A Penny to Preserve Parks?


When it comes to supporting our parks, we can’t afford to wait

By Kiki Serantes (above L), SCA Cultural Resources Intern at Zion National Park

If a national park or wilderness is gradually degrading and no one notices it, is it still degrading? Even if we are told that our wilderness areas are being destroyed—indirectly through our own actions—does it matter if it’s not something experienced in the everyday lives of the average citizen? Our parks and wilderness areas are degrading right under our noses. It may take us longer to notice this fact from the cities where most of us live, but it doesn’t make it any less of a fact.

More than 100 million acres of public land—about 5 percent of the United States—has been set aside as wilderness, including roughly 90 percent of Zion National Park.  Human-caused climate change and environmental degradation is having and will continue to have a direct impact on our nation’s water, fire and biodiversity. According to the National Forest Service, climate change will decrease snowpack, increase winter flooding and reduce summer stream flow. It will lead to drier soils and a greater chance of catastrophic fires, with between 20 and 30 percent of plant and animal life at a greater risk of extinction.

A spring article for the National Parks Conservation Association Magazine titled “A Penny for Your Thoughts” suggests that, based on research from Stanford University, individuals are more likely to engage in philanthropic ventures or donate to our national parks when the environmental threats and degradation are tangible. A desire to preserve extant beauty is not enough, people must know that that beauty is in grave danger before they will act. The problem may already be clear to you: We can’t wait until environmental degradation is tangible to every citizen in order to cultivate a philanthropic mindset and protect the natural world. The longer we wait for degradation to take a toll obvious enough to spur action, the higher that toll will be.

 So if degradation in our nation’s most valued wilderness areas is not experienced by citizens and representatives in real, tangible ways, how can one foster community engagement and conservation efforts before it’s too late. Before degradation is all-too tangible?

Hikers on Zion National Park's famous Narrows trail. Zion’s famous Narrows trail.

When I started my SCA internship at Zion National Park in May, I was instantaneously humbled by the palatial cliff faces and the winding river that sculpted the region’s majesty with no effort beyond gravity. If more people could just experience this, I thought, there would be no question on the necessity of its protection. Living at Zion I’ve realized the paradox between our mission to protect these outdoor spaces and the need to instill care for our parks within the public, which ultimately can only be accomplished through increased visitation. It’s not only important for individual wellbeing to visit these scenic spaces, but it’s necessary in building long term solidarity between the individual and the wilderness. Perhaps our greatest mission as members of the Park Service is cultivating innovative ways to inspire more of our neighbors to get outside and be inspired to conserve what they see. The Virgin River has taken millions of years to create the heaven that is Zion—but as a river almost completely derived from northern snowmelt, it, too, is indirectly threatened by our human actions. Zion’s wilderness, which can be classified as a high desert environment, is also at increased risk for more detrimental fires if negligent human action continues.

In 2006, the most harmful fire in Zion’s history was the human-induced Kolob Fire. The first large fire recorded in the pinyon-juniper ecosystem of the park since European settlement burned more than 17,600 acres— nearly 10,600 of which were located completely within park boundaries.  Now, a landscape once characterized by abundant native species is all-but overrun with invasive species such as Russian thistle. Needless to say, although some native flora seem to be reappearing, the Kolob Fire altered Zion in unprecedented ways and the Kolob Terrace is still recovering a decade later.

The Kolob Terrace section of Zion National Park still recovering from a massive 2006 wildfire. The Kolob Terrace was hit by a massive wild fire in 2006 and is still recovering 10 years later, as evidenced by the burnt junipers pictured here. 

Now imagine a Zion with a dried-up Virgin River, without the vast species diversity and with an even greater threat of fire. If we wait to act until the hypothetical is the reality, it will be too late.  All that makes Zion a national park will have been destroyed.

Zion may not be the largest park in the United States, but it is the sixth most visited. When one considers the nearly 35 percent visitation increase in the last five years alongside a stagnant budget, thoughts alone apparently have had little clout in stimulating pennies. Visitation for all 59 national parks has increased by about 12 percent from 2005 to 2015—the national budget allocated has only increased by about 2 percent over that same time when adjusted for inflation. While further capital is brought in by visitor fees and donations, funding for our national parks, or lack thereof, remains a major impediment to conservation and preservation efforts. Relying on private donations and visitor fees to make up for this lack of funding goes against the democratic mission behind the establishment of our national parks.

Capturing scenes of our park’s most defining characteristics—its glacial lakes, towering cliffs and picturesque valleys—may be enough to stimulate visitation, but we might need more direct action to encourage the funding necessary for the conservation and preservation of these outdoor spaces. We, as a community working together, need to better see the correlation between increased visitation and a growing national sentiment to protect these spaces.

It’s as the saying goes: You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. Well, when it comes to the national parks, we do know what we’ve got—social media sites like Instagram host millions of photos that clearly demonstrate our appreciation for the natural world. We don’t have to wait until it’s gone promote conservation and preservation of nature’s intrinsic value.  

Humans and nature are inextricably intertwined. The relationship between the two can either be one of symbiotic engagement or one of parasitic egoism. Our actions as individuals and as a society should reflect an understanding and appreciation of the symbiotic benefits that each outdoor space provides, from heading to the ballot box with parks in mind to sharing nature’s serene snapshots. Almost everyone knows that America’s parks are beautiful, but few understand what it takes to protect that millennia’s endeavor. As people of the parks, it’s our job to speak up and share this knowledge.

Cave Valley off of the Kolob Terrace road in Zion National Park, located just a few miles up the road from where the Kolob Fire ravaged the land.

Student Conservation Association