Is anyone home at the parks?

  • Greg Hanscom


Poke around the West for a while, and you’ll discover that the National Park Service does one thing better than any other agency. It’s not managing land. It’s managing people.

Nearly 300 million visitors meander through the parks each year in search of that perfect scenic photo, a look at a bear, a little solitude. And while a few get lost, hurt or killed, it’s not the fault of the Park Service. Signs and fliers funnel people toward the mellower hikes and safer vistas, and rangers teach them how to avoid beasties with nasty pointy teeth.

Somewhat miraculously, the Park Service manages to leave most of the parks to the wildlife they’re meant to protect. Hike a mile away from the road, and you’re likely to find yourself all alone, despite the yammering hordes just over the hill who are stuck in a "bison jam" or huddled in a crowd, listening to a ranger talk about wildflowers.

Park staffers tackle tougher issues as well, teaching visitors about Japanese internment camps and the massacres of Indians by U.S. soldiers. But as HCN Contributing Editor Michelle Nijhuis writes in this issue’s cover story, there’s one area where the agency has fallen down on the job.

The national parks offer clear windows into the impacts of global warming. The glaciers in Glacier National Park and North Cascades National Park have shrunk dramatically in recent years. In Yosemite, some species of small mammals are retreating steadily uphill, searching for cooler climes; at some point in the not-so-distant future, there won’t be any more "uphill," and these critters will simply die out.

Yet park officials have been reluctant to speak up, whether because of pressure from the oilmen in Washington, or because they fear for their jobs and their already shrinking budgets. Individual rangers and parks are getting the word out, but the best effort the agency has been able to muster is the "Climate Friendly Parks" Program, a minuscule effort that has put solar panels on a few roofs and cleaner buses on a few roads. Every little bit helps, but really, this is pathetic.

Instead, the Park Service should do what it does best: reach out to the masses, to warn them about this looming threat.

What if visitors to Glacier National Park could not only see the shrinking glaciers, but also stop by the visitors’ center to calculate their own contributions to climate change? What if rangers regularly explained in their campfire talks why you no longer see pikas in the places you once did? What if park superintendents spoke out about the deep impacts of global warming on the national treasures they are charged with preserving?

Park staffers often say they must avoid scaring visitors, or accusing them of crimes against the climate. It’s true that a harsh scolding can close a person’s mind. But there’s nothing wrong with clear explanations of the known causes and effects of global warming — especially if they’re grounded in decades of scientific research.

Forthright public education may be the best, and perhaps the only, way for park managers to step beyond their boundaries and help solve a problem that is bearing down not only on the parks, but on the entire globe.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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