“It was here that the romance of my life began.” – Theodore Roosevelt, one of the National Park system’s greatest champions, on what would become Badlands National Park
Our National Parks system has made quite a few headlines in recent weeks. While much attention has been focused on their official social media accounts being gagged and various park rangers going rogue by Tweeting climate change facts, I was struck by a less viral but potentially far more impactful story: a piece of Congressional legislation that some conservationists fear may eventually threaten our cherished public lands.
But more on that in a minute. First, I want to show you why it matters.
The National Parks and Lands I Love
I admit that my appreciation of these natural treasures has been a newfound one. I didn’t really grow up camping or hiking or going off the grid very often, and visiting National Parks just plain wasn’t on my radar until recently.
But I’ve fallen fast and hard. Here are a few that stole my heart.
• Haleakalā National Park: Dang, I love Haleakalā National Park. Maui’s enormous park is separated into two different “districts” – the summit district mountain area, where many tourists flock for sunrise, and the Kīpahulu district coastal area, where daytrippers on the Road to Hana make the ‘Ohe’o Gulch their ultimate goal.
On my first trip to Maui, I crushed a twelve-mile hike in the Haleakalā crater and watched one of the most beautiful sunsets of my life from its summit. On my second trip to Maui, I soared over Haleakalā’s slopes as a paraglider and down them on a mountainbike. For my third and most recent trip to Maui, I camped on at the Kīpahulu shoreline and hiked to its most iconic waterfalls. Haleakalā represents so much of what I love about Hawaii.
• Joshua Tree National Park: After hearing a college friend gush about Joshua Tree National Park, I knew I had to see its famous Seuss-like trees for myself. Driving around the surreal desert landscape in a convertible was one of the best days I’ve ever had in California. Easy hiking loops, sweeping viewpoints and the most unique flora I’ve ever photographed will definitely lure me back for an overnight camping trip in the future.
• Everglades National Park: As a Florida flan I was giddy to flock to Everglades National Park, the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States. The park has multiple land-based entrances that don’t connect within the park, giving visitors a very unique experience at each. I fell in love with the croc-covered biking trail at Shark Valley, and I hope to return someday to hike, bike and boat at Flamingo, the southernmost point in mainland Florida.
• Grand Canyon National Park: Who doesn’t dream of someday visiting Grand Canyon National Park? My first glance at the Grand Canyon was on tribal lands at the so-called “West Rim” and my second was from a helicopter ride from Vegas, both of which just whet my appetite for a true adventure there. I finally got it in the form of an RV road trip that involved camping along the South Rim.
My new dream? To return someday to complete the full, famous North Rim to South Rim trek – and to tackle a rafting tour of the Colorado River.
• Volcanoes National Park: The Big Island came to life for me at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, where you can literally watch an island being born. I spent a day road tripping through the park’s two scenic drives, dotted with short hikes, a viewpoint of the continually erupting Halema’uma’u Crater, and a dramatic coastal arch. Later, I watched lava bubble from a helicopter over the park.
If you’re lucky enough to be heading to Hawaii anytime soon, I recommend you to book it to the Big Island – the lava is literally popping off right now!
• Glen Canyon National Recreation Area: While not a National Park, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area is managed by the parks service and thus visits are included in the America The Beautiful annual park passes.
As part of the same road trip that kicked off with a night at the Grand Canyon, I spent two night camping alongside Lake Powell at Wahweap and later took a boat tour from the Glen Canyon dam. Of all the special lands on this list, this is the one I was most struck by and am most eager to return to.
My National Parks Wishlist
So where to next? Well guys, I’m thinking that I might just have to hit them all eventually. But working with my already existing possible travel plans, these are three parks that I’m now hoping to prioritize visiting and supporting in 2017:
• Acadia National Park: One of the main attractions at Maine’s Acadia National Park (sorry, couldn’t help myself) is Cadillac Mountain, the highest point on the East Coast. I’d love to hike it! Also enticing is the possibility of spotting moose, an animal I’ve grown obsessed with seeing with my own eyes in the wild. Whale watching, blueberry ice cream eating, and unironic flannel wearing are three more reasons to make Maine, and the East Coast’s first National Park, happen for me this summer.
• Biscayne National Park: Colorful coral reefs, sandy islands, and mangrove forests might not be the first things you envision when you think of the National Parks Service, but Florida’s Biscayne National Park, the largest marine park in the National Parks system, is a proud member. Diving protected wrecks along the underwater Maritime Heritage Trail, camping on islands accessible only by boat, and stand up paddling through the mangroves? Yup, I think Biscayne and I will be best of friends.
• Great Basin National Park: Frankly, I hadn’t heard of Great Basin National Park, Nevada’s lone National Park, until I started researching this post. And between the subterranean tour of Lehman Caves, some of the best astronomy admiring in the country, and Promethean Bristlecone Pine forest, debatably the oldest living organism on earth, I have no idea why not. Best of all? In 2015 Great Basin welcomed just 116,123 visitors – compare that to the Grand Canyon’s 5.5 million – so there’s a high likelihood I’ll have the place to myself.
National Parks In The News
So what inspired this patriotic outpouring of park loving? This past week, Congress made moves that could potentially impact federal public lands. The headlines that resulted were alarming, and I spent hours poring over every article and document I could find about this legislation to figure out if I needed to immediately chain myself to a tree or not.
Here are the basics. A financial resolution quietly passed by the House of Representatives in January will now make it much easier for the government to potentially transfer federal land to the states.
If you want to learn more, The Guardian is producing excellent, in-depth coverage of this issue – though they aren’t shying away from naming parties. Outside Magazine is also doing some seriously impressive journalism that is ever so slightly less politically-charged — though it’s kind of hard to avoid on this issue. Or, you can continue to read my take…
What’s so bad about public land transfers, you ask?
Well, that minor shift could potentially release millions of acres from federal protection, including some that are directly adjacent to national parks — such as the proposed uranium mining site alongside the Grand Canyon. This release could result in limited public access, open protected areas to drilling and property development, and cause confusion and contamination in ecosystems that cross state boundaries. (A contaminated river in one state cavalier with regulations could pollute the entire watershed, for example.)
In many cases, state governments simply don’t have the budget or the resources to manage and maintain these lands. A study in Idaho concluded the state would lose $2 billion over the next two decades if it were tasked with managing land that’s currently federal. Another, in Wyoming, similarly concluded that the state did not have the means to undertake such an endeavor. In such cases, the states might have no choice but to sell.
It might help, at this point, to clarify what exactly is federal public land. National Parks and monuments make up about 11% of it. The other 89% is made up of areas managed by the Bureau of Land Management, National Forests and Federal Wildlife Refuges — much of this is mixed use, which means in addition to being used for hunting, fishing, camping, hiking, biking and beyond, it’s already open to regulated leasing from drilling and mining industries. While National Parks make the headlines, selling of any federal lands sets a dangerous precedent, and all public lands are worthy of our protection.
And the national parks aren’t exactly exempt, either. A bold and failed 2012 attempt by a Utah State Legislator demanded that the government transfer all 31 million acres of public land in Utah, including Bryce, Zion, and Arches national parks. The same year, Arizona passed a similar measure that was voted down in every county before being veto-ed by the governor. Others have mushroomed up in nearby states despite widespread unpopularity among constituents.
And therein lies the beautiful thing in a time marked by divisive political vitriol: support for public lands is vast and wide and uniquely bipartisan! It’s an issue where hunters and fisherman stand alongside staunch conservationists and vow to protect what’s wild. In fact, a 2016 study found that 95% of Americans believe that National Parks are worth protecting — and 80% even offered to pony up higher taxes to do so. Even in the West, polls conducted in seven states by Colorado College show 58 percent of voters opposed transfer of lands to the states.
With so much public support, some might ask who public lands need defending against. The answer isn’t surprising: so called “extractive industries” such as oil and gas, and the politicians who feel loyal to them. “In the absence of substantial mineral wealth, none of this would come close to penciling out,” writes Robert Keiter of the University of Utah.
“These groups are trying to convince people that they should voluntarily relinquish land that they currently own,” says Brad Brooks, who works on the land transfer issue for the Wilderness Society. “The losers will be the public who are not affluent. The winners will be people and corporations who can afford to buy land. — Outside Magazine”
Look, I’m not here to contribute to the alarmist headlines or spread undue panic. We don’t need to stage a sit it in at Sequoia – yet. But bills to parcel off federal land are already being introduced (read on for the story of what happened to one of them!) If public lands are important to you, now is the time to start keeping an eye on this legislation and to show you care in whatever way feels authentic to you.
I feel in my heart that these lands are too precious to cross our fingers and hope for the best for. If the last few months have taught me anything, it’s to take nothing I hold dearly for granted.
How You Can Help
First is the most fun: go enjoy our beautiful public lands! Even before this week’s legislative threats, our parks are in peril, according to some accounts. Climate change, a backlog of maintenance in the billions, and attendance reports all raise concerns.
While total park attendance is technically at an all time high, digging a little deeper reveals that visitation has declined on a per capita basis, and less overall hours are being spent in the parks. And the rising age of the average National Park visitor is a red flag for the Parks Service, who is aware that they need to cultivate the next generation of park visitors and advocates. I want to do so too. I plan to do my tiny little part by continuing to visit as many parks as I can and promote them here and via social media. I’d love to see your trips too – tag me when you visit National Parks so I can follow your trips, too!
Of course, you can always donate. But not just money – also your time, your knowledge, or even your art. Learn more here. Want to contribute financially but in a way that’s a little more fun? This list of beautiful nature-inspired products that raise money for the Parks Service is a good way to give back.
Finally, remember that your representatives are there to serve you, their constituents. The widespread support for public lands might be comforting to some, but we know public opinion and policy don’t always match – which is why it’s so important to make sure your opinion is known to the politicians who represent you.
Because they listen! Last week, US congressman Jason Chaffetz introduced House Bill 621, which would have forced the sale ofa public land area the size of Connecticut. Yesterday, he withdrew after an outpouring of public passion, promising via Instagram that his constituents had been heard. What an amazing success story!
I love seeing a diverse group of Americans unite on a goal that serves the greater good. It gives me hope that we the people… we can do this. Today, I wrote five letters. Next month, I’ll do five more.
Here’s to a lifetime of adventures exploring wild, wide open spaces.
“We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone.” – Theodore Roosevelt