The Body & Soul of a Nation PART I: Can National Parks Help Save Our Country?

Before you start reading this blog I’d like your participation in a short experiment. Take out a pencil and a piece of scratch paper and respond to the following prompt;


What are five serious issues that the US is currently struggling with?

Go ahead and look over your list.


Chances are, you probably mentioned…

- environmental crises exacerbated by human-caused climate change

- issues around history and race


If you didn’t mention either of these, then you are a divergent thinker, because in a recently conducted experiment 98% of the people polled listed one or both of these issues or ones that were similarly focused on the environment or issues stemming from reconciling our country's history of oppression.


To say that these are the most serious issues we are contending with is no understatement. One of these challenges threatens to destroy the physical land all living things depend on for survival, the very body of our nation. The other threatens to divide and destroy us from within as we try to reconcile the opposing views and interpretations of our history, the question that defines our country’s soul.


While there are many, many organization that are already trying to address the challenges posed by one or the other of these issues, there are few that have expertise or actionable strategies in both areas, and fewer still that have been doing it well for a long period of time, let alone over a century, like the National Park Service.


Since its inception, all of the work NPS has been focused on these two issues. Their mandate to “preserve and educate” has many sites feverishly working on addressing the realities of climate change to ensure parks remain places we and all future generations can enjoy. Other sites are more focused on the interpretation of our national story to ensure it remains truthful, relevant, and inclusive of us all.


Both of these areas have become ideological minefields, and most people by their nature try to avoid difficult conversations. Many people are willfully ignorant of their own part in the climate crisis because they either feel overwhelmed by the scientific jargon or feel powerless to address the issue themselves. Likewise a large portion of Americans avoid conversations around historic racism because they feel defensive, are put off by the combative and accusatory way some people conduct themselves, or because they object to being called out as “racist” for things they didn’t do themselves.


In order to make progress in both of these areas, we need to remove some of these mines. We need people to be willing to listen to information that might make them uncomfortable or force them to face realities that may push back against their own beliefs, and as the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, “do so in a way that will lead others to join.”


Easier said than done? Certainly, but here’s why the NPS is uniquely qualified to be a part of this process of reconciliation;


Parks as Peacemakers


In these times of heightened partisanship, areas where all Americans can agree are few and far between. However, National Parks, and the NPS in particular, rate highly across the political spectrum. For example;


· Americans understand that parks are a “value added” resource. A 2016 Hart Research study found that more than 2/3rds of American identify them as a resource that the country benefits from.


· A 2019 Pew study found that 89% of Republicans and 86% of Democrats had a favorable view of the NPS, a score that shows nearly 9 out of 10 Americans agreeing on the same thing.


· The previously mentioned 2016 Hart poll said only 17% of Americans have never visited a National Park, meaning that they are an informal education opportunity more than 8 out of 10 Americans will connect with in their lifetime.


· The parks are widely agreed to be sacred spaces. In 2015 72% of Americans said National Parks should be protected from all energy development even if oil and gas are found on park lands.


Americans love their parks. They trust the park rangers who manage them. Most people go to them, and most people recognize them as “spaces of exception” that should be free from destructive behavior. Taken together, these facts articulate a clear narrative that says they should be used as conduits for shifting static mindsets around topics of great importance, something that is already happening around the country;


Climate Change


When it comes to climate change, there are two important aspects that warrant wide discuss; ensuring people understand that the world’s climate is changing and understanding what can and can’t be done about it.


Parks are uniquely situation to help people understand the effects of climate change and facilitate conversations in a productive way. A study discussed in the book America’s Largest Classroom shared that after a visit to a national park, visitors were more concerned about the environment and more inclined to adopt pro-environmental behavoirs.


This is in part because visitors feel attached to them after they visit, a phenomenon called “place attachment” and because park rangers can draw upon park resources to illustrate the effects of a changing climate and link them to the efforts of the park service. For many people, seeing is believing and crucial in helping them come around to the reality that the climate is indeed shifting.

The NPS has developed several tools and approach’s to dealing with the realities of climate change, and one such tool is called the RAD Framework. This particular tool is especially helpful because it avoids the “doom and gloom” narrative that succeed in doing little aside from turning people off or entrenching them further, but at the same time lays bare the consequences of climate in a realistic and observable manner. (you can read more about why “doom and gloom” is ineffective here) RAD stands for “resist-accept-direct” and provides a way to manage park resources that is realistic. For example, in parks where ecosystems are dependent on dwindling snowpack’s for water, rangers can;


· Resist –resistance can take the form of diverting trails that hinder water flow or removing non-endemic species who compete with endemic ones for water.


· Accept- acknowledge that snowmelt will continue to dwindle and work to remove dead or dying trees to prioritize water for healthier ones.


· Direct – manage the changes that this shift in hydrology will bring by planting grasses and species projected to thrive in the dry, hotter climate or prescribe more controlled burns to “thin out” competition for water.


Each of these responses requires the acceptance of our climate reality, and sharing these options with the public through education programs steers the conversations away from “is climate change real” to “what are we going to do about it” by combining the visible effects (e.g. historic photos of glaciers to what people can see) to actions being actively undertaken.

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