The Future of Our National Parks

©istockphoto/picturist

As our Nation­al Parks cel­e­brate 100 years as “America’s Best Idea”, it’s time to plan for the future. The next hun­dred years will be dif­fer­ent. Since the Park Ser­vice was found­ed in 1916, the Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tion has become more urban­ized and con­nect­ed, and our nat­ur­al sys­tems are feel­ing strains very dif­fer­ent then they did in the era of Woodrow Wil­son and Stephen Mather.

Dri­ving will be Passé
Zion Nation­al Park has become famous for it’s elec­tric shut­tle bus­es that whisk hik­ers to pop­u­lar hikes like the Nar­rows and Angels’ Land­ing. Replac­ing pri­vate cars with busses was a response to traf­fic and air qual­i­ty prob­lems more rem­i­nis­cent of the LA Basin than the Tem­ple of Sinawa­va. Even in the crowd­ed sea­son, the canyon is qui­et. Pri­vate vehi­cles have been banned from Denali Park for years. Look for more vehi­cle bans in pop­u­lar parks, and more Euro­pean-style tran­sit to day hike destinations.

Capi­tol Reef and Lake Clark, anyone?
With Zion, Yosemite, Aca­dia, Mount Rainier and Denali get the crowds and are head­ed toward inevitable sea­son­al lim­its near­by parks in the same areas will get more atten­tion. Lake Clark (Denali) Capi­tol Reef (Zion and Brice Canyon), North Cas­cades (Mount Rainier) will attract vis­i­tors seek­ing soli­tude. The Park Ser­vice will have lit­tle choice but to direct the over­flow to these light­ly vis­it­ed jewels.

©istockphoto/epicureanThe Wild Will Come Back
In response to crowds, the park ser­vice will inten­tion­al­ly leave some areas wild. Areas where human vis­i­ta­tion is lim­it­ed and man­age­ment is lim­it­ed to some occa­sion­al  clear­ing is already the norm in the Grand Canyon’s inner sec­tion, Denali, North Cas­cades, and parts of Glac­i­er, and most parks in Alas­ka. To pre­serve both soli­tude and ecol­o­gy, the Park Ser­vice will inten­tion­al­ly lim­it access to these zones.

Most of Us Are City Slick­ers Now
One of the major changes in Amer­i­ca since 1916 is the pop­u­la­tion shift to urban areas. By per­cent­age of pop­u­la­tion, the Amer­i­can west is now the most urban­ized region in the world. With the excep­tion of Yosemite, Joshua Tree, Great Smoky Moun­tains, and Mount Rainier, most parks are far­ther away from where peo­ple live. Peo­ple only pro­tect what they love, and they only love what they know. The next 100 years will see efforts to famil­iar­ize urban kids with parks: youth pro­grams, trans­porta­tion from cities, and micro-parks and mon­u­ments near cities.

Fire On the Mountain
The grow­ing inten­si­ty of wild­fire in our parks and forests are the result of a half-cen­tu­ry of fire sup­pres­sion and cli­mate change. In the next cen­tu­ry Park man­agers will work hard to undo the accu­mu­lat­ed fuel of past man­age­ment: let-it-burn poli­cies, con­trolled burns, thin­ning, and pro­vid­ing high-ele­va­tion refuges for dis­placed species.

©istockphoto/kwiktorThe Cost Conundrum
In the 20th cen­tu­ry, nation­al parks became the great equal­iz­er: a way that Amer­i­cans could embrace their nat­ur­al her­itage via rel­a­tive­ly cheap camp­ing. Horace Albright, the first Park Ser­vice direc­tor, saw park camp­grounds as a place where Amer­i­cans from all over the coun­try, all walks of life and income lev­els, could mix. In recent years, camp­ing costs have risen. And the park main­te­nance face mul­ti­mil­lion dol­lar main­te­nance back­logs: use and wear and tear have grown while fund­ing has stag­nat­ed or shrunk. In the next 100 years we’ll wres­tle with the dilem­ma of how to keep parks main­tained and affordable.

Liv­ing Laboratories
We’ll see the Park ser­vice up its game in the use of parks as liv­ing lab­o­ra­to­ries for study­ing the ecol­o­gy and the effects of cli­mate change, cur­rent­ly under­way in Yel­low­stone. There will also be more stud­ies of the move­ment of species, and the inter­ac­tion between nat­ur­al sys­tems and grow­ing human use. We’ll see a grow­ing army of ecol­o­gists along with recre­ation man­agers, espe­cial­ly as fund­ing gaps nar­row. More vis­i­tors will be involved in sci­ence, along with hav­ing fun.

Let’s hear it for the next hun­dred years.