Our Public Lands Their Past, present, and future

Last year, a juvenile bison was placed into a vehicle by tourists who thought they were helping save the bison, which appeared to be cold. After rangers discovered the bison and attempted to return it to the herd, it was rejected, was unable to fend for itself, and died as a result (Brulliard).

This anecdote is just one example of the problems national parks staff have to manage. Even so, our public lands and our interaction with them goes far beyond just wildlife and the National Parks Service. There is a vast array of environmental, ethical, and economic concerns facing the use of public lands in the United States. What started out as a small system to preserve resources has manifested into an enormous facet of public policy.

These United States are home to some of the most strikingly beautiful natural places the world has to offer. The terrain of the North American continent, and more specifically the U.S., spans an entire spectrum of geological biomes and ecosystems. Our geography stretches from the rainforests of the Olympic Peninsula, to the red desert in the southwest; from the plains and valleys of the badlands, to the soaring heights of the Rocky and Appalachian ranges.

The wild places found within the borders of the U.S. are arguably unequaled to any throughout the world. Their history is rich with the legacy of westward exploration, discovery, and expansion. To understand the present state of these places and what the future holds, their past must be understood first.

The value of the land in the west was recognized long ago, first by the indigenous people and later on by the settlers of the west and the country’s leaders. Paiute and Ahwahneechee tribes occupied areas to the like of Zion and Yosemite for millennia before white settlers moved into the areas. David Mazel cites the Native American occupation of Yosemite as far back as 7,000 years (Mazel). The Native American tribes regarded places like Yosemite as sacred.

Native American land in the West, Monument Valley, 2017

As settlers moved west, they quickly realized the abundance of resources for themselves. However, when something seems limitless, it is easy to squander.

Near the turn of the century in 1901, Theodore Roosevelt took the office of President of the United States. Born in 1858, Roosevelt had witnessed firsthand what had become a reckless expansion into the West that followed Lewis and Clarke’s initial voyage. The new settlers saw seemingly endless resources and used them as such. Land, forests, and animals were squandered by the settlers who thought they would never run out.

Theodore Roosevelt was one of the primary witnesses to the squandering of resources in the West. Roosevelt first visited the badlands in the Dakotas in 1883, eighteen years before his presidency began. He went on a hunting trip, but noted in his journals the overuse of resources, overgrazing, and the depletion of herds of elk, bison, and deer (NPS). Roosevelt wrote,

Lone Bison in Yellowstone National Park, 2017

“We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.”

When Roosevelt became president in 1901 he took these thoughts of protecting our resources and land for the future; both in the western United States and throughout the country.

While Roosevelt didn’t develop the National Parks Service system, he definitely set a precedent for it. Roosevelt established the National Forest Service in 1905 near the end of his first term, protected 230 million acres of land over the course of his two term presidency, and set up 23 sites that would later become national parks or be incorporated into them (NPS).

National Parks didn’t happen without a lot of convincing from some key people. The work that led to the creation of Yellowstone was largely done by two people. Thomas Moran, a painter, and William Henry Jackson, a photographer played an absolutely crucial role in convincing the United States Congress to designate over 3,000 square miles as national park land.

When they returned from their journey west to demonstrate their work to Congress, people could hardly believe Yellowstone was real. Eleanor Harvey, A curator for the Smithsonian American Art Museum said, “The photographs were proof that what [Moran] was showing really existed” (Strochlic). The creation of the park was also made possible by members of the Washburn-Langford-Doane expedition. This particular expedition is regarded for a “campfire conversation” that perhaps changed the course of all public lands.

As the members of the expedition sat around a fire one night, they discussed how the lands of Yellowstone might be divided up between those members of the expedition looking to make a profit of the land. One member of the group, Cornelius Hedges, then had the radical idea that the land shouldn’t be used for profit, and instead should be preserved and protected for the enjoyment of the public (Dustin et. al). This idea that Hedges had is crucial not only to the idea of public lands, but to the environmental and sociopolitical future of our world.

Wallace Stegner put it best, “The national parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” Preserving these places for the people is no easy task, however. There are many variables to consider and manage. Introducing humanity into any natural place has dramatic effects, some that aren’t even readily seen.

Consider what is now 4 million people that visit Yellowstone alone over the course of a year, and it is easy to imagine the impact in waste, transit, and facilities. Yellowstone Park Superintendent Dan Wenk said in 2016, Yellowstone’s capacity limits were tested. They are even exploring the possibility of limiting the amount of people allowed into the park at any given time (Wilkinson).

As of 2016, the parks service oversees a grand total of 409 sites, totaling 85 million acres (Burns). With that much land area, most people live close enough to get to some sort of park or national monument within a day’s drive. Park visitation has changed a lot in the last 5 years. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, surprisingly the most popular national park, saw a 7% decrease in their visitation in 2012. In the same year, however, Yosemite and Yellowstone saw an increase in visitation compared to an average year (Bly).

This uptick could be a result of international tourism and the high regard our parks hold outside of the country. In 2015, the parks saw 305 million visitors in their centennial year, more than ever before. Travel and tourism holds either the number one or number two money-making spot in every state, making parks, monuments, and forests an extremely valuable source of revenue. The U.S. tourism sector employs 15.5 million and generates half a trillion dollars a year (Stanton). Public land isn’t just good for our well being. It’s good for the economy.

Tourism is valuable especially in small towns that would otherwise be starved for revenue. Cities and businesses on the edges of places such as Zion, Yosemite, and Yellowstone subsist on the money coming in from tourism. Take the town of Springdale, Utah for example. Five hundred and forty eight. That is the number of residents the town of Springdale reported in 2014, a staggering jump up from 529 two years previously. Visit Springdale on a sunny memorial day weekend however, and you’ll be able to count 500 people from any street corner in the one-road town. Springdale directly borders the west entrance to Zion National Park.

The street is lined with restaurants, rock shops, and hotels welcoming visitors from all over the world. Towns like these survive and thrive on the tourism created by the red rock of Zion and their existence is near impossible without it.

Only four short years ago when the government shutdown in October 2013, the idea of Springdale with no national park became a reality. With the government shutdown, all national parks closed their gates. The effects were felt almost immediately. Restaurants closed their doors and furloughed employees, small, one-of-one businesses felt 50% profit losses. The town saw losses of 3.5 million dollars of visitor spending each day because of Zion’s closure (Healy).

In the present day we’re on the other side of the spectrum. The towns near the parks need tourism, but there can always be too much of a good thing. Zion has seen a 35% increase in visitation in the last six years, even the typically slow winter season has caused logistical issues for the park (Marcus). I witnessed this phenomenon firsthand.

Effects of human visitation seen in Canyonlands National Park, 2017

I spent the last three summers living in Mt. Carmel on the opposite side of the park from Springdale. I remember my first summer there walking into the park on a Saturday in May, still early in the season, and getting right on to the canyon shuttle. I remember the day that I knew things were really changing. It was a Wednesday which is typically one of the slowest days for the park and again in May, before the busy season. I left for the park with my family around 10 a.m., too late in the day for regular season but fine, I imagined, for this day.

We arrived at the visitor center around 11a.m. and waited nearly two hours to get on the shuttle. Considering buses seating about 50 people coming every 15 minutes you can imagine the crowds in line for the bus. The shuttle system is a positive thing (imagine that many people, but they all had vehicles and were fighting for parking.), but it definitely made the visit a lot harder and less enjoyable. Overcrowding and the effects that humans have on parks is just one of many issues that public lands officials will have to deal with moving into the future.

One of the more difficult problems to assess regarding park visitation is visitor interaction with wildlife. It is easy to see the effects of the high volumes of waste and traffic in the park, these things are immediately felt during a visit in the summer months. The effect of humans on the wildlife in the parks, and Yellowstone in particular, is not so easily seen by the average visitor.

More so than most parks, Yellowstone is famous for the chance to see wildlife in their natural habitat. Visitors have noted that the chance to see wildlife in their natural habitat is one of the biggest reasons for coming to Yellowstone. Bears, Elk, Deer, Wolves, and Bison are just a few of the many species guests flock to the park to see. Our interactions with these species are not always ideal. As can be seen from the story of the juvenile bison in Yellowstone, there is a lot of potential for things to go wrong, even with seemingly harmless animals like a baby bison.

Our interaction with the predatory animals in our parks and national forests is even more touchy. It doesn’t seem so long ago, but over two decades ago in 1995 the NPS began a somewhat controversial mission to restore the wolf population of Yellowstone. By 2003, the wolf population in the northern Rocky Mountain area had been fully restored (Hallac et. al.). This movement to restore the wolf population was met with resistance by ranchers who feared that their livestock would be threatened. However, after the first year, no livestock were killed and 26 of the 29 wolves transported from Alberta were alive and healthy in the areas they were moved to.

Of the two-to-three wolves out of the 29 that were killed, two were killed illegally (Bangs et. al.). There is a tendency to view animals like wolves and bears as dangerous, and they are. However, if they are respected, human interaction with them can be safe and harmless.

It is critical to include the wildlife and not only the resources in these parks as part of the reason why they must be protected. The species in our public lands play a key role in regulating the ecosystems and maintaining balance of natural processes. As mentioned earlier, how we use the resources available in our public lands affects these ecosystems and processes too. There are ways that our presence is felt in ways that are not so easily seen.

As mentioned, when western America was settled, the abundance of natural resources was clear. Irresponsible use of resources such as timber, soil, and animals led to loss of species, soil infertility, and deforestation.

However, two things we often don’t think of as resources, likely because they don’t provide a direct benefit to us, are soundscapes and darkness. These resources are limitless, but unlike some others, are completely in our control. As humanity moves into and civilizes a previously untouched area we take away natural sounds and darkness.

Humans have needs that are served by light and that create sound and the places we settle are affected by these needs. Regardless of perceived importance of places free of sound and light pollution is, it is valued. Ninety-Eighty percent of people surveyed rated experiencing natural sounds as an important reason to visit national parks (Barker). Acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton has studied and concluded that there are almost no places in the United states that are free from noise pollution.

The National Parks Service has recognized the importance of darkness and natural sounds and has taken steps to both protect and restore these “invisible” resources. The NPS developed the Air Tour Management Plan (ATMP) and the Natural Sounds Program (NSP) in order to mitigate the effects of light and sound pollution. The ATMP regulates commercial flights over national parks to take place at certain altitudes and frequencies. The Purpose of the Natural Sounds Program is to “Safeguard the Sounds of Life.” NPS views natural sounds as “acoustic resources” (NPS).

These include wildlife activity, wind, stillness, waterfalls and rivers, and rain. In regards to eliminating light pollution and restoring darkness to wild areas, dark sky preserves are being created. Many dark sky preserves are located throughout the U.S. and Canada, with a couple residing in Utah at Canyonlands National Park and Natural Bridges National Monument. Michigan is home to one of the first dark sky parks, established in 1995.

Dark sky preserve, Jasper, Alberta 2017

The obvious problem with light pollution is that it makes viewing a star-filled night sky less enjoyable. However, the real problem with light pollution is that it disturbs the activities of species that are largely nocturnal. For example, baby sea turtles rely on darkness to make their way to the ocean safely and successfully. Bright light pollution in nesting grounds can both disorient the baby turtles and make them easier targets for predators (Gent). Additionally light from skyscrapers in large cities can cause migratory birds issues with navigation.

Technology has infiltrated nearly every aspect of our daily life, our public lands are a chance to escape this. Parks, forests, and monuments are a way to halt everyday life and return to a natural world rich with history.

Perhaps one of the biggest dangers to our parks is climate change, and one of the best frames of reference to discuss this is with Glacier National Park in Montana. The park was named for, you guessed it, the abundance of glaciers and the mountains they formed. Glacier had over 150 glaciers in the 19th century. As of 2010, that number has shrunk to 25.

It is estimated that the last of the park’s glaciers will have receded to below the 25-acre threshold by 2030 (Brown). One of the most famous glaciers in the park, Grinnell Glacier is shrinking so rapidly it may be gone as soon as 2020. Global temperatures are averaging higher and higher every year, that is undisputable fact. Scientific evidence and research suggest that humans are to blame for the spike, the CO2 levels are rising with the temperatures (Bly).

With climate change, we will see specie extinction, habitat loss, and intense geography change. With the disappearance of glaciers, many things will change in the park. Trees will advance into previously unsuitable areas, reducing other species. Glacier fed lakes will see reduced water levels, and streams and rivers in the park will see temperature increase, which will affect temperature sensitive aquatic organisms (Hall). What a cruel irony it would be to lose the glaciers, the namesake that caused Glacier National Park to be protected.

Some damage is largely irreversible, most of the glaciers that are gone are never coming back. Large scale change needs to happen seemingly overnight or it will be too late. It is frustrating and disheartening to watch the news and see the new political powers fight against public lands and environmental protection. The Obama presidency set an incredible stage for the U.S. to move forward as a global leader in the fight against climate change and global warming, and it seems only a few months into the Trump presidency that is being undone.

Suspended glacial valley and melting glacier, Glacier National Park 2016

In an effort to create jobs and promote energy independence, Trump is rolling back the Clean Power Plan, and disincentivizing states from moving toward clean, renewable energy sources (Worland). With so many small steps taken in the right direction it seems that in 2017 we are now running in the wrong one. Trump has verbalized his intent to pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement, a coalition of nations taking steps to combat climate change (Walsh).

It is estimated that U.S. carbon emissions will reach a level of 3.4 billion tons higher than what they could be with Trump in office. With global CO2 concentration now reaching 400 parts per million, this is simply unaffordable (climatologists suggest 350 ppm as the threshold for avoiding catastrophic climate collapse). All is not lost, though. We can still help.

The best answer for helping our national parks and public lands is this: Go. Find a place you like, spend time there, show others. Visit and keep them clean while encouraging others to do the same. Fee dollars from visitation pay to restore trails, set up trail cams that protect and monitor wildlife, and pay rangers and staff to keep these places safe and clean.

Visiting a park, or any public land really, is the most surefire way to keep these places protected. People “go to bat” for something that is personal to them. The national parks system recognized this and created the “Find Your Park” campaign. The “Find Your Park” was a two year effort that went through the NPS’ centennial year in 2016. It was an effort to introduce the magic of the parks to new people who may not have spent any time in them and encourage those who had already spent time in the parks to find the one they loved most of all (NPF News).

Overcrowding at the El Cap parking area, Yosemite 2017

When legislators try to pass legislation that threatens these places, people need to fight it. The more people that stand up to prevent threatening legislation and policy the more likely it is that policy or legislation will fail. One shining example of this is the outdoor company Patagonia. Twice yearly the Outdoor Retailer Show is held in Salt Lake City. Hundreds of companies come to showcase their new gear developments and bring around 45 million in revenue to the state (Bowerman).

The Outdoor Retailer Show really serves as a summit for the outdoor industry. Utah legislators have threatened public land in Utah such as threatening to reduce the size of Escalante National Monument and eliminate Bears Ears National Monument, designated by President Obama. Patagonia made a huge move in pulling out of this show, prompting other companies to follow suit.

While we as citizens can’t create a fiscal avalanche by pulling out of an industry niche, we still have a voice. Calling legislators, attending rallies, and writing members of congress is one of the best ways to put pressure on policy.

When legislators know they don’t have the support of the public and doing the opposite of what the public wants will lead to discord, they will at the very least be pressured to consider their choice. With the changes soon to come in environmental policy as led by the Trump administration, it is critical to make your voice heard. Find your park, find your voice, and make it heard.


All photos by Thomas Crose

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