area listed as a National Natural Landmark. There are about 600 such sites spread throughout 48 states and several territories, but not many people understand what these designations mean. After reading this short post, you’ll know more than most. From Wikipedia:

The National Natural Landmarks (NNL) Program recognizes and encourages the conservation of outstanding examples of the natural history of the United States.

It is the only national natural areas program that identifies and recognizes the best examples of biological and geological features in both public and private ownership.

The National Park Service administers the program, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they manage the land. NNLs are designated irrespective of land ownership—whether that’s a federal entity, state entity, indian reservation, or even a private individual.

Participation in the program is completely voluntary, and does not convey any intention for federal acquisition. It is not a precursor for national park status. In fact, the NNL designation does not even transfer to the new owner if land ownership changes!

While many would assume that inclusion in the program would provide some level of resource protection, it’s sadly not the case. Participation does not include any encumbrances or limitations on the property whatsoever. Similarly, there’s no requirement for NNLs to be open or accessible to the public—and many are not. In fact, the National Park Service does not even provide a plaque for each area included in the program.

In short, National Natural Landmark status shows that a place is important, but does virtually nothing to ensure that those natural resources aren’t degraded.

Nonetheless, the system does include some really amazing areas—from the La Brea Tarpits in LA to the Diamond Head Crater on Oahu to the underappreciated Joshua Tree Forest in northwestern Arizona. All places worthy of a visit.

So be sure to consult the national NNL listing before you finalize your next road trip. Don’t believe me? Check out the NNL photo contest for some instant inspiration.