This August, America celebrates the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service (NPS), a federal program that protects the history and beauty locked within hundreds of nature trail and forest areas, and dozens of monuments, battlefields, and memorials.
So what makes national parks so special?
UNLV turned to its resident expert on the subject: Scott Abella, an ecologist and life sciences professor who recently authored “Conserving America’s National Parks.” The 200-page book shares conservation stories, photos, and maps outlining the challenges and threats currently facing all 412 NPS sites.
Why are national parks so important? What's a benefit people usually don't think about when talking about parks?
U.S. national parks were visited by over 307 million people in 2015 and contribute $30 billion annually to the U.S. economy through visitor spending and job creation. They also often form core areas around which conservation programs are built for natural resources critical to society — including freshwater supplies, clean air, and ocean coastlines. But beyond these benefits, the natural and cultural features that national parks preserve — despite comprising only 1.4 percent of the lower 48 states by area — are remarkable. For example, national parks contain:
- The lowest point in North America (Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park, CA)
- The longest cave in the world (Mammoth Cave in Kentucky)
- The world's tallest tree (a redwood, in Redwood National Park, CA)
- Some of the oldest trees in the world (Great Basin National Park, right here in Nevada)
Another fun fact: An ongoing inventory of bees in 46 national parks remarkably found over 700 species of bees, including several previously unknown to exist. With global concern over pollinators for food-growing by humans and President Obama releasing the 2015 U.S. national strategy for pollinator health, this is another example of national parks being an important part of conserving Earth's biodiversity for its own sake and value to humans.
Why is the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service significant?
Yellowstone National Park was originally created in 1872 and was under the jurisdiction of the U.S. military. Several other parks were subsequently created — and they too were in limbo in terms of management until 1916, when the U.S. government created the National Park Service to manage the parks. Today, there are 412 national park units.
There are close to 30 different designations in the national park system, and not all of them actually have "national park" in their name. For example, there are national monuments, historical sites, battlefields, recreation areas, and many others.
Each is managed under the dual mandate of conserving the park's natural and cultural features while providing for their enjoyment by people. And we are increasingly recognizing how unique some of the natural features are in the "cultural" parks. For example, we at UNLV are currently working on a project in Pecos National Historical Park near Santa Fe, NM. This park conserves over 1,000 years of human history, including one of the most significant American Civil War battlefields in the West. The park also contains ponderosa pine forest grasslands rich in biodiversity, which we are working on maintaining and restoring through our project.
What has been the biggest conservation success?
There are numerous iconic examples, such as the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone (recognized as a world-class example of reintroducing a top predator to an ecosystem) and the largest dam removal project in the world to restore flow to the Elwha River in Olympic National Park, Washington.
While there are great challenges such as invasion by non-native species, climate change, pollution, and detrimental changes in fire regimes, many times parks receive little recognition for the substantial work they do in conserving natural features.
Locally, for example, many people are aware of Lake Mead in Lake Mead National Recreation Area and concern over dropping water levels. However, at 1.2 million acres, most of the park is land, making it one of the largest, most intact landscapes in the entire Mojave Desert surrounding Las Vegas and southern California. The NPS has done extensive vegetation restoration projects and removing non-native plants to keep these habitats in good shape.
What is the biggest threat that has faced national parks over the years?
Increasingly we have realized that what goes on outside of national parks is just as much of a concern as what goes on inside.
One example is that fish in lakes of Voyageurs National Park, in Minnesota, contain some of the highest concentrations of toxic mercury ever reported in the state. Who would have thought that a national park would have that distinction?
We more fully appreciate now that factors like air pollution, the transport of non-native species into parks, alteration of rivers outside of parks, and climate change are all external threats facing parks.
What do you foresee as the biggest threat facing national parks in the next 100 years?
As an ecologist, I am concerned about climate change like many other people. However, I do not think it is actually the primary threat facing national parks.
I am much more concerned about how invasion by non-native species and changes in fires will affect parks in the coming decades, perhaps in combination with effects from climate change. We have examples from parks where forests are transformed within a few years of invasion by non-native insects that kill trees. Likewise, in many forests, we have eliminated natural low-severity fires, so that fuel has accumulated and now when there is a fire, it is unnaturally severe. These types of events that essentially can instantaneously alter a park ecosystem for perhaps centuries are a different challenge than climate change, which at least allows some capacity for organisms to adapt.
Can you talk about Southern Nevada’s own unique ties to NPS?
Las Vegas has more national park land within four hours than any other city in the lower 48 states — Death Valley, Mojave National Preserve (southern California), Joshua Tree National Park, and Lake Mead National Recreation Area (southern Nevada/Arizona). Death Valley is the largest national park in the lower 48 states, and the others are all in top 10. Truly, Las Vegas could be designated the national park capital of the world!
In addition, UNLV has active projects underway or just starting in Lake Mead National Recreation Area and grants from Tuzigoot National Monument (Arizona), Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (Arizona-UT), Pecos National Historical Park (NM), and Guadalupe Mountains National Park (TX). All of these projects involve restoring natural vegetation and reducing non-native plants accidentally or unintentionally introduced in the past and that now are problems.
Why should people visit National Parks Service sites?
People today like to be entertained. With 307 million visitors to national parks in 2015, clearly many people are taking advantage of national parks for various reasons such as exercise, relaxation, wildlife viewing, and more.
But I think that the real-life entertainment and educational value of parks is still not being fully utilized and could draw in additional people to parks. In our world of technology, there are still some things worth experiencing in "real life" and national parks are one of those. When I visit a new national park — whether it’s an iconic one like Yosemite or some of the smaller historical parks — I always learn something new about human history and the natural world.
The National Park Service does an exemplary job of blending recreation and education. If people take full advantage of this, one can learn much in an entertaining way while experiencing these areas.
For more information, stop by the Barrick Museum Auditorium at 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 14. Abella will be giving a University Forum lecture called “Conserving America’s National Parks During An Era of Global Change.”