A Shaky Future for America’s National Parks?

Growing up in Canada, my backyard was fenced off on only three sides. Instead of a wall, the far end opened up to a wide open expanse of green space shared with my neighbors, and a playground only a few meters away. Playtime often consisted of grabbing a couple neighborhood friends and running wild. Fast-forward to my undergraduate years in North Carolina, and you’d often see me spending my long weekends or spring breaks hiking the Appalachian Trail somewhere between Georgia and Virginia. Now as a graduate student at UC Berkeley, all of California- from Joshua Tree National Park to the Sierras to the Lost Coast- is my playground.

Horace Albright (standing third from the right) and Stephen at the summit of Mt. Whitney with other masterminds behind the National Parks Service.

Horace Albright (standing third from the right) and Stephen Mather (to his right) at the summit of Mt. Whitney with other masterminds behind the National Parks Service.

Little did I know that I had a couple of UC Berkeley graduates to thank for preserving these untouched lands for me. This year marks the 100 year anniversary of meetings between Stephen Mather (class of 1887), Horace Albright (class of 1912), and others who gathered on the UC Berkeley campus in 1915 to discuss the future of the country’s existing and evolving national parks. The meetings ultimately resulted in the establishment of the National Parks Service. To commemorate their efforts and begin strategizing for the next 100 years, UC Berkeley hosted a conference entitled Science for Parks, Parks for Science: The Next Century. The conference was kicked off with a panel including Sally Jewell, the US Secretary of the Interior, Janet Neopolitano, the President of the University of California, and Douglas Brinkley, a historian and author from Rice University, who discussed the importance and future outlook of public education, public lands, and their intersection.

All three panelists emphasized their concern for decreasing government support of public lands and education at a time when children are spending over 53 hours per week behind a screen, and as little as 20 minutes in outside play. How can the future of national parks be secure if younger generations have never experienced them or any other green spaces?

The importance of national parks lies not only in helping maintain a healthy environment and a healthy connection to the great outdoors, but also in crucial scientific research that helps us understand the impact of human activity on the Earth. UC Berkeley researcher Steve Beissinger is using California’s national parks to document the effects of climate change on wildlife. Kevin O’Hara and others in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management (ESPM) are developing tools to help understand how climate change will affect forest ecosystems. Justin Brashares of ESMP is comparing undisturbed wildlife communities in California and Africa to altered ecosystems outside of parks. Scott Stephens, also in ESPM, uses national parks to study forest fires and how to manage them.

Such research helps us understand how our environment is changing, how we play a role, how it affects us, and, ultimately, how we can help it, but the future of these efforts relies on younger generations seeing their value. Jewell wants to ensure this by getting more children out to the parks, especially those from more urban areas who are not as fortunate as I was to have that open-ended backyard. Every Kid in the Park, for instance, is a new initiative that grants 4th graders and their family access to any national park for free. This is part of a parent program called Open OutDoors for Kids. In addition, Jewell secured a grant that funds 50 full-time employees in 50 major US cities to develop programs and service projects that get kids outside and in the parks. It’s not only the big national parks that need public support, but also smaller urban spaces, such as Golden Gate Park, which are more accessible to the public on a day-to-day basis.  Jewell also stresses the importance of cultural sites that connect people with their history, such as the Honouliuli Japanese internment camp in Hawaii that was established as a national monument earlier this year.

Japanese internment camp in Hawaii in WWII.

Japanese internment camp in Hawaii in WWII.

Although the programs proposed by Jewell certainly sound promising, most of the panel’s discussion was very non-committal and open-ended, with panelists speaking idealistically about getting kids outdoors and supporting public parks and education, but offering very little in terms of concrete solutions. I suppose this is the big issue when dealing with slow-moving bureaucracy, budget-cuts, and a public increasingly interested in the latest, fastest gadget, but I was hoping for more answers and action from these leaders. In response to government budget cuts, however, the panelists urged that the onus was instead on the public, and that future support for national parks and public education must come from grassroots efforts.

This was a little ironic considering the panelists were often abruptly interrupted by two such grassroots groups in the audience, one of which was protesting UC Berkeley’s plan to develop on the Gill Tract, while the other was protesting the the University’s plan to cut down trees in People’s Park. Regardless, the speakers forged ahead and urged audience members to have a say in the future of our national parks by joining Friends of the Park groups, or being vocal about fighting for new parks. Jewell suggests that even simple actions, like bringing pack recess in school, can have a major impact, as well as learning to say no to development, and instead asking ourselves if we really need that new highway, parking lot, or 18-story building. Connections and activities with universities become increasingly important. The UC system, after all, is consistently a leader in the environmental movement- not DC.

I left the discussion not fully convinced of the security of our national parks and green spaces over the next 100 years and more, but at least hopeful. I will certainly grumble less when I pay $80 for a national parks card this year.