In March 1872, the United States Congress established Yellowstone National Park as a protected, special place for the American people. This single act started a movement to recognize the importance of American national parks and to protect national outdoor treasures around the world.
President Woodrow Wilson further reinforced the importance of national parks in 1916 by signing an act establishing the National Parks Service. The park service offers more than camping, hiking and impressive selfie backdrops spanning 84 million acres in every state; its parks also protect species at risk and help endangered species.
For Endangered Species
From the gray wolves in Yellowstone to the desert pupfish in Arizona’s Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, the importance of national parks in preventing animal extinction is paramount.
Thanks to conservation efforts in the South Dakota Badlands, the National Parks Conservation Association reported that what was once the world’s rarest mammal — the black-footed ferret — is making a comeback. Animals like the green sea turtle and the California condor are also seeing a rise in numbers thanks to the Endangered Species Act.
The NPCA also discusses how protected status in the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park means that the last of the island’s native goose species, the Nēnē, can strut its feathers in safety.
An Outdoor Laboratory
The park system’s extensive outdoor laboratory has been a perfect breeding ground for scientific discoveries.
One of the most important discoveries in microbiology, celebrated in this Business Insider post, owes its existence to research within national park boundaries. Without careful research into extremophile bacteria living in the 80-degrees Celsius thermal vents of Yellowstone National Park, scientists wouldn’t have discovered the enzyme responsible for DNA replication.
Additionally, the 1960 Nobel Prize in chemistry recognized the usefulness of carbon dating, developed from work done in the Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument.
Documenting Climate Change
American national parks also play a highly valuable role in documenting climate change. Researchers have utilized the vast tracts of pristine wilderness to collect data on species and habitats. At first, they collected observational data on foot; now, they use sophisticated methods such as aerial surveillance with drones like those used in Northrop Grumman’s Wildlife Challenge to collect information on polar bears.
Observational longitudinal data collection shows the effects of climate change that impact vegetation and animal species. The pika is the perfect example of an animal who may need to be relocated from the parks due to climate change, as described in Smithsonian Magazine. The park service is taking this very seriously. “It is … openly discussing the possibility of ‘assisted migration:’ manually relocating some animals and plants if it turns out they can’t survive within the park’s changing landscapes.”
National park research also documents glacier retreat, finding that some ice fields have lost as much as 85 percent in the last five decades, according to U.S. Geological Survey. Glacier Park might be recognizable only as a historical name by 2030, it projects.
It’s not just glaciers retreating. The Conversation notes that national park data shows that trees are also affected by climate change: “Climate change is killing trees due to increased drought, changes in wildfire patterns and increased bark beetle infestations. Tracking of trees in … national parks has contributed to a database that revealed how climate change has doubled tree mortality since 1955 across the western United States.”
We should not forget that at its inception, the National Parks Service’s long-term intention was to protect the parks and “leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”