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For America’s National Parks, the future is an uphill climb

(Photo Credit: Grand Canyon National Park)

The Grand Canyon is one of America’s oldest national parks. (Photo Credit: Grand Canyon National Park)

In 2011, Parks Canada – the government agency charged with preserving unique examples of Canada’s cultural and natural landscapes — turned 100. In 2016, the American equivalent – the National Parks Service – is also celebrating 100 years. In this article, author Zahra Sethna highlights the pleasures and challenges of visiting national parks for a generation furthest distanced from nature.

It’s safe to assume many an ‘aha’ moment happened at the Grand Canyon. Created by nature over thousands of years, the magnificent gorge inspires awe, wonder and a desire to rethink priorities.

For Anthony Beverley and his wife, Teresa, the ‘aha’ moment came not at the canyon’s edge but at the cashier’s desk. Rather than buying a single-entry pass good only for the Grand Canyon, the San Antonio father of three opted for an annual pass that would allow his family to visit every national park around the country.

“I thought this would be a great idea since Big Bend National Park is in our home state,” he says. The trip to Big Bend didn’t happen that year, but the seed of an idea had been born.

“I kept thinking, why not see all 58 National Parks with the purchase of one annual pass? Why not take 365 days to invest in the lives of our children and our family?” So in 2010, nearly ten years after the initial Grand Canyon visit, the journey began.

By that time, the teenaged Beverley children were not overjoyed at the idea of being home-schooled and on the road for a year. “It wasn’t high on their list of things to do,” Beverley confesses. “But once they were physically in the parks they could always find something they thought was really cool.”

The Beverley family attempted to visit every national park, including Yosemite, in one year. (Photo Credit: Anthony Beverley)

The Beverley family attempted to visit every national park, including Yosemite, in one year. (Photo Credit: Anthony Beverley)

The fact that the Beverley family was able to experience thousand-year old pueblos, stalactite formations, soaring mountains and Native American burial grounds is a testament to the efforts of lawmakers nearly 100 years ago. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed an act creating the National Park Service, laying out regulations to conserve scenery and wildlife and leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.

But modern challenges such as climate change, a growing and changing population, and increased pressure to exploit land for natural resources make it difficult to predict whether the parks will survive another 100 years.

“The society that created these parks no longer exists,” says William Tweed, who recently retired from a 30-year career with the National Parks Service. “We are more detached from the natural world than ever before, and that speaks poorly to the future of National Parks.”

As generations grow up without an appreciation for nature, “the value of parks sinks even lower in the competitive world of how we spend our time,” Tweed says.

Though this sounds bleak, Tweed is actually fairly optimistic about the future as long as it involves an understanding that ‘unimpaired’, as stipulated in the 1916 legislation, does not necessarily mean ‘unchanged’.

“The Parks Service has been telling people for years that you’ll always be able to come back and things will be the same.” The parks were based on the idea that if we protect a natural area with a fence of laws, everything inside will remain unchanged. “Of course that’s not true,” he says, “and therein lies the problem.”

Can the parks system still be justified if one day there are no more trees in Joshua Tree National Park? (Photo Credit: Wikimedia)

Can the parks system still be justified if one day there are no more trees in Joshua Tree National Park? (Photo Credit: Wikimedia)

We now know that the environment is rapidly changing and that human activity changes it even faster. So how do you justify the importance of national parks when Glacier National Park has no glaciers and Joshua Tree has no Joshua Trees?

One way, Tweed contends, is to help species find new environments that are better suited to their needs as the climate changes. “You could decide that the giant sequoia trees are so important that the government will intervene to protect them no matter what.”

This intensive form of ecological management is what he calls the ‘ecosystem museum’ approach, an idea he expands in his book, Uncertain Path: A Search for the Future of National Parks.

An alternative is to admit the inescapability of the challenges but still recognize the value of preserving wild landscapes. “In accepting that, we accept that nature might do things we don’t want it to do.” This means coming to terms with the thought that one day there will no longer be sequoia trees in Sequoia National Park.

“I couldn’t find a happy choice,” he says, “but the one that is least unhappy is to preserve wildness and accept the loss of things we treasure.”

That, at least, would ensure wild places still exist for future generations. “These lands remind us of our place. We are more dependent and at risk in these natural worlds,” Tweed says. “We should not detach ourselves so profoundly and so quickly and not care.”

“We are more detached from the natural world than ever before, and that speaks poorly to the future of National Parks.”

The National Parks Service is actively trying to address this, according to Alexa Viets, the Service’s Centennial Coordinator. “We recognize it’s a changing world from where we started 100 years ago. We want to connect to communities so they learn to appreciate the special places that are set aside for them.”

To that end, the Service has laid out a set of measurable goals and specific actions to lay the path for its second century, including efforts to connect people to parks through affordable transportation, wilderness education, and internship/volunteer opportunities.

Another priority is engaging diverse communities, something Anthony Beverley, who is African-American, feels strongly about. “I did not see a lot of Hispanics and Blacks in the parks we visited,” he says. “The demographics of the country are changing, but if the parks don’t, those kids will grow up with no connection to them and won’t value them.”

This is a concern shared by Glenn Nelson, a Seattle native who founded a website, The Trail Posse, to encourage diversity in the outdoors. In a recent op-ed published in the New York Times, entitled ‘Why Are Our Parks So White?‘, Nelson writes, “We need to demolish the notion that the national parks and the rest of nature are an exclusive club where minorities are unwelcome.”

He believes the place to start is with the National Park Service itself, which in 2014 had a workforce that was approximately 80 per cent white. Nelson notes that among the 22 board members of the parks’ official charity, the National Park Foundation, only four are minorities.

“The Census Bureau projects that the country will have a majority nonwhite population by 2044,” Nelson writes. “If that new majority has little or no relationship with the outdoors, then the future of the nation’s parks, and the retail and nonprofit ecosystem that surrounds them, will be in trouble.”

What was your most memorable National Park experience? Tell us in the comments!

A version of this story first appeared in the (now defunct) Wilder Quarterly.

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