Our actions outside park boundaries bleed into the parks themselves. Climate change, development, agriculture and invasive species are impacting national park ecosystems, threatening some of the species that have made them so iconic.
MY first trip to Ruby Beach in Olympic National Park is forever etched in my mind — cool fog, salt air and sea stars above my head gripping the sides of towering sea stacks.
For many of us, trips to national parks are important childhood memories: hiking through lush forests or along crystal waters, taking in stunning views and listening to fireside stories. For the 7.6 million visitors a year in Washington alone, our national parks are a recreational paradise.
But beyond the visitor center, trails and beaches, there are critical ecosystems and a treasure trove of conservation opportunities and value. On this 100th anniversary of the national parks system, it’s worthy of praise and protection.
Our national parks may be famous for bison and bears. But in Washington, they provide habitat for endangered and threatened wildlife, including wolves, fishers, northern spotted owl, salmon and marbled murrelets. Our three national parks — Mount Rainier, Olympic and North Cascades — provide wildlife corridors for migratory animals and unique habitat, including alpine meadows, pristine rivers and old-growth forests. A network of smaller sites spread across the state.
This large-scale protection — about 2 million acres in Washington and 84 million acres across the nation — has a significant ripple effect. It conserves what scientists call “ecosystem services:” benefits from nature, such as cleaning water, cleaning air, storing carbon and protecting wildlife.
For example, the water that flows through our national parks is more than just a backdrop for waterfall selfies. Our parks protect hundreds of rivers, streams and lakes that hold and clean water for fish, wildlife and humans. The Skagit River, flowing out of the North Cascades National Park, delivers about 30 percent of the fresh water that flows into Puget Sound and has strong populations of all Washington’s salmon species. A vibrant partnership including The Nature Conservancy, Skagit Land Trust, state and federal agencies and Seattle City Light has worked together for years to protect the river outside of the park and connect it to Puget Sound.
On the Olympic Peninsula, the Hoh, Queets, Clearwater and Quinault rivers that flow out of Olympic National Park are some of the last best refuges for Pacific salmon in the contiguous United States. We at The Nature Conservancy are partnering with local communities, for whom these rivers are the heart of their cultural and economic lives. These rivers connect the Olympic mountaintops to the Pacific Ocean and the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. By working together, we can create a summit-to-sea system that allows communities, the economy and nature to thrive.
Climate change is already impacting communities and natural systems across our state and around the world. Washington’s national parks have an important role to play in helping us adapt and mitigate the impacts.
Mount Rainier is a natural laboratory and is central to studies on climate change and adaptation. The vast acres of wilderness and extreme elevation changes in our state’s national parks offer refuge for both plants and animals to migrate and adjust to a changing climate. Around the nation, national parks sequestered more than 17 million metric tons of carbon over four years. Even as we work to limit the carbon we are producing, these protected areas are helping clean our air.
While national parks are critical to our future as a source of clean water, fresh air, whole systems for animals and scientific innovation that will benefit us all, they are not enough. No park is an island. The salmon that start their journey in a park will travel great distances and face countless threats from people along their journey. And our actions outside park boundaries bleed into the parks themselves. Climate change, development, agriculture and invasive species are impacting national-park ecosystems, threatening some of the species that have made them so iconic.
Two-thirds of the National Park Service’s areas were created to protect historic or cultural resources, reminding us that people are part of, not distinct, from our ecosystems. We must enable a new generation of more diverse Americans to make our national parks part of their lives as well.
As the national parks system launches into its second century, we can uphold its mission to preserve nature for people, commit to ensuring that all Americans share in that heritage and make the parks a foundational element of interconnected conservation in our state and in our country for generations to come.