It’s easy to view nature as powerful and unchangeable. After all, the geological processes behind the geysers of Yellowstone and the hoodoos in Bryce Canyon National Park had already been at work for millions of years before the first human ancestor ever learned to walk upright. However, the towering mountains and primeval forests that seem almost god-like against the insignificant buzz of human history are far more fragile than you might think. And just as a mosquito can kill a grown man with disease, humanity’s actions may well undermine and eventually destroy the wonders that our national parks were designated to protect. Here are five of the most grave man-made threats to America’s national parks.
1. Over visitation
While some national parks struggle to draw in guests, other parks are actually being damaged from the yearly influx of tourists, campers, and hikers. Unfortunately, these guests bring with them garbage and other harmful waste. Even those who follow the rules and don’t alter the environment overtly still have an impact. Likewise, motor vehicles of any kind leak dangerous fluids and produce harmful gases directly into the park. A few drops of motor oil left behind aren’t going to do much damage, but multiply that by 2.5 million (the average number of visitors to Yellowstone) every year, and you can see where there might be a problem.
2. Invading species
Ecosystems achieve a natural balance over time. The species within them reach equilibrium with food sources and predators, and the the whole cycle is able to sustain itself. However, the addition of new, non-indigenous species can throw that order into chaos. Foreign invaders such as insects and certain plant species will often find their way into national parks from other parts of the world, all thanks to human interference (intentional or otherwise). True, these new species will eventually be assimilated into the balance of the area, but it may take a very long time and result in the extinction of certain other plants and animals.
The interior of national parks are protected by law from mining and development. However, the parks don’t exist as isolated areas separate from the rest of the world. Development in adjacent areas can disrupt the protected environment inside, as has been seen in places such as the everglades, where nearby sugar producers have fouled incoming water sources with phosphorus pollution.
4. Reduced funds
National parks have been having financial issues for about as long as they’ve been around. However, recent cuts as a result of sequestration have reduced the available money for park upkeep and services even more (about a $150 million more, to be specific). And although it may not matter to the environment of the park if visitor centers fall into disrepair or the roads go unplowed in the winter, these will affect the number of visitors that come to the park to spend money. The overall result could be that national parks don’t have enough resources to stave off environmental decline.
5. Climate change
It always seems to come back to this, doesn’t it? In addition to rising sea levels affecting coastal parks, melting glaciers and changes in annual precipitation could lead to lengthened fire seasons and disrupted habitats. Some species may alter their migrational patterns or simply go looking for better environments, and leave the protected lands of the park.
It took millions of years for nature to carve out the majestic wilderness locations that we hold dear, but in just a few short decades we could undo everything through our carelessness and greed. It’s the personal responsibility of everyone on the planet to see to it that the environment is protected. If we don’t take action quickly, we might experience first hand just how fragile our cherished national parks can be.
Vincent Stokes is an outdoor enthusiast and an experienced world traveler. He also writes writes for the National Parks and works to promote pride in homegrown travel destinations. You can also connect with Vincent on G+ or twitter (@TravelingGlobal).