When one of my editors for whom I write “The Virtuous Traveler,” my column on sustainable travel, asked me to visit Yellowstone National Park this past January, I was — how shall I say? — less than enthused. Surely, I suggested, they needed a story on Tahiti? Kenya? Lebanon?
When I was e-mailed the packing list, I blanched. Never before had I seen so many references to wicking, windproof and water-repellent. I considered buying shares in REI as I was sure their value would go up after I finished my shopping spree for “outdoor” gear.
Instead, I begged and borrowed, and stuffed a suitcase full of enough wicking, windproof and water-repellent apparel to outfit a polar expedition.
It was cold. Very, very cold.
It was also spectacular … and I plan another visit during a time when I can experience the beauty — and still feel my toes.
The United States is blessed with a bounty of national parks. Thanks to the foresight of forefathers, these tracts of land offer the perfect way to celebrate the warm weather and reflect on the meaning of Memorial Day.
But you may not know what is perhaps the most incredible attribute of our national parks — they’ve been called the “canaries in the coal mine” for their response to climate change. Glacier National Park may have to change its name in two decades when, scientists, predict, the glaciers will have completely melted. Geologists confirm that Yellowstone Park’s lauded thermal features, including Old Faithful, will absolutely be affected by drought and reduced groundwater from decreased spring runoff. Yosemite’s adorable altitude-seeking picas are under siege. So are the Smokey Mountain’s trout, notorious cold-stream fish living in streams that are getting too hot for comfort.
Louise Willcox, senior wildlife advocate for the Montana office of the National Resources Defense Council, sees the effects of climate change in Yellowstone National Park. “You don’t have to go to the Arctic to see the effects,” she says. “It’s right in America’s oldest park.”
Like any ecosystem, those in the national parks are fragile webs of interdependent checks and balances. A change — no matter how small — can set off a domino effect that leads to the eventual collapse of the whole thing. And it might happen sooner than later, says Willcox.
Beth Pratt, environmental manager for Xanterra, which manages Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and Rocky Mountain national parks, along with others, is — mostly — optimistic. “The fearful side of me wonders what’s going to be gone in 50 years,” she says, “but I’m hopeful that we can turn the tide.”
How? It starts by getting outside and exploring your closest national park. Take a breath, glimpse some wildlife and slow down long enough to realize that the survival of these spectacular resources is by no means a sure thing. The more of use who witness these wonders up close and share our experiences with others, the better our chances of building awareness and turning that tide.
You can support efforts to protect our national parks from the effects of climate change through the National Parks Conservation Association. And of course, you can do your part in many other ways such as reducing your carbon footprint.
For a list of national parks near you, visit the National Park Service website.