America’s best idea is in a bad way. The National Parks Conservation Association has just issued a dire warning about the state of our national parks. The NPCA, a 325,000-member group with a lobbying arm in D.C., also has a research arm based in Fort Collins, Colorado, the Center for Park Research. Interestingly, that latter’s acronym is CPR, which is what their latest findings suggest are in order for the nation’s 400 parks, 80 of which were thoroughly surveyed in a nearly decade-long inventory of the state of our national parks.
The report, issued in full to the media today, paints a grim picture.
Destruction From the Outside
The extraction businesses (logging, mining, etc.) that surround the parks are a primary source of damage caused within the parks themselves. NPCA cites evidence such as huge clearcuts in the Olympic National Forest adjacent to the Olympic National Park in Washington State that make it impossible for migrating species to survive and mountaintop removal mining in the Southeast that destroys the headwaters that feed mighty rivers and once-pristine lakes downstream in several parks and national historic sites. It says the nation’s politicians are failing to uphold the law and should be forcing these businesses to operate in a cleaner fashion or shut them down. Measuring water quality in parks across the country, the NPCA researchers found elevated levels of metals, nutrients, and organic waste; some had what the NPCA calls, “…severely degraded aquatic habitats resulting largely from human activities and pollution of waters outside the boundaries of the park.”
Threats to Animals
There are dozens of endangered species in national parks threatened both by the extraction businesses outside the parks and because the animals don’t recognize park boundaries. From wolves in Yellowstone to cougars in Joshua Tree and pronghorn that migrate from Wyoming’s Upper Green River Basin to spend summers in Grand Teton National Park, these species all travel over a great territory. But the NPCA says a failure to allow that migration, to create migration corridors, and to open up fencing (and not to mention, caving to the interests of farmers who have successfully lobbied to allow hunting of wolves in Montana and Idaho) may mean the extinction of these animals.
Threats of Climate Change — and of Too Few Dollars
The headlines this spring tell this story pretty clearly: fires and floods. National park and national forest managers are chronically underfunded to do critical work to reduce the the threats of fires and floods. Invasive species like wood borer beetles are decimating forests at an alarming rate, and controlled burning of fuel loads is only happening sporadically or not at all. Other invasives include non-native trees that are not adapted to fire and are taking over from species that need small fires to germinate. Fire suppression continues to cause both the invasives to propagate — and the potential for catastrophic fires to grow.
A Failure to Preserve
One of the most disconcerting findings is that the survey showed that 91 percent of the parks studied received a “fair” or “poor” rating for maintaining cultural resources. Historical architecture is falling apart. (Remember that Civil War and Revolutionary War sites are included in the system.) Many of the parks don’t even have accurate inventories of their archeological, cultural, and historic artifacts, nor do they employ trained curators, historians, and caretakers of this inventory. Since these parks don’t know what they have, nor do they employ people to protect these artifacts, the NPCA report finds that rampant theft and pilfering often goes unnoticed or undocumented. The report damningly states:
Two-thirds of the 394 units in the National Park System were designated to protect important historic or cultural sites, but their resources remain in peril, partly because cultural resources receive far less attention — and funding — than natural resources. A persistent assumption exists among the public, Congress, and even some National Park Service staff that the agency’s primary mission is to protect scenic wonders and wildlife, while preserving historic places, structures, and artifacts is of secondary importance — or worse, a regrettable diversion of time and funding.
A Call To Action That May Go Unheard
Unfortunately, the NPCA’s recommendations to remedy many of these findings are likely to be met with jeers by a Congress that is considered by many watchers as the most hostile to the environment in our nation’s history. The NPCA suggests remedies ranging from Congress enacting legislation to expand existing park boundaries (so that these enlarged parks would protect the existing “islands” of nature) to executive orders from the president to put more mustard behind enforcement of EPA regulations, such as the Clean Air Act and the National Park Service Organic Act.
The politics of such measures are likely to prove impossible. Even though the general public is overwhelmingly pro environment, the current Congress is exceedingly pro extraction — in the name of “jobs” and “energy independence.”
Note the current so-called “3D bill” in the House and Senate that, among other things, would restrict the ability of any state or the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide from agricultural activities or greenhouse gas emissions from cars. Further, recent attempts by the Obama Administration to designate key federal wild lands have seen massive resistance in the West, where governors and legislators argue that oil and gas exploration creates jobs and increases tax hauls.
It’s fair to ask, if the Obama Administration cannot enforce existing laws, how will it push through new agendas?
A quick review of the current political scene finds Congress taking the gray wolf off the endangered species list, and seeing Montana, Nevada and Idaho opting out of the Antiquities Act — a federal law that allows the president to set aside national monuments for permanent protection.
Even fire management, an effort that would seem to receive broad bipartisan support, requires funding, and the battle over the budget is showcasing how everything that isn’t Social Security is under assault.
And this last point may be the most disconcerting. With more federal dollars off the table to maintain (let alone expand) national parks and increasing pressure from powerful lobbies to gut all of the environmental laws they possibly can, the NPCA’s findings and how the federal government responds to them is sadly all too predictable:
Republicans will discount the need to protect the national parks as a sideshow or a “job-killing” agenda from the tree-hugging left. Democrats will pay lip service to the issues raised but won’t counter bills like the 3D statute with anything substantive of their own. They’ll fight off environmental attacks where they deem it politically expedient, but they won’t call the Republicans out on what former interior secretary Bruce Babbitt, in a June 8 speech at the National Press Club called “a war on our land, water and natural resources.”
The NPCA is saying is that there’s a cancer that’s going on right in front of all of us and that setting aside a few natural islands amidst the devastation won’t save the parks or the water we drink and the air we breathe. It’s saying that enough is enough.
The problem is that just saying it isn’t enough, either.
This environmental coverage made possible in part by support from Patagonia. For information on Patagonia and its environmental efforts, visit www.patagonia.com.