I am happiest when surrounded by nature. The beauty of the beaches, forests, deserts and mountains of my home state is hard to beat. Some of my best memories have come from time spent exploring groves of trees and wading in nearby streams. I remember being engulfed by waves and meandering over coastal cliffs with my family as a child, in addition to driving through arid deserts and snow-filled mountains in the same day. As an adult, I take every chance I can to explore nature. I long for days when I am able to stroll about and take in its perfection, contemplating how small I am in this tiny world, how young I am compared to the trees and rocks surrounding me.
One of the easiest and most accessible ways to experience nature is by visiting state and national parks. In order to protect the nature that encompasses our country, the National Park Service (NPS) works to acquire and preserve land that is under threat of exploitation. These lands are then transformed into sanctuaries and opened to the public. Yet in the midst of our ever-changing political and environmental climate, it has become increasingly harder for national parks to survive. The NPS is doing all it can to protect the natural ecosystems of our country’s national parks, but due to poor funding and the effects of global warming, our national parks have undergone great devastation and are bound to soon undergo much more.
It is important to know that the NPS was not created innocently with the sole mission of protecting and preserving America’s nature. We must remember the history of the land on which we stand, walk and live. The NPS was created alongside the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and most of the land owned by national parks was stolen from Native Americans. Though these parks are presently used to preserve the flora and wildlife of our nation, they were initially created to stratify and relocate the people who originally settled here thousands of years ago (Timeline, “National parks are beautiful— but the way they were created isn’t,” 08.26.2016).
Since the 1990s, the NPS has been working with Native Peoples, most notably in Alaska and Hawaii, to facilitate community healing from this trauma. The service allocates grants to and sponsors technical assistance programs for Native American groups in order to preserve cultural and traditional locations across the U.S (National Park Service, “Connecting with American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians,” 06.02.2016).
However, the service seldom mentions the explicit history of how national parks were created and has a long way to go in order to truly improve relationships with native groups. The history of our national parks is rooted in greed and racism. As Americans today, it is our job to facilitate restorative relations with those whom our history has disserviced by preserving Native American narratives and helping them to tell their stories. It is also our job to care for the land on which we now live.
Over the past number of years, visitation to national parks has been on the rise. In fact, in 2016, national parks received record visitation numbers. This increased call to nature may symbolize a significant change in mindset of Americans. Perhaps it signals a heightened desire to step away from the constant busyness of our concrete, consumerist society and respond to the call to protect the nature in our country.
Despite this, our country’s national parks are currently under attack. If Americans continue to live wasteful lives without caring for our local environments, we will further endanger the dear national parks many of us long to aid. Additionally, current administrators and legislators are committing drastic disservices to national parks. These actions, especially the reallocation of funds from the NPS and other wildlife protection agencies, have culminated over a number of years and could make it impossible to preserve the nature of national parks in the future.
In addition, climate change has ravaged ecosystems across the globe, and our country’s national parks have not been immune to this devastation. Sea levels are rising in Everglades National Park, oceans are acidifying at Point Reyes National Park, glaciers are melting in Kenai Fjords National Park and species have been lost due to fires in one of my favorite places on Earth: Sequoia National Park in central California (National Park Service, “The Science of Climate Change in National Parks Video Series”). Local animals are forced to leave these sanctuaries in order to find new homes, so it is no surprise that humans may soon stay away as well.
Due to climate change, the natural resources of national parks have drastically deteriorated, which consequently affects visitation. A study conducted in 2017 found that monthly air temperature and national park visitation are strongly correlated (National Park Service, “Warming Temperatures Likely to Alter Visitation across the National Park System”). Visitation to national parks increased with increased temperature, but leveled off at around 80ºF. These increased temperatures are projected to cause an increase in visitation to national parks in cooler areas, but predict little increase in visitation to parks in warmer areas.
This may not seem very extreme, yet it displays how humans and animals must modify their behavior due to climate change. Although visitation is expected to increase due to warming temperatures, the condition of the wildlife in national parks is expected to deteriorate. As a result, humans traveling to their favorite national parks may find that the land has severely changed or that it no longer exists. We have no idea how climate change will continue to modify national park visitation in the near future. Eventually, if climate change persists at its current rate, animals and humans may be forced to forgo national parks all together.
The NPS has been around for over 100 years. Yet when faced with the consequences of global warming, the bureau is ignored by current administrators. The President’s FY2019 budget proposal cuts funding to national parks by seven percent and specifically cuts funds for cultural programs, new land acquisition and a philanthropic grants program. These budget cuts severely affect the work that park rangers attempt to co-facilitate with Native American groups. Additionally, cuts in staff, despite increased visitation levels, may contribute to the intermittent closing of national parks. Instead of investing, the administration is ignoring the delicacy of our nation’s ecosystems,and dismantling environmental protections that safeguard nature. The proposed budget leaves the NPS with no funds for discretionary State Assistance Grants and a negative balance for new land acquisition.
According to the Senior Director of Budget and Appropriations at the National Parks Conservation Association John Garder, “The president’s budget proposal once again demonstrates that the administration is actively working to undermine our national parks and the environment on which they depend. National parks draw millions of visitors every year, and need more resources, not less. Choking off funding for staff who protect our national parks puts our country’s natural, cultural and historical heritage at risk” (National Parks Conservation Association, “Trump Proposals Fail National Parks, National Parks Conservation Association,” 02.12.2018).
The President has already taken action against several national parks. In 2017, Trump cut the size of two major national parks in Utah in half to promote oil and gas drilling as well as other resource acquisitions, to the alarm of many environmentalists and Native American tribes. Furthermore, Trump plans to reverse the actions of former President Obama, who protected 1.6 million acres in Nevada and Utah important to several Native American groups from the threat of drilling and mining (The Telegraph, “Donald Trump slashes size of national parks in Utah to allow drilling,” 12.04.2017).
With all that is going on in the U.S., it is quite easy to forget the beautiful nature that envelops our country. When many think of America, they are faced with the controversial politics and extreme polarization of our country, and for good reason. However, it is important to remember that our country is not driven solely by politics, but is a nation comprised of living beings: human, animal and plant.
The preservation of national parks is an issue with historical complexities and modern needs. As members of American society and the natural world, we must do all that we can to care for nature and those with whom we share our homes.
Thus, it is vital to reflect on how you, as a college student, can protect the nature and history of national parks. For one, you can visit national parks. There are 60 nationally protected parks, in addition to state parks in 28 states. Nearby is the Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area, Harriman State Park and the Walkway Over the Hudson State Historic Park.
Wandering through these parks not only puts humans in contact with the nature that more and more frequently evades our everyday lives, but also increases visitation numbers. Each time you visit a national park, you are letting the government know that you care about our country’s natural ecosystems. The government must be reminded how important it is that they are protected.
When visiting these parks, or anywhere at all, it is important to leave no trace of your visit in order to maintain the homes of the animals, plants and people you are visiting. In efforts to battle the effects of climate change, we must do all we can to preserve the natural beauty of our surroundings.
You can also take part in restorative justice to preserve the narratives of the Native Peoples who once inhabited, and still inhabit, these lands. National parks were created to erase the histories, cultures and narratives of Native Americans. Today, we can turn this former goal on its head in order to create spaces that honor and respect native heritage. By revealing the entire and true history of national park creation, we can better express the multifaceted historic and modern narratives of Native Peoples while simultaneously protecting and preserving our country’s wildlife.