Why National Parks Are More Important Now Than Ever Before

National Parks were conceived as a way to protect natural beauty from the onslaught of economic exploitation. Today, their purpose holds even more vital.

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Diablo Lake at North Cascades National Park (Photo by Sergei Akulich)

“To conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wildlife therein, and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

These were the words that Woodrow Wilson used to describe the mission of the National Parks Service in 1916. As the year of its centennial closes, that statement is more poignant than ever.

Why was starting a National Park Service so important? Unfortunately, despite their natural beauty and rarity, these parks do not protect themselves. Only because of the dedication of federal protection and the equally important park goers have we been able to maintain these natural wonders for the last 100 years.

The park boundaries that have been established and increased over time have been not only proven vital to promoting biodiversity and ecological health, but they are equally important for keeping other interests out.

Along the borders of more than forty national parks, there are active mining and/or oil operations. Without those who relentlessly protect these environmental borders, it’s inevitable that these areas would be exploited for extracting natural resources rather than conservation.

We take a look at several examples of US national parks who would otherwise face these threats today. They demonstrate the importance of protecting our natural wonders and why even 100 years later we must show the same resolve and fervor as we did upon their inception.

Glacier National Park

Just outside of Glacier National Park in northern Montana lies the Blackfoot Reservation. Since 2010, more than thirty new exploratory wells have been drilled on the reservation bringing the total number of wells drilled to nearly a hundred. This activity lies along the eastern edge of Glacier which also happens to be a targeted site for park development.

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Image by Jesse Howe and Andy Thies

With the wells so close to the park, many are concerned about issues such as flaring and off gassing from wells, light pollution, and water quality and quantity issues. Hydraulic fracking used to recover light-tight oil from the Bakken Shale zone threatens to even greatly magnify these issues.

Grand Teton National Park

You may think that Grand Teton National Park in northwestern Wyoming is free from the perils of oil and gas development. The nearest oil and gas activity lies more than fifty miles south. But even those oil fields have a large impact on the activities within the park. Antelope migration corridors have been blocked due to the fields and the park has suffered from increased ozone due to the effects of drilling.

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Image by Jesse Howe and Andy Thies

New River Gorge

In mid-May 2016, the USGS released a report on water contamination in Wolf Creek, which runs through New River Gorge National Park in southern West Virginia. Though the study was not able to determine whether contamination was due to injection wells or open air waster pits, the NPS suspects wells. Wastewater disposal from “unconventional oil and gas development” is done through a process of underground injection, where the waste enters the water table and causes issues downstream.

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Image by Jesse Howe and Andy Thies

Although this is the first study on the issue by the USGS, the National Park Service has been writing the Department of Environmental Protection for nearly a year to shut down sites due to long-term violations and neglect. Wolf creek is part of a tributary system on the New River Gorge National River and just because the river is outside of park boundaries doesn’t mean what lies upstream will stay upstream.

National Parks in the United States represent a barrier between the nation’s proudest and richest natural ecosystems from the unyielding pursuit of resources. Our country is driven by many of the products of mining and extraction, but for the sake of preserving natural American beauty and biodiversity, those practices need geographic limitations.

Our National Parks should not be taken for granted. If not for political action, many would already have fallen victim to environmental degradation. 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of the National Parks Service in the United States. But as the calendar turns, the next one hundred years may be even more important for the vitality of these invaluable national treasures.

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