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Conservation group asks White House to commit to national parks

June 28, 2011 |  5:45 pm

Joshua tree
Conservation groups have warned that parks "cannot survive" unless the White House redoubles the resources needed to maintain them.

Using data from a new study released Tuesday on the state of national parks, the National Park Conservation Assn. (NPCA) and the Center for Park Research said the health of natural and cultural resources within national parks is fading, while a “host of new and long-standing threats” is rising, such as declining air quality, polluted waterways and decreased diversity of species.

“These parks are in jeopardy,” said Ron Tipton, NPCA senior vice president. “We are concerned about the condition of park resources, but we also believe there are solutions to all these challenges. We believe there is hope and opportunity.”

NPCA called on President Obama to sign an executive order that would recommit the federal government to the conservation of national parks using the study’s recommended policies. They are also calling on Congress to provide $600 million for restoring ecosystems and habitats.

Tom Kiernan, president of the NPCA, pointed out parks are receiving two-thirds of what they need. Funding parks amounts to “one-thirteenth of 1% of the national budget. Cutting funds or not providing funds is not going to impact the deficit.” Kiernan said parks are an economic investment, with a $4 million return annually. The parks system generates $13.3 billion in economic activity, according to NPCA.

“National parks are becoming North American biological life boats, but they are leaking,” said Jim Nations, vice president of NPCA’s Center for Park Research.

Finding: Disappearing wildlife
Recommendation: Reintroduce key species

The study examined 80 of the 394 national park service units between 2001 and 2010, including beaches, parks, historical landmarks, recreation areas, trails and rivers. In 95% of the parks assessed for natural resource conditions, at least one animal or plant species has disappeared, including gray wolves, grizzly bears and mountain lions.

“When top predators, such as mountain lions and wolves, are removed from an ecosystem,” the study said, “herbivore populations increase—overgrazing shrubs and cropping down grasses.” After the gray wolf was removed from Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, the elk population exploded. 

NPCA recommends reintroducing key native species to reestablish their role in natural processes. In past years, wolves in Yellowstone National Park and elk in Great Smoky Mountains National Park have been successfully reintroduced.

Finding: Controlling invasive species
Recommendation: The government provide the National Park Service funding to eliminate or limit the impact of invasive species.
There are more than 6,500 invasive non-native species within the national park system, many of them plants, according to the Park Service. In Canyonlands, Death Valley, Grand Canyon and other Western parks, tamarisk, a deciduous shrub native to Asia, has replaced native trees such as cottonwoods and willows. Controlling tamarisk, the study explained, is a “monumental challenge that often involves expensive and labor-intensive.”

Finding: Air Pollution

Recommendation: State regulators, the EPA, and the National Park Service should work together to ensure that all national parks meet the standards mandated by the Clean Air Act, the National Park Service Organic Act, and Park Service management policies.

Pollution from nearby cities is covering scenic landscapes with a smoky haze, polluting the air in Joshua Tree National Park and Grand Canyon with sulfur- and nitrogen oxides and causing acid rain.
The coal-burning Navajo Generating Station in northeastern Arizona, partly owned by Los Angeles' Department of Water & Power, contributes to a haze so thick it often obscures views of the nearby Grand Canyon. The emissions, including mercury, also are responsible for high levels of asthma and respiratory disease in nearby populations, particularly in Arizona, where environmentalists say the Navajo and Hopi Indian reservations are the pollution’s main victims. The EPA is scheduled to decide this summer whether to require pollution controls for the plant, one of the biggest sources of nitrogen oxide emissions in the country.

NPCA also suggests the Department of the Interior use its authority under the Clean Air Act to ensure federal and state regulators address sources of park pollution.

Finding: Water pollution
Recommendation:  The administration should collect comprehensive data on national park water quality, flows, and monitor aquatic communities.

Logging, dams, pumping water for agriculture, runoff from fertilizers and mine tailings, oil spills and acid rain are degrading the water flow and quality, according the study.

Examples cited include past logging activities along Redwood Creek, in Redwood National and State Parks, which has opened up the forest canopy and reduced shade on the stream, threatening native fishes in need of cool water. Glen Canyon Dam in Grand Canyon National Park releases ice-cold water into the Colorado River, harming native fishes which rely on warmer waters to survive and spawn. Big Hole National Battlefield in Montana has considerable nutrient pollution related to upstream farming.

The NPCA recommends the National Park Service increase data collection on water issues, and monitor the impacts of a changing climate.

Costa mesa
Finding: Decline in Culture Resources

Recommendation: The administration should reverse losses and address the low level of protection for historic buildings and artifacts with more funding.

The thousands of historic buildings, statues, monuments and archival documents inside the national park system are being neglected. The Center for Park Research found that “despite a devoted and talented professional workforce, the parks’ historic places, monuments, and collections suffer from decay and damage, inadequate budgets, congressional and agency inattention, and staff losses.”

The center found faded exhibits, molding artifacts, closed buildings and outdated scholarship lacking stories of women, African Americans, American Indians, and Hispanics.

“There simply aren’t enough qualified and trained people overseeing the parks’ cultural heritage,” the study found.

At Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, information in the List of Classified Structures was more than 5 years old, and historic preservation staff members were unfamiliar with it, according to the report.

“There exists a pervasive assumption among the public, Congress, and some National Park Service administrators (past and present) that the primary mission of the agency is the protection and conservation of natural resources and scenic wonders—and that heritage properties and material culture are of secondary importance, or worse, a regrettable diversion of time and funding,” said the report. 

National Park funding and staffing levels for cultural resource protection and preservation programs have decreased by more than 25$ in recent years.

Finding: Developed land near parks causing pollution, disrupting ecosystems
Recommendation: The president should issue an executive order requiring federal agencies to connect national parks with land held by private landowners and local governments.

Developed land adjacent to parks has led to loss of resources, pollution, ecological system breakdowns, and fragmented wildlife and habitats. The National Park Service, partnering with the Nature Conservancy, is working to restore the degraded Channel Islands National Park, 26 miles off the coast of California, by eradicating invasive species, reintroducing lost wildlife, and restoring the coastal wetland

“The lesson offered by Channel Islands and other parks around the country is that restoration efforts, even in highly disturbed landscapes, can benefit native ecosystems and protect park resources,” the study said.

Currently public lands in Joshua Tree, Death Valley National Parks and Mojave National Preserve, are being pursued for industrial-scale renewable energy projects. Construction of these facilities and associated infrastructure (including transmission lines) could fragment important migration routes for bighorn sheep and disrupt habitat of the endangered desert tortoise. Meanwhile, operation of these plants would likely strain already-scarce water resources, impair scenic vistas, and degrade stargazing opportunities, according to NPCA.

Thousands of old mines dot these desert landscapes, leaving behind tailings piles and contaminated run-off,  resulting in damaged plant populations and communities, degraded habitat for wildlife, and soil contamination.

The administration needs to enforce existing laws such as the Clean Air Act and the National Park Service Organic Act, which states the NPS must supervise and maintain parks, the conservation group recommended. By connecting parks with nearby land, wildlife patterns such a migratory seasons, can be better accommodated.

Additional recommendation: NPCA also wants the National Park Service to expand the national park system based on areas with key wildlife and under-represented themes of American history and cultural diversity.


Congressmen seek to block pollution controls on Navajo coal plant

Navajo coal plant pollution and Grand Canyon haze subject to hearing

National parks: A missed deadline to curb haze

--Ashlie Rodriguez

Photo #1: Joshua Tree National Park. Credit: Scott Timberg/Los Angeles Times

Photo #2: This mountain lion is one of the few in the Santa Monica Mountains. Male lions need about 250 square miles of habitat; female lions need about 60 square miles. Credit: Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area

Photo #3: Tourists take in the view at Grand Canyon National Park. Park officials have been trying to establish a light rail system to eliminate traffic congestion at the canyon's South Rim, contributing to a pollution problem at the park. Credit: Matt York/ AP Photo

Photo #4: Mesa Verde National Park showing part of the Cliff Palace ruins. Credit: Andreas F. Borchert