Celebrating its 140th anniversary this year, America’s first national park could serve as a microcosm for the challenges facing the entire system, as Yellowstone deals with non-native species, climate change and air- and water-quality issues. Then there’s the elephant in the room, which is, well, us. Last year, almost 3.4 million people visited Yellowstone, 2.3 million of whom came in June, July and August. With most visitors staying on roads and in developed areas, the problems are exacerbated by traffic jams and aging infrastructure that wasn’t built to handle such heavy use. No one is suggesting that people stop coming to Yellowstone — or any other park, for that matter — but the situation suggests that we’re part of the problem as well as the best hope for a solution.
There’s coal in them thar hills, which, it turns out, lie just 10 miles from Bryce Canyon in southern Utah. With a 440-acre mine on private land currently in operation, park officials and environmental groups are concerned about a proposal to expand the operation to 3,500 acres, two-thirds of which would be on public lands. The expansion would entail lighting for night operations and convoys of trucks to transport the coal to the nearest railhead. “Bryce is hailed for its night-sky programs and the lights and dust would obviously affect visibility,” said Kurt Repanshek, editor in chief of National Parks Traveler. Other concerns include the impact of blasting operations on the park’s “soundscape” and the prospect of more than 300 daily truck trips (153 roundtrips) on Highway 89, the main route between Bryce and Zion.
Historically, the “smoke” in the Great Smoky Mountains was simply fog but since the mid-20th century, airborne pollution from nearby power plants and distant cities has probably ruined more views than the thickest mist. On the worst days, vistas that once stretched up to 100 miles have shrunk to less than 25 miles. And yet, there’s cause for cautious optimism as the impacts of pollution controls enacted in the 1990s are starting to take effect. According to Jim Renfro, an air quality specialist with the park, the average visibility range on the worst days at the Look Rock observation tower was 24 miles in 2009, up significantly from the 9 miles recorded in 1998. “You can see the difference,” said Don Barger, Southeast regional director with National Parks Conservation Association . “Views are starting to clear but we’ve got a long way to go.”
Like Glacier, this park in Southern California is in danger of losing the feature that defines it and gives it its name. Joshua trees, however, face a double-whammy, says Seth Shteir, a National Parks Conservation Association field representative, as air pollution and climate change work together to imperil the trees. The former, says Shteir, consists of windblown nitrogen from metropolitan areas that aid the growth of invasive grasses that serve as fuel for large-scale fires. The latter leads to hotter, drier conditions that make it harder for Joshua tree seedlings to survive. “People have this preconception that life in the desert is already adapted to hotter, drier temperatures,” said Shteir, “but the plants and animals are already walking a fine line of survival.” So fine, in fact, that studies project that the park could lose 90 percent or more of its eponymous trees by 2100.
While climate change is impacting parks across the country, few are in the climatic crosshairs as directly as Glacier, which could lose the last of its eponymous icefields in as little as 18 years. That’s according to Dan Fagre, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, who notes that the area that would become the park (in 1910) was home to 150 glaciers in 1850. Today, just 26 remain and even those remnants could disappear by 2030. The issue goes beyond glacier-less vistas and obsolete signage. (Slush National Park, anyone?) “It’s not just the melting of the ice,” said Michael Jamison, a local program manager for National Parks Conservation Association . “There’s this whole cascade of effects that impacts everything from soil chemistry to trout streams to municipal water supplies. The whole system is driven by ice.”
Step up to the rim of the Grand Canyon and the typical response is almost instinctual. “If you watch people, they automatically start whispering,” said park spokeswoman Maureen Oltrogge. “They feel the need to be quiet.” Unfortunately, in many places in the park, that silence is shattered by a steady stream of flightseeing airplanes and helicopters. With as many as 57,000 air-tours per year, the result is what Roger Clark of the Grand Canyon Trust calls “a conveyor belt of noise.” The good news is that 25 years after the passage of the National Parks Overflight Act, the Park Service is preparing a draft plan that will cap the number of flights, mandate quieter aircraft and set flight curfews around sunrise and sunset. Expected to be released this summer, it will then be presented to FAA for review.
“Explore a rugged, isolated island where wolves and moose abound,” says the park website, which is, at best, half true. While the moose population is growing, the number of wolves in the park has dropped to its lowest point in 50 years. According to researchers who monitored them this winter, just nine wolves remain on the island, down from 16 last year and a long-term population of 18 to 27 animals. The problem is exacerbated because only one of the animals is believed to be a female and winter ice cover on Lake Superior is declining, making it unlikely that additional wolves can get to the island to replenish the gene pool. “Even if you don’t see them, wolves convey wild nature at its finest,” says Kurt Repanshek of National Parks Traveler. “If they disappear, it’s one more part of the wilderness that’s gone.”
Industrial agriculture, suburban sprawl and a highway that has cut this South Florida park’s “River of Grass” to a trickle, Everglades has faced continued threats ever since it was created in 1934. Water flow has been diminished through drainage canals and levees, even as fertilizers and chemicals have polluted the water that’s left. However, there’s hope on the horizon. After decades of litigation, a deal to expand artificial marshes to filter nutrient-rich water could be in the offing, a development that would boost water quality downstream. At the same time, work continues on adding bridges to U.S. Highway 41, aka the Tamiami Trail, between Tampa and Miami. “The road shut off the water flow to the park,” said John Adornato of National Parks Conservation Association . “We’re starting to crack open that dam.”
Named for the fur traders who paddled the lakes and rivers of what would become northern Minnesota, this park has always been defined by water. In addition to supporting tour boats and wilderness paddling opportunities, these waters are home to a genetically intact population of lake sturgeon that’s considered healthy but threatened. The threat would be heightened if a trio of proposed hydroelectric dams is built on the Namakan River in Ontario, Canada, where many of those sturgeon spawn and live before swimming downstream to the park. “You have to have that portion of the river open to even have sturgeon in Voyageurs,” said Park Superintendent Mike Ward. The project is currently in a holding pattern, he told msnbc.com, “but we’ve heard recently that they want to start it up again.”
Balancing use and preservation is a challenge at national parks across the country and nowhere is that more true than at Biscayne, which sits within sight of downtown Miami. Heavy fishing has depleted the stocks of local reef fish even as abandoned fishing gear is destroying the coral those fish rely on for food and shelter. To protect the coral and restore fish populations, the Park Service has proposed creating a marine reserve — essentially a no-fishing zone — covering roughly 7 percent of the park. “We want people to come but the fishing impact is degrading the coral,” said John Adornato, regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association. “The opportunity to snorkel or dive or take a glass-bottom boat tour is something that everybody should have.”
Located in the parched region of eastern Nevada, this remote park is noted for its underground caves, desert-defying plants and animals and some of the darkest night-skies in the country. All are at risk from a proposal to pump 50,000 acre-feet (16.3 billion gallons) of water per year from the adjacent Snake Valley and send it via pipeline to Las Vegas. And the risks go beyond dried-up riparian areas, curtailed cave formation and increased dust and light pollution, says Superintendent Andy Ferguson. “If that water is pumped out of Snake Valley, the towns that provide places for people to stay, buy groceries, etc., will also suffer,” he told msnbc.com. “And if we don’t have a viable agricultural community in the area, we won’t have much of a park either.”
The iconic cacti that give this park its name tower over the Sonoran desert outside Tucson yet are threatened by grasses a fraction of their size. Introduced as cattle forage in the 1940s, buffelgrass is an invasive species that forms dense mats that crowd out native wildflowers, inhibit animal movements and provide extra fuel for larger, more intense fires that the saguaro and other non-fire-adapted species can’t survive. “People say let [the park] turn into grassland but that doesn’t enhance the visitor experience,” said Dana Backer, a restoration ecologist at the park. “People don’t come here to look at grassland; they come here to see the saguaro and desert tortoise and things that other places don’t have.”