by John F. Byrne
The Sierra Club's National Parks and Monuments Committee has exciting new ideas for expanding and enhancing our national park system. Our goals include:
• Including all the country's major ecological regions;
• Advancing the scientific study of the parks—including learning how to deal with ecological threats and how to adapt to global climate change;
• Educating the public; and
• Limiting and greening development in the parks.
The United States played a pioneering role in inventing national parks, but today we lag behind in using national parks to protect and learn about our ecosystems. We should follow the models of neighbors such as Canada, Costa Rica, Panama, and the Dominican Republic.
Filling the gaps
In this diverse nation, shouldn't all major ecological regions be represented by a national park or similar natural reserve large enough to assure long-term preservation of natural resources?
A preliminary analysis based on this goal suggests the need to create 38 new national parks (or similar areas) and to expand or change the management of 28 others. Within California, for example, the study identifies four gaps in current protection:
• California Central Valley grasslands;
• California montane chaparral and woodlands;
• Pacific Northwest coastal rivers and streams;
• The Californian Current.
These suggestions are designed to start a discussion of the future of the national parks. In California we may ask such questions as:
• Where should new parks be located?
• Should management be significantly upgraded in the Carrizo Plain National Monument, our last large remnant of Central Valley grassland?
• How might the National Park System protect our marine ecosystems?
Per-capita visitation to our national parks peaked 20 years ago and is now down 23%. With rising gasoline costs and increasing public concern about greenhouse gases, this trend is likely to continue. We should establish new national parks closer to where people live.
Hearing what our National Parks can tell us
National parks can also serve as bellwethers of environmental change caused by development, industrialization, and global warming. National parks are ideal sites for studying our natural world and how it reacts to change—and for learning how to protect it.
We need to expand science programs in parks. We need to evaluate land use to determine what practices within each ecological region are compatible with ecological vitality. As we gain such knowledge, we need to expand education programs in the parks to spread such knowledge widely.
Limiting development, greening development
We need to limit development in the national parks. The only facilities in the parks should be those essential to their protection and to enabling visitors to enjoy and learn from them. Even these should be carefully located in the parks' vestibules, away from critical habitats. Park access and use should encourage walking and minimize fuel use and pollution.
Park facilities should be net zero-energy users, designed according to the highest green standards. They can be models for all of us. Facilities not essential for resource management and public use should be located outside the parks, where they can provide visitors with a full range of services while minimizing impacts on the parks themselves.
Of each federal budget dollar, 1/12 of a penny goes to national parks. Our nation can afford to do better. Entrance fees are not an answer. Today these contribute only 5% of the National Park Service budget, and they are already high enough to discourage use, especially by people with lower incomes. Fees just for entering national parks should be abandoned.
Nor should park staff have to beg for contributions, or invite private companies to use our national parks to advertise their products. The government does not ask sailors to pass the hat to launch a new destroyer.
National parks can play an invaluable role in making a better world for us, for our children, and for our grandchildren.
John F. Byrne is chair of the Sierra Club National Parks and Monuments Committee.