Way back in 1872, the United States Government established the first National Park: Yellowstone National Park in the Territories of Montana and Wyoming. Today, the U.S. is home to more than 400 National Park sites, covering more than 84 million acres in 49 States, each a priceless icon of our geographical diversity, shared history and culture. Unfortunately, these sites, which were meant “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein” for the “enjoyment of future generations,” are under attack.
Oil drilling, air pollution, irresponsible recreation and encroaching development are taking their toll on these national treasures. A 2010 report from the National Resources Defense Council named climate change, a side-effect of all of the above, as “the greatest threat ever to our national parks.” And it doesn’t help that the infamous sequester slashed the National Parks budget. Despite our best conservation efforts, it’s likely that our children will have far fewer than 400 National Park sites to visit with their own kids.
Wondering which ones we might lose first? Here’s a list of 7 of the most endangered National Parks in America.
1. Biscayne National Park, Florida
According to National Geographic, “there may be no U.S. park more threatened by climate change” than this island oasis. As the largest marine park in the National Park System, Biscayne was created to protect a rare combination of aquamarine waters, emerald islands, mangroves and coral reefs teaming with vibrantly-colored fish. Biscayne Park is 95 percent underwater, which makes it particularly vulnerable to warming seas, ocean acidficiation and sea level rise. With news that Miami is “doomed” to drown if we can’t find a way to slow sea level rise, things aren’t looking good for nearby Biscayne.
2. Yosemite National Park, California
If some of the original visitors to this park could see it today, they’d barely recognize it. Known for its glaciers and breathtaking ice sculptures, Yosemite National Park has fallen victim to warming temperatures caused by climate change. The Lyell and adjacent Maclure glaciers have shrunk by more than 60 percent over the past century. “Worse yet, the Lyell, having shed too much ice and snow to be drawn downhill, has stopped moving entirely,” writes Jeremy Miller for Men’s Journal. “What this means is the largest glacier in Yosemite National Park is now a large, dead chunk of ice – and it’s melting fast. This is problematic because runoff from the glaciers is what feeds the Park’s waterways — many of which are drying up as the glaciers disappear. When they’re gone, the plants and animals that depend on them are likely to disappear as well.
3. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
It’s safe to say that there is no other place in the world like the Grand Canyon. The National Park provides a haven for a variety of unique wildlife, from condors to bighorn sheep, as well as jobs and income for an otherwise desolate rural area. In 2010, a ”State of the Parks” Grand Canyon report found that human-accelerated climate change, mining operations, aircraft flyovers and poor management of the Colorado River upstream from the canyon are threatening its future. ”What people don’t often know about the park is how threatened it is,” David Nimkin, southwest regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association, told CNN. If action isn’t taken, “the conditions at the park will continue to deteriorate.”
4. Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Tennessee & North Carolina
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a biological gem. The park, which encompasses over 800 square miles in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, is home to over 17,000 documented species, and scientists believe an additional 30,000-80,000 species have yet to be discovered. Unfortunately, the toxic air pollution that crowds into the park from nearby coal-fired power plants threatens to shut the park down before even a fraction are every seen by the human eye. “Air pollution is shrinking scenic views, damaging plants, and degrading high elevation streams and soils in the Great Smoky Mountains,” states the National Park Service. “Even human health is at risk. Most pollution originates outside the park and is created by power plants, industry, and automobiles.”
5. Everglades National Park, Florida
At 1.5 million acres, the Everglades is the largest subtropical wilderness in the U.S. Just like Biscayne, Everglades National Park is nearly flat and located on the edge of a rapidly changing ocean. Comprised of a vast, interconnected mosaic of distinct ecosystems, even slight changes to the surrounding geology, hydrology, air quality, water quality, fire regime, weather and climate can devastate this fragile jewel. “These coastal communities are home to many rare and endangered plants such as tropical orchids and herbs, some of which are found only in south Florida. Unfortunately, these species’ special home is in danger because the habitat is changing, in part, due to sea level rise causing the salinization of groundwater and the soils above. It is unclear whether or not these species can tolerate the increased salinity that will come as sea level continues to rise due to climate change,” states the National Park service.
6. National Seashores, America’s East Coast
One of the perks of living on a coast is going to the beach, but for future generations that proximity may prove to be more of a curse than a blessing. Nearly 300 miles of Atlantic shoreline protected as part of the National Park system, including such icons as Fire Island, Cape Cod and Assateague Island. However, each one is faced with dire threats from human development and climate change. According to a 2012 report from the Natural Resource Defense Council and the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization, even a one meter sea level rise would completely submerge the vast majority of land in five of the seven protected coastal areas. And if erosion and rising seas don’t destroy the parks, rising temperatures will likely make them a place humans want to avoid rather than visit.
7. Yellowstone National Park, Montana & Wyoming
It only seemed fitting to save this one for last. Yes, that’s right — the very first National Park, the one that started the entire system of conservation, is also one of the most threatened. Yellowstone was dealt a severe blow by the sequester, losing many of its park rangers and maintenance personnel as part of this year’s drastic budget cuts. Besides a lack of funding, the future of Yellowstone is also threatened by climate change. “Higher average temperatures mean that the winter recreation season is starting later and ending earlier,” reports Take Part. “Invasive mountain pine beetles are infesting trees at higher elevations, according to the NRDC, and threatening to wipe out whitebark pines. The whitebark pines supply important nuts for the grizzly bears in the park, so reduced numbers of trees would have a negative impact on grizzly bear survival. In 2007, rivers were warm enough to kill as many as 1,000 trout in a matter of days — the largest fish kill on record in the park.”
Want to help protect these magnificent parks? Visit www.npca.org/protecting-our-parks to get involved.
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