This year marks the 150th anniversary of the establishment of Yellowstone National Park, which was the first of 63 parks to be established in the United States and its territories.
President Woodrow Wilson signed the law creating the National Park Service in August 1916, dedicating hundreds of millions of acres of public land spread across 35 parks. The intention of creating this system has been to “conserve the landscape, natural and historic objects and wildlife therein and…leave them undisturbed for the enjoyment of future generations”. It’s a sentiment still shared by conservationists and park lovers across the country.
Today the National Park Service owns a fraction of its original acreage of land – 84 million acres distributed in the 50 States, District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, Saipan and the Virgin Islands. But why is this? How did the original conservation lands set aside decline to such levels?
Maybe if we knew how beautiful our country is, we would want to protect more of it.
Although Pennsylvania is not home to any national parks, it is home to a multitude of beautiful state parks and natural attractions, including the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania, Almost Isle State Park and, my favorite, Ohiopyle State Park. Whether it’s a day trip for hiking and swimming or a vacation, Pennsylvania is full of natural wonders worth exploring.
The United States as a whole, however, is home to far more biodiversity than we are exposed to. In terms of landmass, the United States is the fourth largest country in the world. Considering it spans over 3.6 million square miles, we have some of the highest levels of biodiversity in the world – some of which are disappears quickly.
America the beautiful is home to some strange creatures and exotic locations – those that have become internationally recognized. Some of our native species include Florida manatees, grizzly bears, sunflower starfish, humpback whales, gray wolves, California condors and rattlesnakes. Meanwhile, we have features like sand dunes, glaciers, tropical forests, vast mountain ranges and more.
I think people tend to forget the true depth of species that inhabit our country, but America is wild and we need to recognize that more. If we assessed how each species has contributed to the beauty of our country, we might preserve more.
During his presidency, Donald Trump’s administration reduced two Utah national parks – Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. In total, more than 2 million acres were opened for mining. The downsizing has been the most dramatic land reduction in Park Service history.
But think about it. It makes sense that Trump has no appreciation for nature or reason to protect it. He is a New York native who grew up in the city. I mean, have you seen her penthouse? It doesn’t exactly scream “ecofreak”. My best guess is that he never had the chance to cultivate a relationship with Earth, and unfortunately we are the ones who face those consequences.
Although Trump’s legacy has lasting negative consequences for our public lands, the problem cannot be blamed on him alone – it is extremely a national failure.
A study 2017 from DJ Case and Associates, alongside state and federal wildlife and parks agencies, found that Americans are increasingly disconnected from nature. As technology advances and becomes more widespread in access and use, people do not prioritize interactions with nature nor are they bothered by this reality. I believe that this disconnection from nature goes a long way to fueling people’s apathy towards the planet and what is being done to it, as long as their modern comforts distract them from reality.
But in other cultures, nature is not just a priority, it is seen as an aspect of maintaining one’s health. The Japanese have a word, shinrin yoku, which results in forest bathing. The term appeared in the 80s as a psychological and physiological exercise aimed at strengthening the bond between man and nature. After this phenomenon became a regular occurrence in Japan, researchers began to wonder if spending time in nature makes us feel good and, surprise, it is!
There is actually a form of treatment called ecotherapy, which consists of treatments involving outdoor activities, and is now used in Canada. A new program allows doctors to write prescriptions for Canadians to visit national parks.
There is good news, however. Under President Joe Biden, the Department of the Interior launched a campaign to protect 30% land and water by 2030, as part of a much larger global initiative. Although more land needs to be conserved to maintain critical biodiversity, only 12% of US land is permanently protected.
While I advocate for the protection and conservation of land, we must also remember that unless you are indigenous to this continent, you reside on stolen and colonized land. It’s not our country to be disrespected, yet here we are. The least we can do now is protect nature and learn more about in whose territory we resideand allowing Indigenous communities to use the land – including protected areas that the park system does not allow for hunting, fishing or mining – as they would if we weren’t there.
No matter where we are in the world, we must take responsibility for protecting what was here before and what will exist long after we are gone. Nature gives us everything we need, so it’s only fitting that we make sure the quality stays true for as long as possible.
Grace DeLallo writes on social, environmental and political issues. Write to him at [email protected].