The U.S. National Park Service celebrates more than a century of conservation—and struggles to sustain its mission
Framed by the snowy peaks of Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park, a bison cow and calf reflect the iconic grandeur and conservation mission of America’s national parks—an idea born to protect species such as the bison, newly named our national mammal.
IT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE A TYPICAL FAMILY VACATION. We lived in the East, but as soon as our three kids were old enough we took them out West to visit family in Denver and rural Nebraska. Almost as an afterthought we booked a cabin for two nights near Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, thinking if we had time, we’d endure the summer crowds and show our kids what real mountains look like.
The afterthought became the thing we all remembered. We spent the weekend mesmerized at the grandeur of the high peaks, frolicked in snow above the tree line and watched in wonder as elk came out to graze at sunset, with spotted calves close to their mothers and the tentative bugling of a young buck echoing down the valley. That trip sparked a passion for our nation’s national parks that countless other families share. My kids have now seen loggerhead turtles swimming in the clear waters of North Carolina’s Cape Lookout National Seashore. They’ve camped in the sweet duff of redwoods, marveling at the magic of trees as big as Saturn rockets. They’ve hunted salamanders and butterflies along the spine of the Great Smokies, and they’ve seen massive condors cruising the skies west of Pinnacles National Park in California.
It’s fair to say that many of these species would not exist today were it not for the long protective arm of the U.S. National Park Service (NPS), which turns 100 years old this August. In fact, wildlife conservation has been at the core of the service’s mandate since the bill creating it was signed by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916. The purpose was clear: “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
That mission has become a gargantuan task, as NPS now oversees more than 400 parks, historic sites, scenic shorelines and other cultural touchstones that receive more than a quarter-billion visits each year. Strain from overuse and underfunding, along with threats ranging from climate change to lack of connectivity among these protected ecosystems, are daunting challenges. Yet this milestone anniversary warrants reflection on the vital role and ongoing relevance of our national park system—what writer Wallace Stegner called America’s “best idea.”
The parks were created in reaction to slaughter. By the late-1800s, market hunters had decimated bison herds across the Great Plains, prompting the establishment in 1872 of Yellowstone National Park—the nation’s first—as a wildlife sanctuary. Poachers paid no heed to the park boundaries, however. The U.S. Cavalry was sent to take control, but the army had no authority to prosecute violators. After one hunter was caught with six freshly killed bison, Senator John F. Lacey of Iowa had had enough. In 1894, he pushed a bill through the U.S. Congress that made it a misdemeanor to kill animals in the park, punishable by a fine up to $1,000 and two years in jail—one of the nation’s earliest federal laws protecting wildlife.
“It became the foundational law of wildlife protection and the first federal action to protect a large mammal species from extinction,” says Glenn Plumb, the park service’s chief wildlife biologist. Some 4,000 bison, North America’s largest land mammal, now roam Yellowstone, where they’ve become one of the park’s signature species. In all, some 30,000 bison now graze in public herds across the West.
Other success stories followed as parks were created to protect the nation’s ecological wonders. In 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt designated Mount Olympus National Monument, precursor to Olympic National Park, to protect the dwindling herd of his namesake Roosevelt elk. A few years later, bison, Rocky Mountain elk and pronghorn were reintroduced to the prairie grasslands of South Dakota’s Wind Cave National Park. And Hawai‘i’s native nēnē—a goose that had dwindled to 30 birds by the 1950s—was saved from near-certain extinction after heroic reintroduction efforts in Hawai‘i Volcanoes and Haleakalā national parks in the 1960s and 1970s. Today more than 2,000 nēnē thrive on the islands.
In recent decades, restoration efforts have increasingly focused on saving a range of predators once targeted for extermination but now recognized for the critical role they play in ecosystems. Pacific fishers, the catlike weasels of the Cascades and Sierra Nevada, have been reintroduced to Olympic National Park, and their smaller prairie cousins, black-footed ferrets, have been brought back from near extinction to stable populations in several tribal and federal lands including Wind Cave and Badlands national parks. The island fox, found only on California’s Channel Islands, was perilously close to extinction by the late 1990s. Channel Islands National Park became the site of a recovery effort, enabling the diminutive foxes to regain a foothold.
The most high-profile predator restoration effort—and by far the most controversial—has been the reintroduction of gray wolves into Yellowstone National Park. The species was exterminated from the region in the 1920s and listed as endangered in 1974. But in 1995 and 1996, 31 gray wolves captured in Canada were released into Yellowstone. By 2013, about 100 roamed in 10 packs within the park’s borders, and another 400 were spread throughout the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, sparking ongoing battles over delisting.
“Bringing wolves back to the Yellowstone ecosystem has been one of the most transformative experiences we’ve had in terms of wildlife conservation work,” says National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis, a biologist who worked on the reintroduction of Pacific fishers and peregrine falcons to northwestern parks early in his career. Today, because wolves are keeping elk populations in check, elk are eating fewer aspen trees, a positive “shift in the ecosystem,” says Jarvis. Because wolves kill livestock and elk, some local ranchers and hunters still oppose the reintroduction, but wolf tourism is on the rise, benefiting the region’s economy. “It’s an incredible experience to be in the Lamar Valley on a 20-degree morning with the wolves out there on a hunt,” says Jarvis, “and there will be a crowd lined up with their spotting scopes and cameras to see it.”
Increasingly, parks are becoming not just places where we can get a peek at a more primordial America but important wildlife laboratories where researchers are learning how to protect species on a broader scale. In Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey are trying to prevent outbreaks of avian botulism that have killed more than 100,000 birds in the Great Lakes since 1999. In Wind Cave National Park, they are testing an edible vaccine for sylvatic plague that infects black-footed ferrets and prairie dogs—not to mention humans. Perhaps the most ambitious wildlife research project in the nation is the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory (ATBI), in which scientists and citizen volunteers are attempting to discover all the estimated 60,000 to 80,000 species thought to live within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park along the North Carolina–Tennessee border—a treasure trove of biodiversity. After 18 years and nearly 20,000 species discovered, ATBI has become one of the largest natural-history inventories in the world.
Such efforts are critically important in the face of increasing human pressures, including climate change, that are causing one of highest rates of species extinctions in the planet’s history—an unprecedented challenge for national parks. “Maintaining vignettes of primitive America is no longer possible with climate change,” says Bruce Stein, associate vice president for climate adaptation at the National Wildlife Federation and co-author of a recent report on climate-smart conservation. “We are losing white bark pine—a keystone species—in the mountain West. Giant sequoias are starting to show water stress.
At some point the climate is going to be unsuitable for Joshua trees in Joshua Tree National Park.” A recent climate model projected the range of the Joshua tree will decline by 90 percent by the end of the century as the Sonoran and Mojave deserts get hotter and drier. “We now have to start managing for change, not just persistence,” says Stein. “If we don’t pay attention to these things, we will lose them for certain.”
The Karner blue butterfly offers a vivid example of the challenge the parks now face. Millions of the cobalt insects once flitted about each summer from Minnesota to Maine, their caterpillars feeding exclusively on wild blue lupines. Populations plunged due to habitat loss, causing the Karner to be listed as endangered in 1992. Despite a rigorous recovery effort that showed promise, populations tumbled again in recent years due to drought and high temperatures. Last summer, not a single Karner blue butterfly was found in Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, once a major refuge for the species. “We are moving to an era of continual change,” says Gregor Schuurman, an adaptive ecologist with the park service who worked on the butterfly’s restoration effort, “and that is a paradigm shift.”
Such pressures on wildlife make the parks all the more valuable as reservoirs of our natural heritage. The secret to managing for change, says Jarvis, is to think outside park boundaries and manage on an ecosystem or landscape scale. That means creating corridors of connected habitat across federal, state and private lands (the latter with conservation easements) and removing barriers to wildlife migration by, for example, building wildlife tunnels under highways. “That’s where the future potential really is,” says Jarvis. “The park service is kind of the anchor store in these larger landscapes, and then we work cooperatively on adjacent lands where critical components need to be connected so that you have a functional and sustainable ecosystem.”
Perhaps the biggest threat to the national parks has less to do with the changing climate than the changing American child, who spends far more time glued to a screen than experiencing natural wonders. That’s why the No. 1 goal of the National Park Service centennial, says Jarvis, is to create the next generation of advocates for parks and other public lands. The new “Find Your Park” campaign targets millennials, using their language and social media to get them into the parks. “Every Kid in a Park” is a White House initiative that gives all the nation’s fourth-graders and their families a free pass to national parks for a year. And the service is reaching out to organizations from traditional YMCAs to new groups like Outdoor Afro and Latino Outdoors. “When you get young people into these places for an experience, it can be transformative,” says Jarvis. “The lights go on and ... they learn something about themselves that they carry with them for the rest of their lives. You can’t get that experience on an iPhone.”
Enos Mills, a naturalist who spearheaded the movement to create Rocky Mountain National Park, was prescient when he wrote, “In years to come when I am asleep beneath the pines, thousands of families will find rest and hope in this park.” So they have. Now it’s our job to make sure the parks and “the wild life therein” remain unimpaired for the next generation.
In 2014, the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began moving threatened bull trout (right) to higher-elevation lakes in Glacier National Park, where cooler waters may help them survive warming temperatures. Such well-designed “climate translocations” can help parks “manage in the face of uncertainty” caused by climate change, says Bruce Stein, associate vice president for climate adaptation at the National Wildlife Federation. Stein and his team are working with NPS to finalize a guide to climate adaptation tailored for park planners and managers. “Parks will have to make difficult choices,” says Stein. “The challenge will be to manage them so they continue to provide ecological value, even if species change.”
Writer Joel K. Bourne Jr. authored the recent book The End of Plenty.
More from National Wildlife magazine and NWF:
Keeping Public Lands Public
New Funding Plan: A bold, new initiative for species of concern
Pushing Boundaries: Experiments in plant and animal relocations
NWF Guardians of Abundance
Gray Wolves: A Top Dog Takes Over
NWF's Wildlife Conflict Resolution Program
Keeping Wildlife on the Move: How conservationists ensure vital wildlife corridors
Why Connect Kids to Nature