In approaching Before They're Gone, A Family's Year-Long Quest to Explore America's Most Endangered National Parks, Michael Lanza desires to take his young son and daughter to places that most amaze him -- national parks -- before climate change alters their appearance too greatly.
"I know many of these places intimately. They compose the backdrop to much of the narrative of my life," he wrote in the book's prologue. "For years, I've compiled a growing to-do list of adventures I want to enjoy with my family, hopefully inspiring Alex and Nate to someday repeat these trips with their own kids. What a wonderful legacy, I thought.
"Now carbon dioxide was messing with my plans. It seemed I needed to get busy."
The book is much more than a diary about how places such as Glacier National Park, Everglades National Park, Yellowstone National Park and even Grand Teton National Park are being altered by the changing climate from our normal perceptions of them, though. It is also part primer on natural resources and ecological systems in some of our premier national parks, as well as a story of parents' love and tutelage of their children.
The decision by Mr. Lanza and his wife, Penny, to visit parks with their youngsters before the vistas are greatly changed is not terribly unusual (though to visit so many in that endeavor might be). During a fellowship at Stanford University in 2009 to study climate change and its impacts on national parks, the executive director of the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve shared with me his concerns over what his son might not see due to climate change.
"There’s no doubt in my mind that my son’s life is not going to be as good as mine was. No doubt at all. It’s not something I say to him. It pains me to no end," Dr. Philippe Cohen said. "I take him to places that aren’t going to be around for him to see again. I show him things, (tell him) 'See them now, because when you’re my age they’re not going to be around.'"
The Lanzas share those feelings, and did something extreme about it: They arranged family trips to Glacier Bay, Glacier, Everglades, Joshua Tree, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Rocky Mountain, Grand Teton, North Cascades, Olympic, Mount Rainier, and Grand Canyon national parks to show Nate and Alex some of their favorite places on Earth, in part for the sheer enjoyment of such family adventures, and in part out of concern that these landscapes are changing, some faster than others.
"... the changes taking place, the rising seas, melting ice, and dwindling snowpack, are occurring not on a geologic time scale, but on a human one. If Glacier National Park's glaciers are diminishing almost every summer, should we wait even five years?" wondered Mr. Lanza.
Mr. Lanza came to this project naturally. He writes for a living, and became well-familiar with many of these landscapes through assignments that took him into them. He saw the rivers of ice at Glacier up close, and backpacking treks in the Tetons and Cascades brought him across snowfields and past shrinking glaciers.
The text plays out part travelogue, part natural history lesson, and part raising a family.
The author's curiosity about natural sciences gave him the freedom to delve into how the Olympic coast was formed, and how it is being deconstructed. In Glacier Bay, drifting on kayaks in front of calving tidewater glaciers, he realizes that while the most recent "glacial period" technically might have ended ten-thousand years ago, in this park "you can watch its final act." In Everglades National Park, he traces the rise of seas since the last Ice Age ("...as glaciers started retreating 19,000 years ago, the oceans rose about four hundred feet over roughly 13,000 years, averaging a bit more than three feet per century.") and envisions how the park -- and the rest of Florida, for that matter -- will be impacted by sea-level rise driven by a warming globe.
Part of the beauty of this book is watching the transformation that grips the children, such as the one that played out in the following exchange Mr. Lanza had with his son as they walked up the coast of Olympic National Park.
Walking up the beach again, Nate and I trail behind the others. He starts talking about climate change and speculates that people will become more aware and concerned as cities like New York and Miami face increasingly higher seas. As proud amazement infuses me over having this conversation with my nine-year-old, he says, "I'm really glad you took me here."
I resist the temptation to jokingly ask him, "Who are you and what have you done with my son?" Instead, I wait quietly, sensing that whatever I could say right now might not be as valuable as what he might add. Sure enough, after a pause, Nate says, "Dad, I want you to keep backpacking into your sixties and seventies so that I can take you on trips and bring my kids with us, too." I tell him I hope to do exactly that.
Just as I'm expecting him to deliver the coup de grace that reduces me to a blubbering mess, he spares me. In a seamless return to character, Nate resolutely predicts: "I'm going to invent a teleportation device to replace all the transportation systems that put so much carbon in the atmosphere."
Before They're Gone carries a strong message about what's ongoing about us in these magical places. It's a carefully crafted message that by necessity has to explore society's behaviors, and question whether "we are willing to change our behavior not only for our parks, but for our children?"
The story of climate change and its impacts isn't new. But perhaps if we all took a minute to view those looming impacts -- in part through our children's eyes, as Mr. Lanza strives to do -- we'd find a way to come to grips with them.
Humans possess great adaptability. But applying that ability begins with acknowledging the truth. Failing to be honest with ourselves is tantamount to lying to our children.
In one generation, we changed attitudes in America toward smoking cigarettes, driving while intoxicated, and wearing seatbelts -- in part because we recognized that changing our behaviors was a demonstration of love and caring for our children. Driving less, reducing energy consumption at home and work, and demanding that our leaders support converting from fossil fuels to clean energy -- these are a powerful expression of concern for our kids.
Climate change forces us to confront our deepest values, to decide what's most important to us.