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A seismic line created by a vibroseis vehicle through Big Cypress National Preserve/Quest Ecology

A seismic line created by a 33-ton vibroseis vehicle through Big Cypress National Preserve/Quest Ecology

Traveler Special Report: Threatened And Endangered Parks

Myriad Threats Assault The Essence Of America’s Best Idea

By Kurt Repanshek

National park units in the lower 48 states are being confronted, and in some cases overrun, by issues ranging from climate change and invasive species to energy exploration and overcrowding. Natural and cultural resources are being harshly impacted, and in the case of invasive species in South Florida, some native species are being wiped out. 

These impacts are not the usual park stresses at the road-paving or conservation-fencing level that can be addressed by maintenance or policy tweaks. What the National Park System faces is the prospect of transformative, even irreversible, change due to human-caused impacts, whether direct -- such as overcrowding -- or, as in the case of climate change, the result of policy and political failures.

Big Cypress National Preserve in South Florida just might be the National Park System’s poster child for what constitutes an endangered park. While so-called thumper trucks, 33-ton mechanical beasts that shake the earth in search of oil reserves, tear up the preserve’s landscape, invading Burmese pythons slither through this sub-tropical landscape, feasting on its native animals, including the occasional alligator. All the while, sea level rise is slowly, quietly, and largely unnoticeably, poisoning the park’s namesake trees with salty groundwater.

Cape Lookout National Seashore on North Carolina's Outer Banks wouldn’t be out of place on that poster. Hurricane Dorian in September sliced up the seashore’s barrier islands like a hot knife going through butter. Meanwhile, the possibility of a commercial spaceport arising just four or five miles west of Cumberland Island National Seashore in Georgia poses the threat of a dozen rocket launches a year that figure to impact the sublime national seashore in ways ranging from inconvenient to disastrous.

In this, National Parks Traveler’s first annual Endangered And Threatened Parks project, we take a look at those landscapes that are struggling to retain the qualities that led to their inclusion in the National Park System in the first place.

Parks we've called out face exceptional problems that affect their natural resource health as well as the visitor experience. Failure to come up with, fund, and implement management plans to counter these impacts will lead to continued deterioration of individual parks and to the National Park System as a whole.

Three years after the nation celebrated the 100th birthday of the National Park Service, it seems like a grand dose of hyperbole to suggest that the National Park System is seriously in danger of becoming a fond relic of conservation and national introspection. In years past it has been argued by some that we shouldn’t place national parks in jars figuratively to protect them from outside influences. Today, though, it might be necessary if we’re to save many of these unique settings that justified their inclusion in the park system in the first place.

“Preservation is about deciding what's important, figuring out how to protect it, and passing along an appreciation for what was saved to the next generation,” reads one page within the National Park Service’s massive web domain.

That goal seems more elusive than ever before for some units of the park system, as there are many threats and impacts pressing on parks today:

  • Climate change is redrawing the settings of many parks, as Rita Beamish’s article on parks in Alaska soberly demonstrates.
  • Air pollution is marring vistas at Sequoia National Park and at times threatening the health of visitors as well as vegetation in places such as Acadia National Park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, while also impairing fisheries in other parks through acid deposition.
  • Invasive species, from pythons and feral hogs to mongooses and tiny mussels are fouling park landscapes and waters in places such as Big Cypress National Preserve, Big Thicket National Preserve, Virgin Islands National Park, and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.
  • Visitors are impacting parks, and not just by trampling vegetation and creating social trails but by overwhelming staff in these times of reduced workforce and diminished funding.

“We’re seeing the impacts of climate change unfold on almost a daily basis now. Things that we didn’t fully anticipate 10 or 20 years ago are now becoming some of the biggest threats our national parks are facing today,” Mark Wenzler, the senior vice president for conservation programs at the National Parks Conservation Association, told me as we discussed Traveler’s effort to profile the myriad threats to the National Park System.

Traveler's Endangered and Threatened Parks is not intended to be a definitive list of parks whose natural, cultural, or historic resources are in grave danger from introduced impacts. Rather, it's intended to provide an overview of the threats that are jeopardizing the integrity of the park system.

Many national park sites in Alaska, which holds more than half the 85 million acres of the entire 419-unit National Park System, very well could be categorized as “endangered” due to climate change impacts. Our coverage of this issue begins with a look at the situation in Alaska, followed by additional endangered and threatened parks in the system. 

Read more: Alaska's Hot Spots, Threatened and Endangered Parks

The Essential RVing Guide

The Essential RVing Guide To The National Parks

Exploring the National Park System by RV is one of the quintessential approaches to visiting national parks, monuments, national recreation areas, and other park system units that combined represent what Wallace Stegner defined as the best idea America ever had. To help RVers explore these lands and destinations, the National Parks Traveler editors and writers have sifted through the National Park System and come away with the definitive RVing guide to the parks. This Essential Guide To RVing In The National Park System presents RV enthusiasts with a rich collection of articles exploring the park system by RV, camper, or trailer that is supported by a directory packed with RVing specific details on more than 250 campgrounds in more than 70 parks.

Order your guide, either as an ePub ebook for your Kindle or as a PDF version.