Pollution, invasive species, climate change, energy and land development, and chronic funding shortfalls are endangering US national parks, according to a long-awaited study.
The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) spent a decade assembling the first-ever broad look at how America's national parks are faring. And the outlook isn't good.
NPCA's Center for Park Research analyzed conditions at 80 national parks across the US, a 20% sample of the 394 parks in the National Park System.
Our national parks suffer from an annual operations shortfall of more than $600 million.
The report finds that long-standing and new threats are impacting wildlife, water and air quality in our national parks. Historic sites that tell the story of the Civil War, the civil rights movement and the evolution of America's diverse culture are also suffering, mostly because of a lack of funding.
"Our national parks are places we go for reflection, inspiration, and connection to our national heritage - they are places we as Americans decided to protect to showcase where America's story has unfolded. But new data shows that our national parks are in serious jeopardy," says Tom Kiernan, president of the National Parks Conservation Association. "As we approach the 2016 centennial of the National Park Service, we have a responsibility to ensure our American treasures are preserved and protected for the future."
The problem is also at the state level. To close a hole in California's state budget, the state could close 70 state parks - 25% of the state's park system. That would save only $33 million of a $12 billion budget shortfall, while losing tourism dollars and 220 jobs, but the decision will be made at the end of this month.
Air, Water, Wildlife at Risk
The assessment reveals stark realities, including the loss of native plants and animals from park landscapes. 95% of parks assessed had at least one wildlife or plant species that had disappeared from the area, including large predators such as gray wolves, mountain lions, and grizzly bears.
In places such as Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, invasive plants and animals are crowding out native species, some of which are now extinct.
Air and water quality in the parks are also suffering. More than half of the parks studied (63%) have compromised air quality. Numerous parks, such as Gateway National Recreation Area and Big Hole National Battlefield, also report serious water quality issues, including contamination and depleted water resources that affect the entire ecosystem.
The majority of threats to natural resources stem from human activities, including development on lands adjacent to national parks that negatively impact the parks themselves.
Climate Change Threatens Survival of Iconic Species
The report indicates that climate change is a systemic threat to the iconic flora and fauna of many national parks - the Joshua trees of Joshua Tree National Park, the redwoods of Muir Woods National Monument and Redwood National Park are among them.
Rising sea levels due to climate disruption threaten to inundate coastal archaeological sites in Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska. And at Isle Royale National Park, significant changes in amount of snow could impact moose-wolf dynamics and threaten the survival of both species in this wilderness park.
Historic Artifacts and Cultural Treasures in Peril
An often forgotten mission of the National Park Service is that of curator and keeper of America's historic artifacts and cultural gems. Two-thirds of the 394 units in the National Park System are designated to protect important historic or cultural sites, but rarely does the agency have enough trained staff - or receive the funding - to properly care for them.
Cultural resources are in degraded conditionn at over 90% of the parks surveyed. The Park Service estimates that more than 60% of the 27,000 historic structures need repair or maintenance. Many parks lack adequate documentation and research on their cultural resources, and their artifacts are insufficiently monitored - theft and deterioration easily go unnoticed.
Reasons for Hope - What's Working Now
Yet the report shows that despite the challenges facing our national parks, many of the parks assessed have developed management approaches to effectively address the erosion of natural and cultural resources.
For example, a vessel management plan at Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve helps protect marine mammals from being struck by ships. And the removal of non-native species and a captive breeding program have helped restore Channel Islands' native island fox population.
Research at a number of parks shows that when National Park Service staff have sufficient financial support, up-to-date scientific information, and adequate training, positive stories of resource protection are abundant.
A Call To Action
While the Parks Service looks to its 95th anniversary and the next century, advocates continue to point to simple, straightforward solutions to address the challenges facing our national parks.
The report recommends the Obama Administration develop a comprehensive long term plan for the parks that reduces threats from energy development and other adjacent uses, enforces air quality laws, and monitors water quality.
Long term protection depends on fully funding the National Park Service, the federal agency tasked with overseeing the parks and their assets.
NPCA is also calling on the Obama Administration to issue an Executive Order to recommit federal resources and policies to preparing our parks for the next century by reintroducing native wildlife, implementing climate change adaptation and mitigation, better managing large landscapes to conserve and restore ecosystems, improving the condition of cultural resources, and incorporating under-represented themes of American history and cultural diversity.
"The State of America's National Parks report is our wakeup call. The natural and historical treasures that Americans value have been vulnerable for too long. This is a turning point in the history of our parks, and we must not break the promise that past generations made to our children and grandchildren," says Kiernan.