Sealevel on Sustainability: The US National Park System

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Many of Sealevel’s team members relish time in nature as a way to refuel, reenergize and refresh. Our employees have completed, or will accomplish, many outdoor adventures: a destination wedding in Glacier National Park; a complete thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail; a 12-day canoe-backpacking trip in Boundary Waters Wilderness and a 65-mile trek through the Sangre de Cristo mountains of New Mexico.

You could say, we love us some nature. In honor of this, and the midsummer appeal of opting outside, we’re spotlighting sustainability by the National Park System.

The United States National Park System

Outdoor culture in America can be partly attributed to one special source: the American “national park idea.” Established in 1872 with Yellowstone National Park, this idea was the first – ever – to establish outdoor sanctuaries guaranteed to all citizens. This democratic use was unlike the reserves of other great empires, which primarily reserved wildlife sanctuaries for exclusive use by the rich, elite and royal for luxury activities like sport hunting and exotic display. Since 1904, almost 14 billion visits have been recorded. Annually, the park system has more than 300 million visitors.

In the United States, there are 419 National Park units, all maintained by the Federal National Park Service, and 61 of which are the parks people think of when mentioning the NPS. There are 19 different ways to designate a federally protected unit, and they range from urban/manmade to wilderness/natural formations. The Washington Monument and Yosemite National Park both fall under the NPS. These units are separate from State Parks. Sealevel’s home state of South Carolina has one NPS unit, Congaree National Park. It is one of the rare places one can see synchronized fireflies.

The least visited National Park unit is Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve on the Alaskan Peninsula. To arrive there, one must first take a long journey via small plane, boating and/or backpacking. Once there, the environment is harsh with foggy, rainy weather. The company is little better: wolves, bears and other dangerous wildlife stalk the area. Annually, less than 300 tourists visit.

However, the Southeast holds the National Park attendance record with The Great Smoky Mountains, which logged more than 11 million visitors in 2018 – the most of any park. Following this massive record are the Grand Canyon, Rocky Mountain, Zion, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Acadia, Grand Teton, Olympic and Glacier National Park. Many of these parks are known for their sweeping views from grand mountaintops, but they also encompass rare landscapes, vegetation and wildlife.

The Impact of the National Park System

Beyond the democratic access to the land, the parks provide an unparalleled opportunity for scientific research, education and conservation. “In fact, with a long history of data and field study on everything from wildlife to wildfires, the national parks offer scientists an incredibly rare living outdoor lab,” says Jim Robbins of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. The conservation gives way to preserved places for research, which in turn get used to understand the earth more and educate the population about environmental management best practices.

Beyond this field research, the park also utilizes its land for prescriptive environmental behaviors: educating visitors about the environment, especially specific to each park, and applying land management practices to keep the park in pristine conditions for healthy ecosystems. Old growth areas maintained by park staff have helped sequester carbon, proving valuable friends in the fight against climate change.

This American “national park idea,” land free to use by all but free to be protected as well, started a worldwide conservation movement. Globally, the US NPS has inspired dozens of countries to implement their own national parks. One of the most significant of those inspired is Chile. Aided by Doug and Kris Tompkins, Chilean leaders set aside millions of acres of land to protect Patagonia. This region is considered one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the world along with being widely acclaimed for its natural beauty. Currently, Chile is rewilding and reforesting many overdeveloped areas within the protected space.

Maintaining the National Park Idea

Unfortunately, many of the national parks face a backlog of deferred maintenance due to lack of funds, time or volunteers to keep the spaces up. The National Park Service is setting a goal to restore the parks to their original glory… or at least ensure that they remain protected and available for our grandchildren’s grandchildren.

One of the biggest challenges affecting ongoing maintenance are climate change related damages as well as abusive visitor behaviors. In regards to the former, one of the most dangerous climate-change threats is wildfire. Of course, poor park behavior – like not putting fires out – increases risk, but many wildfires can start from dry conditions and a lightning storm or grow from a single spark on a farm miles away. Monitoring for these conditions and fighting fires is expensive, which cuts into public land budgets.

Those curious about the parks can check out their phenomenal website nps.gov to learn all about their educational offerings, camping information and tips on how to make the most of one’s time in a park. It’s also a great source to learn about the best ways to steward environmental resources or different volunteer opportunities.