Image: Solar panels atop park building
Ted S. Warren  /  AP
Workers at Mount Rainier National Park in Washington state install solar panels on the park's Emergency Operations Center.
updated 6/23/2009 11:41:22 AM ET 2009-06-23T15:41:22

Karen Lasch and her family recently pulled over their car near a glacier-fed creek in Mount Rainier National Park, piling out for a glimpse of the snowcapped peak in the distance.

But she hadn't given much thought to the impact that she, millions of other tourists and the national parks themselves have on the wilderness. Each year, vehicles and parks operations spew thousands of tons of emissions that contribute to climate change.

"This is such beautiful scenery," the Louisville, Ky., tourist said recently, as her family snapped pictures. "It would be such a shame to lose."

Officials at parks across the country are trying to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by cleaning up their own operations, with the help of federal stimulus dollars.

"We know we have to green our own house," said Sonya Capek, the Pacific West region's environmental program coordinator. "It's part of our mission to protect and preserve the resources."

The National Park Service and the Environmental Protection Agency have started the Climate Friendly Parks network program to help parks address climate change. Parks must measure their amounts of emissions, come up with plans to curb them and educate the public on what they can do to help.

Seventeen parks, including the Everglades in Florida and Fire Island National Seashore in New York, have already created plans. Sixty parks are developing their own plans.

National parks, like other federal agencies, have already been under orders to reduce energy and gasoline use. But the Obama administration has pushed greening parts of government further, including replacing government fleets with more fuel-efficient cars and trucks.

Loaner bikes for staff
Parks are turning down thermostats and sealing windows, providing loaner bikes to employees and installing food composting and recycling bins.

One recent morning at Mount Rainier, workers climbed atop the park's emergency operations center and installed 48 solar panels to provide energy to the building. They have also added dual-flush toilets that reduce water use and use electric vehicles to pick up trash at campgrounds.

"The goal is really to knock (down) our carbon footprint," said Jim Fuller, the park's energy coordinator.

Each year, Mount Rainier creates greenhouse gas emissions equal to about 1,100 households. Visitors to Mount Rainier account for two-thirds of the 12,170 metric tons the park emits each year, mostly in driving to the park and inside it.

Federal stimulus dollars are giving national parks a boost in their efforts. Of $750 million for national parks, there's stimulus money for energy-efficient windows at Alabama's Russell Cave, wind turbines at Alaska's Gates of the Arctic and solar panels at Georgia's Cumberland Island.

Visitors to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park may soon hop on hydrogen-powered shuttles, while those visiting parts of Golden Gate National Recreation Area will find mostly organic food grown within 30 miles rather than shipped from across the country. Rocky Mountain National Park runs shuttles so backpackers don't have to drive to trailheads. Other parks such as Wisconsin's Apostle Islands National Lakeshore are asking visitors to do their part with tours, education programs and public awareness campaigns.

Soft stick strategy
"We're basically trying, without hitting people over the head, to say this is an issue," said Bob Krumenaker, Apostle Islands' superintendent.

Rainier acting superintendent Randy King said the park doesn't want to discourage visitors. "It's very important that people enjoy the parks and make a personal connection." So the park is looking in-house first to conserve where it can.

"We need to set a good example and do what we can," he said.

Roger Scott, from Southfield, Mich., said he's noticed solar panels at several national parks he visited since retiring last year.

"Parks get used an awful lot and they're going to get used even more," he said, adding that now is a good time to start thinking about human impact to the parks.

It's unclear whether parks can realistically become carbon neutral through conservation alone or without buying offsets, but park officials say the expectation for now is get as close as possible.

"It's OK to have a difficult goal," King said. "It's important that we take it seriously."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: America's national parks

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  1. Acadia

    Acadia National Park in Maine boasts the highest mountain on the U.S. Atlantic Coast and was the first national park east of the Mississippi River. Visitors beware: temperatures can vary 40 degrees -- from 45 degrees to 85 degrees in the summer and from 30 degrees to 70 degrees in the spring and fall. (Gareth Mccormack / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Rocky Mountain

    Bear Lake, with mountainside aspens changing colors in mid-autumn, is one of the popular attractions in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. (Universal Images Group via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Badlands

    The climate in South Dakota's Badlands National Park is extreme. Temperatures range from minus 40 degrees in the dead of winter to 116 degrees in the height of summer. Visitors are drawn to the park's rugged beauty as well as the area's rich fossil beds. (Mark Newman / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Yosemite

    One of the nation's first wilderness parks, Yosemite is known for its waterfalls, scenic valleys, meadows and giant sequoias. (Robert Galbraith / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. North Cascades National Park

    The North Cascades National Park complex offers something for everyone: Monstrous peaks, deep valleys, hundreds of glaciers and phenominal waterfalls. The complex includes the park, Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas. (David Mcnew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Zion

    This spectacular corner of southern Utah is a masterpiece of towering cliffs, deep red canyons, mesas, buttes and massive monoliths. (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Redwood

    Created in 1968, Redwood National Park is located in Northern California. Today, visitors to the national park can enjoy the massive trees as well as an array of wildlife. (David Gotisha / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Joshua Tree

    Joshua Tree National Park is located in southeast California. The area was made a national monument in 1936 and a national park in 1994. Outdoor enthusiasts can go hiking, mountain biking and rock climbing. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Great Smoky Mountains

    Straddling the Tennessee-North Carolina border, Great Smoky Mountains National Park encompasses more than 800 square miles in the southern Appalachian Mountains. Visitors can expect mild winters and hot, humid summers, though temperatures can differ drastically as the park's elevation ranges from 800 feet to more than 6,600 feet. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Arches

    More than 2,000 natural sandstone arches, many of them recognizable worldwide, are preserved in Utah's Arches National Park. Temperatures can reach triple digits in the summer and can drop to below freezing in the winter. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Grand Teton

    The Snake River flows through Grand Teton National Park, and the jagged Teton Range rises above the sage-covered valley floor. Daytime temperatures during summer months are frequently in the 70s and 80s, and afternoon thunderstorms are common. (Anthony P. Bolante / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Haleakala

    Visitors watch the sun rise at 10,000 feet in Haleakala National Park in Maui, Hawaii. If weather permits, visitors at the top of the mountain can see three other Hawaiian islands. (The Washington Post via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Grand Canyon

    Grand Canyon National Park is perhaps the most recognizable national park. Nearly 5 million visitors view the mile-deep gorge every year, formed in part by erosion from the Colorado River. The North and South rims are separated by a 10-mile-wide canyon. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Yellowstone

    Yellowstone National Park, America's first national park, was established in 1872. The park spans parts of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. Grizzly bears, wolves, bison and elk live in the park. It is well known for Old Faithful and other geothermal features. (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Mount Rainier

    Glaciers. Rainforests. Hiking trails. Mount Rainier National Park, located in Washington state, offers incredible scenery and a diverse ecology. The park aims to be carbon neutral by 2016. (National Park Service) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Hawaii Volcanoes

    Two of the world's most active volcanoes can be found within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. In 1980, the national park was designated an International Biosphere Reserve; in 1987, it was added as a World Heritage Site. (David Jordan / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Everglades

    Everglades National Park covers the nation's largest subtropical wilderness. It is also a World Heritage Site, an International Biosphere Reserve and a Wetland of International Importance. Visitors to the park can camp, boat, hike and find many other ways to enjoy the outdoors. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Glacier

    A view from atop the Grinnell Glacier Overlook trail in Glacier National Park. With more than 700 miles of trails the park is known for its glaciers, forests, alpine meadows and beautiful lakes. (Matt McKnight / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Bryce Canyon

    Located in southwestern Utah, Bryce Canyon National Park is known for its distinctive geological structures called "hoodoos." (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Crater Lake

    The brilliant blue Crater Lake, located in southern Oregon, was formed when Mount Mazama, standing at 12,000 feet, collapsed 7,700 years ago after a massive eruption. Crater Lake is one of the world's deepest lakes at 1,943 feet. (David Gotisha / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Olympic

    Washington state's Olympic National Park offers visitors beaches on the Pacific Ocean, glacier-capped mountain peaks and everything in between. Keep the weather in mind when visiting, though, as roads and facilities can be affected by wind, rain and snow any time of year. (National Park Service) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Sequoia and Kings Canyon

    A woman stands among a grove of a Giant Sequoia trees in Sequoia National Park in Central California. The trees, which are native to California's Sierra Nevada Mountains, are the world's largest by volume, reaching heights of 275 feet and a ground level girth of 109 feet. The oldest known Giant Sequoia based on its ring count is 3,500 years old. (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Denali

    Alaska's Denali National Park spans 6 million acres and includes the 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, North America's tallest peak. Many park visitors try to catch a glimpse of the "big five" -- moose, caribou, Dall sheep, wolves and grizzly bear. (National Park Service) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Kenai Fjords National Park

    The National Park Service considers the 8.2-mile round-trip on Harding Icefield Trail in Alaska's Kenai Fjords National Park to be strenuous, saying hikers gain about 1,000 feet of elevation with each mile. (National Park Service via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Death Valley

    California's Death Valley encompasses more than 3.3 million acres of desert wilderness. In 1849, a group of gold rush pioneers entered the Valley, thinking it was a shortcut to California. After barely surviving the trek across the area, they named the spot "Death Valley." In the 1880s, native peoples were pushed out by mining companies who sought the riches of gold, silver, and borax. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Wind Cave

    Bison graze in Wind Cave National Park in the southern Black Hills of South Dakota. Millions of bison were slaughtered by white hunters who pushed them to near-extinction by the late 1800s. Recovery programs have brought the bison numbers up to nearly 250,000. (David McNew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Canyonlands

    The Lower Basins Zone is outlined by the white rim edge as seen from the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park, Utah. (Doug Pensinger / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Shenandoah

    Fall colors blanket the Shenandoah National Park, drawing tourists to Skyline Drive to view the scenery. (Karen Bleier / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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