The last few years of climate change, invasive species being introduced, and overcrowding have been detrimental to our National Parks' health, causing some scientists to question whether these national treasures will survive our generation. Read on to find out what is harming our National Parks, and what we can do to help save these natural beauties.
The very first National Park that was founded was Yellowstone National Park, which was established in 1872 as a public park. The National Park Service wasn't founded until years later in 1916, when Woodrow Wilson decided it was best to create one single service to protect and upkeep at the time what was only 35 national parks and monuments, rather than having each one with its own service. Today, there is a total of 419 National Park sites, with 61 of these having "National Park" in their name. All 419 sites cover over 84 million acres in the United States and its territories, all of which have been protected through acts of Congress. Although the numbers may be different, the mission of the National Park Service has always been the same: "The National Park Service preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations. The Park Service cooperates with partners to extend the benefits of natural and cultural resource conservation and outdoor recreation throughout this country and the world." There are over 200,000 National Park workers that uphold this mission to take care of our National Parks; however, due to severe budget cuts, the work force has been slowly decreased by 11% between 2011 and 2018. In addition to this, President Trump and his administration wanted to cut park budgets by $481 million in 2020, when the current estimated repairs that all parks require total up to around $2.7 billion. Under-funding is only one issue that the National Parks are suffering from; overcrowding of tourists, invasive species, and warming climates are also contributing to the decline of the health of our Parks. In this blog, we will be focusing on the natural and environmental issues the parks are facing, rather than political issues like under-funding and acts of Congress.
Unfortunately, the National Parks are suffering from overcrowding of the very tourists that provide the support and donations that keep these parks open to them. In 2018, over 318 million tourists visited just the National Parks. Compare this to 2000, when there were 285 million visitors. In 18 years' time, the number of visitors increased by more than 30 million people! Dank Wenk, the former superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, once said, "The least-studied mammal in Yellowstone is the most abundant: humans." (The Guardian). We do not have enough data and statistics about human effects on the parks to study it, but we do know that tourists are affecting our parks. There has been a growing fascination with ecotourism in the last decade, and subsequently, there has been growing rates of tourists in our parks. The more tourists there are, the more changes happen in the environment. Tourists bring in hiking shoes that were in other National Parks, inadvertently bringing in invasive species to different parks. Motorboats used in the swamps of the Everglades tear up the sea grass, and scare off the wildlife. Children and adults alike pick endangered flowers from the sides of hiking trails to take home, or wander off the path to find a plant to take home, trampling grass and flowers alike on their way there. Snowmobiles in Yellowstone cause trampling of grass and plants that are living underneath the snow. The lack of parking causes tourists to park their cars on the grass, and cars drift off the roads to trample the nearby grass. The compacting grass results in young trees being unable to establish themselves, which causes a need for more money to be spent on caring for those trees. The National Park Service's goal is to allow man to harmonize with nature, not overtake it and harm it.
Tourists are the main cause of the introduction of invasive species to the parks, whether it be with their shoes, bags, or camping gear, and whether it is known or unknown to the tourists. This can occur if hiking gear and camping gear is not properly cleaned after use in a different region, as seeds, burrs, and other parts of invasive plants can easily stick to things like the bottoms of boots and tents. Invasive animals in the parks are mostly caused by pet-owners releasing unwanted exotic pets into the wild, such as frogs, fish, lizards, and especially snakes. Researches estimate that the National Parks contain around 6,500 invasive species, of which 70% are plants that take up 2.6 million acres of land across all National Parks. Although this is only 3% of the 84 million acres of National Parks, the National Park Service spent around $80 million in the years 1996 to 2000 just to treat that land for these invasive plants. Below are pictures of Bradley meadow in King's Canyon and Sequoia National Park, which was treated for the invasive reed canarygrass for 12 years before the meadow was finally overtaken by native and diverse plants.
These types of situations are handled by the Invasive Plant Management Teams, or IPMT. There are only 17 of these teams in the U.S. and its territories, and these teams can support only 290 of the National Park units. If you want to learn more about why invasive species are harmful to the ecosystem of a region, check out our blog about native v. invasive plants!
Invasive species also harm the rare, threatened, or endangered (RTE) species in the parks. The National Park with the most RTE species is Haleakala National Park on the island of Maui, which provides homes for 81 RTE flowering plants, and 6 RTE non-flowering plants. The most infamous of these is the silversword plant, which is typically found on top of the Haleakala volcano. Others include the Maui greensword, Hawaiian orchids, and the red-flowered tree geranium. Invasive species prey upon the native insects that pollinate these plants, and tourists pick these beautiful flowers to take home, both which reduce the population and the reproduction of these plants. The reason that Hawaii has so many RTE species may be that new invasive species arrive in Hawaii every day, mostly due to imports and tourism, at a rate that researches say could be up to 20 species per day. However, these plants endemic to Haleakala are beginning to thrive. due to fencing that keeps out animals, and more efforts from the workers to prevent tourists from picking the flowers.
Even the slightly warmer temperatures that our world is facing majorly affects the balanced ecosystems of our National Parks. In fact, scientists have predicted that two of the largest glaciers in Glacier National Park will be considered inactive in 2030 if carbon levels continue to rise at the rate they are going. By "inactive," they mean that the glaciers will be too small to be considered active; the typical minimum size is 25 acres. In 1966, the park contained 36 active glaciers; by 2015, the park had 26 active glaciers.
These glaciers take centuries of melting and refreezing to form, but it seems as if they are disappearing in one lifetime. The change in temperature has also affected more than the landscape. The mountain pine beetle, usually found in Colorado, has begun to move to higher elevations to find cooler temperatures. This beetle finds a tree to host it, and can kill it within a year or two. Typically this beetle will find multiple types of trees to host it, but this change in location means this beetle is finding one type of tree to host it. The whitebark pine tree is found in higher elevations, and is now at risk of becoming a threatened species due to the migration of these beetles. Another tree becoming threatened by climate change is the Joshua tree, of Joshua Tree National Park. These plants need to undergo a period of dormancy before they can flower, and this dormant period must occur in colder temperatures. The Joshua tree is dependent upon one type of insect to help it pollinate, and without this cold period, the tree will not flower and cannot reproduce. To make matters worse, Joshua trees were denied federal protection in 2019, although scientists believe these ancient and beautiful plants will be extinct by the end of the century. This is because of the decrease in reproduction, but also because younger trees are failing to establish themselves in hotter and drier conditions. It isn't just the warm weather that is threatening the nature in these parks, but also air pollution. The National Park Service has reported that 89% of all of the parks have reported suffering from haze pollution, which affects the air both visitors, animals, and plants breathe in. This haze not only affects the air, but also impairs one's ability to take in the typically breathtaking views the parks offer. Mangroves in the Florida Everglades are forced to retreat and are declining as a result of rising sea levels, which are flooding swamps and marshes. One-fourth of all National Park Sites are either on or close to a coastline, meaning that rising sea levels are being considered a potential threat to over 100 National Park Sites.