The Future of our National Parks System

 

The current political administration in the United States has raised into question the future of our public lands. Given the continued discussion over the ownership of national parks and monuments, the below excerpt from Grand Canyon for Sale: Public Lands versus Private Interests in the Era of Climate Change, is both timely and informative.

This faint old path isn’t on the brochure map, but it leads to a fine perch just the same. Moving past the car choreography and selfie poses at the popular Desert View area near the eastern border of Grand Canyon National Park, I find my way on a late afternoon.

Crumbling pavers end in a trace that weaves through rabbitbrush and juniper and over to a suitable rock, right on the abyss. No glance out there yet. I don’t want to risk vertigo until I’m settled. Then, with a beer and a bag of salt peanuts, I can drift out over two billion years of geology, a hundred centuries of human striving, and a timeless void.

Anywhere you pause along the hundreds of miles of edge brings dizzying contrast. The infinitesimal meets the cosmic, as a cliff swallow careens against far-off rock and sky. The immediate—check your foot-ing on that limestone grit, there’s a long fall pending—opens abruptly onto silent eons of cycle and revision. Another contrast: under a longer gaze the wild and timeless look of this panorama bears the lasting marks of recent human activity. They are the destinations of this book.

As we head into its second century, few would disagree that we want the park system to fulfill its mandate to preserve nature. “The core element of the national parks is that they are in the perpetuity business,” as Gary Machlis, science adviser to the director of the Park Service, told me. “The irony is that our mission is to preserve things in perpetuity, and we do it on an annual budget and a four-year presidential cycle.” The natural systems of the parks, he said, represent an island of stability—as long as we protect them and plan well for their future.

The centenary of the Park Service has just passed, along with some well-deserved national self-congratulations. Perhaps this would be a discreet time to say that the parks’ natural systems are, in the estimation of many scientists, falling apart. In that view all public lands need long-term life support, beginning as soon as we can pull it together. We’re on a precipice, both politically and biologically.

Read more from the author in a recent article, ‘At Bears Ears in Utah, Heated Politics and Precious Ruins,’ on the New York Times website, or check out his website to learn more.


A Right-Now Battle for the Future of America’s Public Lands

This post is part of our Earth Week blog series. Check back every day between now and Friday for new blog posts. 

by Stephen Nash, author of Grand Canyon for Sale: Public Lands versus Private Interests in the Era of Climate Change

America’s national park system is the most familiar component of our vast estate of federal public lands: forests and grasslands, wildlife refuges, millions of acres of rangelands. These landscapes all add up to more than a fourth of the U.S. national dirt. Earth Week 2017 finds the survival of their natural systems increasingly vulnerable, politically and biologically.

The plan long promoted by conservation biologists and environmentalists, and seriously contemplated by the federal government in the recent past, was to move toward connecting these lands to help ensure their protection from industrial exploitation and development pressures, and to enable species to adapt and migrate in the face of quickly arriving climate change.

But a powerful, well-funded political movement is pushing in the other direction: to atomize federal public lands, hand them over to the states, and privatize them. My book Grand Canyon for Sale: Public Lands versus Private Interests in the Era of Climate Change details this conflict, its origins, and its political and ideological supporters, from ranchers to billionaires. The Trump administration has been both equivocal and non-vocal on this issue so far — hard to prophesy how this map will look on Earth Week 2018, and beyond.

With Grand Canyon National Park as the foreground example, we can also see the biological threats to the future of public lands: recurring waves of imported invasive species that disrupt ecosystems, a lengthening list of endangered species whose populations steadily diminish and, especially, climate change. These factors are already transforming public lands, including Grand Canyon.

Fortunately, natural scientists and their allies spend whole careers on research and field work to mitigate these losses and plan for a radically different climatic future. Their work, too, is embattled. Many of them will celebrate Earth Day around the U.S. this weekend by taking part in a March for Science. For public lands and for science both, we’ll see what direction the coming year takes…


Stephen Nash is the author of award-winning books on science and the environment, and his reporting has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, BioScience, Archaeology, and The New Republic. He is Visiting Senior Research Scholar at the University of Richmond