What comes to mind when you envision something truly American?
Odds are, your answer could vary from apple pie to unlimited data plans. For President Franklin D. Roosevelt, it was national parks. He believed that ,“There is nothing so American as our national parks. The fundamental idea behind the parks is that the country belongs to the people, that it is in the process of making for the enrichment of the lives of all of us.”
When I think back to my visits to both state and national parks, I remember canoeing past a motionless crocodile in the Everglades, waking up among giants in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, and stretching out on a warm rock next to a still, remote lake in Yosemite. Each experience left me feeling enriched and empowered; fearless, yet humble.
Whether it be a national park, state preserve, or county wildlife refuge, these lands have become beloved fixtures in our experiences as Americans. So many of us love to get outside and into our parks. So many of us infant that 331 million people visited America’s national parks in 2017 alone!
Challenges facing state and national parks today include climate change, tightening budgets, misplaced political will, and a growing American population eager to get outside. Can the parks system, based on enrichment and access for all, survive the political and environmental chaos that has come in the 21st century?
The answer: it is up to all of us! Political will invariably comes from public opinion and values-based consensus. Just as the Environmental Protection Agency was born out of the environmental movement in the 1970's. Here are 4 tips we have for you to help get involved!
1. Participate in Local Elections
Unlike federal public lands, where all Americans own the land, state parks are owned by states, and therefore are always in danger of being sold or leased. If there is a budget issue, state parks can temporarily close or land be sold without the consultation of the public.
The parks in a given state are treated like any other budget line item, and when state and county governments have to make cuts, they are always on the line. If the political will of voters for public lands is unstable, a politician might not think twice about selling off state-owned lands for profit, or open them up to mining and drilling leases.
Know your state and county elected officials, and research how they voted on parks-related issues. If they come up for re-election, research the new candidates’ positions on public lands. And don’t forget to vote!
2. Get Involved With or Follow Local Activism Groups
Nearly every state or county park has an activism group tied to the interest of keeping that park in place. The majority of them have a “friends of” designation.
In times of great challenges facing the parks, these organizations are important as ever. They play an important, grassroots role in developing, maintaining, and expanding the purpose of public parks and nature preserves. They fight mineral and oil drilling leases, closures to the public, and any potential moves to sell land.
Active groups include:
Friends of the Boundary Waters (fighting sulfide mining in Lake Superior)
Friends of Cedar Mesa (fighting the reduction of Bears Ears)
Friends of Ballona Wetlands (advocating for restoration in LA’s only protected urban wetland)
The next time you consider volunteering your time or donating your money, consider these various organizations. Become a hero today for the park you most often visit.
3. Participate in Major Elections, Vote!
Uncertainty surrounding state action and interests is what spurred the activism that eventually led to the designation of Bears Ears as a National Monument by President Barack Obama in 2016.
This designation gave Bears Ears federal protections, effectively taking control of the land from Utah. Many politicians and taxpayers alike in Utah, a typically conservative state, saw this as an unwelcome infringement upon their rights.
This conflict, along with the presence of oil reservoirs, was largely what made Bears Ears a perfect political target for the current presidential administration, leading to the December 2017 decision to cut the size of the monument by 85%.
To further illustrate the importance of elected officials and politics involved, consider Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. Designated also by President Obama in 2016, the current administration chose not to close or decrease the monument. Two beautiful parks now face two very different futures, which are largely at the mercy of our elected officials.
If you’d like to see more national monuments and parks created, maintained, or protected, be sure to vote!
4. Stay Informed and Educate Others About Threats to Parks
For many years, the National Parks Service has been dedicated to cataloging and communicating the impact of climate change they witness within the parks. The most striking examples can be found in the form of receding glaciers at Glacier National Park in Montana and 4,000 year-old Sequoia trees parched from the many years of drought in California.
With the lack of political will in our current administration, these efforts have been stalled or erased. National parks and wildlife reserves are an ideal place to conduct research, as ecosystems remain largely intact for scientists to study.
In fact, there are many benefits to ecosystems located within the national parks system. One of my favorite examples of this is Cabrillo National Monument, located just outside of San Diego. The park is a testament to how urban and natural spaces can co-exist beautifully with the right amount of oversight. The health of the tide pools at Cabrillo are used as a gauge upon which to measure all other similar marine ecosystems in the area. Protected areas are essential to maintaining the balance of the sea that so many coastal cities depend upon.
However, the current Administration has been actively rolling back protections, opening new mineral, oil and gas leasing opportunities upon the very land that Americans entrust their national leaders to protect. In the future, these acts will serve to degrade not only the newly unprotected land, but the stability of the entire global climate.
Our national parks and public lands are critical to our experiences as outdoor enthusiasts and Americans. Leverage your enthusiasm for the parks and concern as a citizen and go vote!