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Keeping America’s Covenant

Michael A. Soukup and Gary E. Machlis—

President Biden’s recent proclamation for National Park Week and the annual observance of National Park Week itself testify to the value of national parks to our nation. Our natural heritage has shaped us as a nation, a culture, and as individuals. That legacy is part of the glue that binds us together as one people in a covenant—a promise—across generations. 

As President Biden related in his proclamation, national parks can be places for solace and rejuvenation.  Time spent in national parks has health and recreational benefits, and national parks provide powerful opportunities for research and education in the sciences and cultural studies. Moreover, national parks are refuges for all native species and blueprints for restoring damaged lands. Of ancillary importance, national parks provide economic benefits that far outweigh the annual investment made in them. They are immensely popular destinations within the U.S. and draw ecotourists from around the world. It is time to treat them more seriously. 

It is time to invest in national parks in a strategic fashion. Independent assessments of our national park system have concluded that the system should include a full representation of our natural and cultural heritage. To date the creation of national parks has been a piecemeal, serendipitous, and politically filtered process. To build a representative system requires a strategic assessment and subsequent planning that is science-based, not politically driven.

The National Academy of Science or a bi-partisan Presidential Commission should first determine what a fully representative system looks like.  It is important to do this while there are still many terrestrial and marine natural systems intact and available. A plan for a robust and fully representative system should include corridors and connections that reduce habitat fragmentation and maintain biodiversity over the long term. Such a plan should be the foundation of President Biden’s goal of placing 30% of our land under some form of protection by 2030. Expansion of our national park system will reduce crowding in our national parks and ensure that present and future generations can see, understand, and honor the full scope and majesty of American’s natural and cultural legacy.

To match the challenges of maintaining a fully representative system of national parks, it is also time to invest in a fully capable National Park Service. Since its inception in 1916, NPS has become a respected and widely popular government agency. It is in fact deserving of that respect, but traditional approaches will fail against the challenges of the modern human-dominated landscape. Maintaining national parks unimpaired amid a sea of human impact is a daunting intellectual challenge. Mitigating global as well as regional and local environmental impacts requires increased sophistication, as well as buffering from the swings in political agendas and vested-interest pressures that now keep the National Park Service on the defensive and off balance.

Tomorrow’s National Park Service must master ecosystems ecology and integrate vast amounts of information on local and regional resources into usable knowledge if it is to understand and keep our complex natural systems intact and unimpaired. Simultaneously, the Service must monitor and manage public access for present and future generations, as required in the NPS Organic Act of 1916. All this requires a larger presence and role for science as a foundation for national park management decisions. NPS organizational culture, so focused and successful in providing visitor services, must be diversified and broadened so that it can operate with deep, authoritative understanding of the risks and trends in the resources it manages amid a changing modern landscape. NPS must be given the direction and resources to do this. 

Along with new and serious leadership from government for protecting our national heritage—perhaps  equal to our commitment to other forms of national defense—there is an equally strong responsibility for the private sector. Those who have accumulated enormous wealth must pledge a new era of conservation philanthropy to match and surpass past efforts by the Rockefellers and others. This could be part of a solution to the enormous income inequality we now endure as a society. A recent example of the power of individual conservation philanthropy is Roxanne Quimby’s donation of lands for the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in Maine and her purchases of inholdings within other national parks. On a smaller scale, there must be a desire and willingness in the private sector to sell, donate or protect lands they possess when those lands are worthy of designation as national heritage lands. There can be no better statement of gratitude and beneficence for the opportunities this country affords than providing fellow Americans, present and future, with such a legacy. 

Facing the realities of climate change, habitat fragmentation, loss of biodiversity, massive invasions of exotic plants and animals, and overfishing, we as a nation cannot be complacent. Each of us has a stake in our nation’s natural and cultural legacy, and the long-term protection of the national parks. It is time all of us to move forward together, solve problems, and ensure the intent of the covenant for our national parks is upheld and passed on to the next generation.

Michael A. Soukup served as Chief Scientist for the National Park Service. Gary E. Machlis is University Professor of Environmental Sustainability at Clemson University, and served as Science Advisor to the Director of the National Park Service.

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