Just months after celebrating the centennial of the National Park Service, the mood is decidedly more somber as the national parks movement in the United States has hit a stumbling block or two, from the prospect of a significant budget cut to the possible loss of the Antiquities Act as a tool for presidents to set aside wondrous landscapes as part of the National Park System.
Though the United States is hailed as the birthplace of national parks, of late the movement's most positive news comes from abroad.
In Chile, private philanthropy is working to protect 11 million acres as part of that country's national park system. In China, officials intend to set aside 5,600 square miles as parkland to protect rare Amur leopards and Siberian tigers. In Africa, a billionaire has pledged $65 million to both protect existing parklands and help create new parks. Here at home, meanwhile, some Republicans in Congress are entertaining ideas to privatize park operations, do away with the Antiquities Act, and decommission national monuments.
Just last week, the president of Chile joined Kristine McDivitt Tompkins, the head of Tompkins Conservation, to celebrate an 11-million-acre addition to that country's national park system. The proposal, Tompkins Conservation notes, "includes the largest land donation in history from a private entity to a country; the total area to be protected, via this private land donation plus government land, is three times the size of Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks combined."
As envisioned, the total package will give rise to five new parks and expand three others. Two of the new parks, Pumalín Park and Patagonia Park, were pieced together by Tompkins Conservation under the guidance of the late Doug Tompkins and his wife, Kristine.
"I wish my husband, Doug, whose vision inspired today’s historic pledge, were here on this memorable day. Our team and I feel his absence deeply,” Ms. Tompkins said during a celebratory announcement last Wednesday. “But I know that if Doug were here today, he would speak of national parks being one of the greatest expressions of democracy that a country can realize, preserving the masterpieces of a nation for all of its citizenry.”
At the ceremony, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet spoke of the impact the agreement will have for future generations.
“Today, alongside Kris, I am honored to see how everything has come together," she said. "… We are bequeathing to the country the greatest creation of protected areas in our history.”
The establishment of the parks and expanded protected areas will knit the “Route of Parks,” a 17-park network ranging more than 1,500 miles from Puerto Montt to Cape Horn "that Chilean citizens, nature lovers, global adventurers, and tourists from around the world can enjoy," a release from Tompkins Conservation said. "The Route will safeguard Patagonia’s wilderness and provide a boon to economic development in the south of Chile, with the potential to generate US $270 million in annual, ecotourism-related revenue and employ up to 43,000 people in the region."
To help provide ongoing support, the nonprofit Friends of National Parks foundation is being set up.
Kristine and Douglas Tompkins, business leaders from iconic American clothing brands including The North Face, Esprit, and Patagonia, Inc., changed the course of their lives more than 20 years ago to devote their funds, time, and passion to fight the biggest crisis in the world: biodiversity loss. After careful analysis, Kristine and Douglas concluded that creating large national parks where evolutionary processes could take their course was the most effective way to combat this loss. National parks represent the “gold standard” of biodiversity conservation, offering a unique set of ecological attributes, cultural values, and economic benefits to local communities, while also guaranteeing long-term conservation. Tompkins Conservation is the leader in the Americas in what is known as “rewilding,” restoring natural ecosystems and reintroducing wildlife that has disappeared from a region because of human pressures.
In late February, The Wyss Foundation pledged up to $65 million to the South African-based conservation organization African Parks to support the protection and management of four existing parks in Rwanda and Malawi, and to enable the nonprofit organization to conserve up to five new protected areas in other countries.
“The Wyss Foundation is partnering with African Parks to safeguard more large wild landscapes in Africa from poaching and destruction,” said Hansjörg Wyss, founder and chairman of The Wyss Foundation. “African Parks has demonstrated success in cooperating with local leaders, communities and African nations in preserving ecosystems benefiting wildlife, while supporting local communities and populations. We are proud of our partnership with African Parks.”
The Great Rift Valley of Africa, which encompasses more than a half-dozen national parks ranging from Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique to Mount Longonot National Park in Kenya, has been overrun by civil wars and poaching. Beginning in 2000, African Parks has been committed to the "long-term management responsibility of national parks and protected areas in partnership with governments to save wildlife, restore landscapes, and ensure sustainable livelihoods for local communities. African Parks currently manages 10 parks in seven countries, totaling approximately 6 million hectares of protected areas."
The donation from The Wyss Foundation will extend the group's existing support for African Parks in Akagera National Park in Rwanda and Liwonde National Park, Majete Wildlife Reserve, and Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve, all of which are in Malawi.
The money also is expected to allow African Parks to work to develop and protect parks in Chad, Kenya, Mozambique, and Benin. The conservation group also has initiated talks regarding new national parks in Zimbabwe and Zambia. The Wyss Foundation’s support for these new parks is in the form of “challenge grants” that will be provided if matching funds can be raised to support the long-term stewardship of the parks.
A previous grant from the Wyss Foundation, announced in 2015, has helped African Parks bring lions back to Rwanda after they had been hunted out of existence after the genocide 20 years ago. Seven lions were reintroduced in August of 2015 and already seven cubs have been born, doubling the population and increasing tourism dramatically to the park.
“It’s rare to find individuals who commit themselves so whole-heartedly and with such conviction and clarity in wanting to save Africa’s wildlife for the benefit of the people,” Peter Fearnhead, CEO of African Parks, said when the gift was announced. “Our vision is to protect 20 parks by 2020, bringing up to 10 million hectares of wilderness under our management. This historic gift, and the partnership forged with the Wyss Foundation, enables us to have a conservation impact at a scale which is globally significant. We couldn’t be more grateful for this inspiring and transformational commitment to the continent of Africa."
Early this month, the Jilin provincial forestry department announced it would move forward to create a national park of more than 5,600 square miles to protect the Siberian tiger and Amur leopard. A management plan for the park, which will hug the China-Russia border, is expected to be in place by 2020.
The Amur is considered to be the world's rarest cat with roughly 60 individuals in Russia's Land of the Leopard National Park and perhaps another dozen across the border in China.
"The national park became the main organizational force for leopard protection and research,” Yury Darman, head of the World Wildlife Fund's Russia Amur Branch and a member of the Supervisory Board of The Amur Leopards Center, said two years ago.
The Chinese park is expected to complement Land of the Leopard National Park's work by providing an additional sanctuary and research center for both the leopard and the tiger.
Against these positive initiatives, some Republicans in Congress are working to stymie the country's parks movement. Utah's congressional delegation has been urging President Trump to rescind the Bears Ears National Monument designation, made near the end of President Obama's term, that set aside 1.35 million acres to protect sacred Native American sites and artifacts as well as spectacular scenery and recreational lands.
Too, there have been rumblings that an attempt will be made to either limit or outright scuttle the Antiquities Act that presidents have used since Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, when Congress passed the act, to protect significant natural, cultural, and scientific features. And the Trump administration is calling for the Interior Department, of which the National Park Service is part of, to absorb a $1.5 billion budget cut in the coming fiscal year. At a time of record visitation, and dwindling staff and financial resources, the Park Service can't help but see ongoing deterioration of the park system.
On top of that, a hearing by the House Federal Lands Subcommittee last week into "innovative" solutions for the National Park System's $12 billion maintenance backlog offered testimony from two directions calling for privatization of some park operations if not outright franchising of parks.
And why no mention in the Trump administration's "skinny budget" outline of a massive $1 trillion infrastructure plan for the nation that might help reduce the backlog in the park system? Without such additional help, the National Park Service is unlikely to make significant headway against the backlog. In Fiscal 2015, according to the National Parks Conservation Association, the Park Service received $473 million to spend on the backlog. Unfortunately, the group notes, the Park Service needed $820 million just to keep the backlog from growing.
Out of 2.3 billion acres in the United States, just 84.4 million are protected within the National Park System. The parks are mesmerizing, culturally significant, and priceless touchstones that help define who we are as a country. That they are economic engines that help generate hundreds of millions of dollars each year in economic activity is a bonus, though one that shouldn't overshadow their core purpose of not just telling our country's history but providing us with countless avenues for recreational pursuits.
Back in November on these pages, we speculated on what a Trump administration would bring to the parks: weakened air and water quality regulations, increasing energy development on public lands, a federal government hiring freeze, the possible demise of the Endangered Species Act, a decline in international visitors who don't feel welcome in the United States ... all are coming true. What does that say for the country that launched the national parks movement?
It would not be mutually exclusive to have a strong, vibrant, and environmentally sound nation and an equally strong, vibrant, and environmentally sound National Park System. They are goals that can go hand in hand if the political will exists.
Let's not shunt our national parks movement onto a siding and allow continued erosion and degradation. Rather, we should more strongly embrace the parks, help them flourish, and build off of the Park Service's first century. We owe it not only to ourselves and the generations that will follow us, but to those around the globe who have joined the national parks movement and have looked to the National Park Service for leadership.