Friday, December 5, 2008

Conservation: The overlooked importance of our National Parks

Just before I went to Costa Rica, two years ago, I read an article in the October 2006 National Geographic Magazine about our National Parks entitled "Places We Must Save".  The article was highlighted the importance of our parks to our national heritage.  On the cover was the image of wind-scarred desert plateaus of Glenn Canyon with three smokestacks in the background–it is haunting.  I was deeply motivated by this article, quite suitably  since I was on my way to see some of the most magnificent environments on the planet.  After a few weeks in Costa Rica my Tropical Ecology professor gave me an assignment and handed me that exact National Geographic Magazine that I had read just weeks before my arrival. It seemed like fate.  My assignment was to report on the article for the class and explain its importance: I'll give you a recap. 

In the past two decades, the idea of the "park" has been in conflict with human development. The reason is because parks evict people from making a living on an ever shrinking planet. The benefits of which are often enjoyed by the affluent, consequences suffered by those trying to survive. This methodology will and should not prevail because it pits us against the parks–inverting the purpose.  Right now our country is not concerned with reversing this effect (and arguably should not be given the economy). However, parks are important and George Schaller captures why:
"It is essential that each country keep part of its natural heritage untouched . . . so people can see the splendor of their past, before the land was degraded. . . . [T]hese untouched places are genetic reservoirs . . . invaluable to the human species. . . . If we destroy the parks, they're gone forever, and we may be losing something invaluable to us."
Today there are over 400 parks in our national system. In 2012 we will celebrate their centennial. Our parks are undergoing some of there greatest challenges right now and it is not just threats from Global Warming. John G. Mitchell elaborates on these threats in his last essay. The park service is short on funds, overburdened by "loving" tourists, and losing most of its top professionals.  

I would wager that you and most other Americans are unaware of these threats, because the parks still provide us with the stunning views and majestic beauty we all expect. Therein lies the problem: We as Americans have become too comfortable with the idea our national parks are tourist destinations first, not the vital sanctuaries described by Mr. Schaller. Our national ideal coupled with the increasing pressures of air pollution, invasive species, encroachment on habitat stemmed by Global Warming our parks, perhaps warrant more of our national attention than just tourism. 
So, what did I garner from my stay in Costa Rica as it pertains to our parks? The United States is the focus of the world, particularly right now as we face our growing economic crisis. The world is watching now as we deal with our economic crisis, and has been watching how we manage our national park systems. Tourism is huge for much of the world's national parks.  In Costa Rica, tourism (largely fueled by U.S. dollars) sustains the economy creating a direct conflict with conservation efforts.  We have opened our forests up to recreation like snowmobiles and ATV's. Costa Rica has followed suit with every type of jungle tour imaginable. Look zip-lines are awesome, but they require forest clearing  and the massive flow of people forces any wildlife in the area away disrupting the ecological balance. 

Over five years ago, Mitchell points out, a panel appointed by the Secretary of the Interior noted that the best way to win public support for parks was through accommodating them–spelling trouble for protection of our resources. By opening up the parks to ATV's, snowmobiles, and paving roads to account for visitor traffic, the parks have slacked on their protection. While the President and Congress have their own mountain of messes to work out, is it time for us the citizenry to demand that the mission of the park system be restored to its original purpose–conservation. 

Sometimes there is a sacredness in leaving things untouched.  The beauty of delicacy is not something reserved for the small scale of a newly opened rose, but may be observed on a much grander scale. The calmness and stability that we get from knowing that our nation's most beautiful places will be there for generations is what drove our forefathers in protecting our parks. It is time for us to abandon our greed and lust for the "hands-on" experience of nature and again embrace the deeper appreciation of American parks.  Because, as David Quammen said, "Our national parks are as good, only as good, as the intensity with which we treasure them." 

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