This Veterans Day weekend, November 10-12 marks the final free national park day weekend of the year. It’s an excellent opportunity to get outside, enjoy the last days of pleasant fall weather before the winter chill hits, and get lost in the wilderness. It’s also an opportunity to teach the responsible care of our national parks. As Bob Dylan once said: “The times they are a-changin’ ” and so is our world, throwing some of our treasured lands into peril. While you’re out this weekend, exploring the backcountry of the Smokeys, being mesmerized by the red rocks of Arches, or finding an unexpected surprise between the canals of the Everglades, take the time to recognize how our parks, today more then ever are threatened. Educate others on how we can preserve them, and adopt a few simple habits that will ensure our lands safety for generations to come. These are three endangered national parks and what we can do to save them.
Everglades National Park
The Everglades is the vast wetland that encompasses all of Florida’s southern half. Once a lush river of life and a delicately balanced ecosystem, it has been devastated by out of control urban planning, poisoned by runoff from nearby farms, and it’s ecology has faced one threat after another from non native invasive species. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, drainage canals to support farmers and crops were dug, diverting precious water and leaving a dryer season each year, forcing animal life to go deeper in the park in search of nesting grounds. By the 1930’s the Everglades was nearly completely dry and dams and levees had cut off the precious flow turning the Kissimmee River into one giant drainage canal.
Throughout the early 1900’s, non native human introduced species were brought to the Everglades as biological control for local farming areas or food sources. Later on, pet owners introduced Burmese pythons which exploded in population throwing off the delicate food chain which makes up the ecosystem. Diverted water flows allowed many invasive plant species to thrive, and according to the National Park Service, as much as 1.5 million acres have been affected by these devastating plants.
Although it seemed like the Everglades was doomed, hope came in 2000 with the introduction of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, which broke open roadways, dams, and levees, partially restoring a flow of water to the wetlands. Fresh water is re diverted from the ocean and pumped into the sections most in need of restoration. By taking a few simple steps, anybody can lessen the human impact on the precious system. Don’t introduce or free any species or pets in the waters or land. If biking, hiking, or exploring the canals, don’t throw any trash overboard. These are easily found by turtles, birds, and alligators. Take a bag to collect and toss any trash at designated ranger stations. Stay on designated trails and waterways and don’t traverse into any areas where animals are nesting or hiding. It will take years before the Everglades are returned to their once glorious splendor, but with the process finally showing positive results, taking these simple tips will ensure that the human impact is lessened.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The Smoky Mountain’s famous blue fog has been the trademark element that inspires their name. From Tennessee to North Carolina they produce forests of spruce and oak trees as well as a steady population of bear, elk, and deer among over four hundred species of animals. Unfortunately the fog now competes with such a heavy coating of smog from Midwestern and Eastern cities, that it’s visibility has been dramatically reduced from one hundred miles to twenty five on the cloudiest days. Invasive species such as hemlock destroy delicate forests while beetles, once introduced as pest control now go beyond their intended job taking colonies of essential insect life.
Human activity inside the park has also affected the quality of the air. Roadways running through the park contribute to buildup of carbon and exhaust from visitors driving through the area. As in any other park, buildup of too many people also leaves trash as well as interfering with eating and nesting grounds for animals. Careless outdoorsmen will also build fires which can rage and take acres of land which then fall prey to natural erosion.
Despite human activity, new environmental guidelines are already cleaning up the air, with a study reporting that visibility has increased from 9 miles in 1998 to 24 miles in 2009. Ecological friendly vehicles are also lessening the exhaust and carbon on the park while the park service introduced environmentally friendly shuttles to ferry large groups of visitors between trails. People can contribute to the revival by camping only in designated areas, being responsible about building fires and putting them out properly, and not tampering with the wildlife such as picking up rocks that are the homes to small fish and reptiles, and staying on designated paths to not interfere with the rivers or wildlife. If current trends continue, the ugly white smog will give way to the majestic azure haze that gives the park its name.
Arches National Park
Arches National Park, with it’s soaring towers, graceful stone curves, and expansive canyons faces threats both from the public and from political pressure as the needs of the nation grows. In terms of visitors, Arches tourist population has exploded, bringing in cars, hikers, trekkers, and climbers which with a degree of irresponsibility have left a significant human footprint on its red walls. Politically the park faced threats from exploration of gas and oil reserves calling for privatization that risked selling off vast swaths of the parks to investors in search of tapping its resources. A change in attitude towards the parks in Washington has now changed this mentality, but the fear in Moab, especially as the disassembly of former uranium mines continues practically next door, is that this threat could be revived at any moment.
Human visitation, and a haven for extreme sports brings more cars filling the parking lots, often making some visitors park in unauthorized places. Hikers going off trail can disrupt the delicate nutrient rich cryptobiotic soil which gives life to the vast plant life as millions of micro-nutrients can be eradicated under the weight of a hiking boot. Climbing is allowed in small sections of the park but rock climbers can leave unsightly chalk marks all over the wall as well as climbing off route and placing gear in loose cracks that can cause what might seem like a small bit of erosion but can become a bigger problem later on as wind and rain heavily contribute to the formation of the rock.
Consulting with rangers and hiring knowledgeable guides will ensure that human visitation remains on the trails and doesn’t interfere with the soil. Carpooling and making use of shuttles will reduce traffic throughout the park as well as alleviating congested parking lots and if not possible, find any way not to park in unauthorized areas. For canyoneers and climbers, take all gear, ropes, and clean up ugly chalk marks or use colored chalk that blends with the color of the rock. Be cautious as respectful towards archeological sites such as petroglyphs as small changes could be a threat to their visibility. As long as those in Washington decide to look elsewhere for resources, Arches can be kept safe and pristine for many years to come.
The Future of Our Parks
Of course the threats to our national parks aren’t limited only to these three. Climate change has left many of the glaciers in Glacier National Park in a state of constant recession, Yellowstone faces the impact of human footprints as its annual population grows every year, and Yosemite has been forced to enact tighter measures on entrances to its valleys to keep overcrowding to a minimum. However the common theme to these parks is that by taking simple steps to enjoy them responsibly and with care, the impact that we make will be dramatically decreased and we will be able to conserve them for our future generations. Simply by remaining on authorized trails, practicing environmentally friendly hiking and camping, and disposing of waste responsibly, the effects of years of neglect can begin to be overturned. This weekend I urge everyone to get out to your national parks and preserves, enjoy them for what they are, take nothing except photographs, and educate our future to impose responsible stewardship of our lands.