A century ago Congress created the National Park Service (NPS) “to conserve the scenery and natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein…” Back then there were 35 national parks and monuments, now there are over 400. These include, of course, Yellowstone and Yosemite, the so-called “natural” parks where the NPS is sworn to safeguard biodiversity, wild rivers, and carbon sinks (a.k.a. forests). They are America’s environmental legacy.
The NPS also has under its wing other types of parks including Civil War battlefields, cliff dwellings, Japanese internment camps, presidential hideaways, Spanish missions, and towering monuments. These parks tell the story of America.
All together they are for gawking, for sure, at glaciers, bears and Half Dome but they are also for learning about, among other things, glaciation, immigration, civil rights, war and, yes, climate change. Parks are meant to instill a sense of both time and timelessness, and a respect for places and things which have existed long before we had bones, and will exist long after we are dust.
But these dear places are not static, secured beneath bubbles, untouchable. Like it or not, from redwoods to the Statue of Liberty, and from glaciers to the Everglades, parks are already being adversely affected by record heat, drought, wildfires and storms. Talking about climate change is not a political act. We can debate what to do about the facts, but not whether or not they are facts; it’s too late for that. And silencing any discussion of climate change will only harm national parks, the places where so many Americans (and others from around the world) now find common ground.
By defying a gag order the NPS (as someone representing Badlands National Park did this week) is not only an act of upholding 100 years of fierce protection of our best places but it is fulfilling its congressional mandate. Trying to mute the NPS insults the prophets and moguls and the rangers and rogues who have spent over a century protecting parks and telling America’s stories. Silencing scientists also puts at risk, for centuries to come, the bison and bears and the seashores and coral reefs, which are owned by all of us.
Heather Hansen is the author of Prophets and Moguls, Rangers and Rogues, Bison and Bears: 100 Years of the National Park Service.
Learn more about climate change and parks.