Endangered National Parks

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Our national parks system is a thing of beauty -- from the depths of the Grand Canyon to the peaks of the Smoky Mountains. With 285 million people visiting at least one of the 392 parks in 2009, they are also some of the most popular tourist destinations in America. But the parks are in danger. As Kurt Repanshek, journalist and founder of NationalParksTraveler.com, points out, there are a number of different issues that are contributing to downfall of our most precious spaces.

Exhaust from automobiles is a major factor, but few parks employ mandatory shuttles that cut down on the amount of vehicles that enter the protected areas. "Visitation peaks in the warmer months and overwhelms certain parks," he says. "And air and noise pollution pulse in summer." The government also waived entrance fees at the parks for multiple weekends last year as a good-will gesture that just led to more overcrowding. Climate change and invasive species put year-round pressure on the parks, adding to the depletion of already endangered native wildlife. And, like most problems these days, it all comes down to money. The parks department's budget has been on a downward slide for years and the 2011 budget has already been slashed by $21.6 million, leaving little room for improvements, proper staffing, and conservation programs. Click ahead to learn more about ten parks that are facing severe challenges.


Biscayne National Park, Florida

Peril Level: Elevated


This mangrove tree-filled park is practically in Miami's backyard and is a popular snorkeling spot. You will see some of the only live coral in the continental US, but the endangered staghorn and elkhorn coral are dying at an alarming rate. "Climate change is warming the oceans, which causes more powerful hurricanes and coral bleaching," Repanshek says. Warming is also causing oceans to acidify. "Oceans are sinks for carbon dioxide," Repanshek says, "which dissolves the calcium carbonate that's the foundation of corals."

Solution: There's little immediate action that can be taken to save the coral from warming, but regulation of water traffic in Biscayne would cut down on pollution and damage from grounding boats and propellers.


Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

Peril Level: Elevated

This park occupying 35 miles on Lake Michigan's southern coastline is a draw for its sandy beaches and, yes, the dunes. It's also an example of everything besetting the wildlife and waters of the Great Lakes system. Invasive algae called Cladophora thrives on phosphates from agricultural run-off and detergents. The phosphate levels have been rising, and that, along with the Quagga and Zebra mussels, has created a perfect storm. Cladophora dies, leaving oxygen-depleted dead zones, where bacteria thrive. Bottom-feeding goby fish (another invasive species) dine on the mussels, which filter the water and are high in bacteria. The poisoned gobies die and rise to the surface, where they're eaten by birds, including the endangered piping plover, which then die of avian botulism.

Solution: There's no clear-cut fix yet, beyond limiting the phosphates Cladophora thrives on. In Virginia, a quarry was rid of Zebra mussels via large amounts of potassium chloride; whether that will work in the Great Lakes remains to be seen.


Everglades National Park, Florida

Peril Level: Elevated

Only about 25 percent of the original Everglades exist today and are now protected as a national park. What's left of the waters is home to a fascinating array of species, from alligators to manatees to glossy ibises to the few remaining Florida panthers. The human threats to the park include overdevelopment, which crowds wildlife and intrudes on the panther's habitat. Nearby farmers also seek to divert fresh water for their own use. Climate warming causes sea levels to rise and the water that makes up the Everglades is being encroached upon by salt water, which reeks havoc on the ecosystem.

Solution: The Army Corp of Engineers has implemented a controversial 30-year, $10.9 billion program to restore the wetlands, but most agree the real solution is to buy more and more of the surrounding land to protect the park.


Gates of the Arctic, Alaska

Peril Level: Moderate

Located north of the Arctic circle, this expansive 8.45-million-acre park is made up of both tundra and forest. Climate warming is causing the permafrost to melt, causing early greening of the vegetation and turning tundra into forests. The melt can cause landslides that drive sediment into rivers and lakes, affecting water quality. "The victims are the caribou," Repanshek says. "Early greening can throw off their calving clocks." More violent, snowier winter storms force the caribou out of their traditional calving grounds as well. The increase of wildfires has also destroyed the lichen they depend on for food in the winter.

Solution: There's little immediate action that can be taken here to combat the ills of warmer winters.


Grand Canyon, Arizona

Peril Level: Moderate

No one can deny the magnificence of this, our iconic geographical wonder. But one of its biggest threats is actually something that was brought in to save it. The Colorado River is in extreme stress from an invasive non-native shrub called the tamarisk, which was sourced from the eastern Mediterranean to stabilize erosion of riverbeds. The plant can grow to a height of 25 feet and releases as many as 500,000 seeds that clog streams and rob native riparian plants of light, nutrients and water. "There's a fight between the Bureau of Reclamation and the National Park System concerning releases of water from dams," says Repanshek. "The normal ebb and flow hinders the spread of tamarisk."

Solution: Tamarisk can sprout even after being burned. The only way to get rid of it is to pull it out by its root and remove it.


Yosemite National Park, California

Peril Level: Moderate

Yosemite's magnificent waterfalls and granite domes are the pride of California. One of its most detrimental issues, Repanshek points out, is simply the crush of humanity. "The valleys are overrun by development and visitors," he says. Hikers are pounding trails into dust in the high country. Popular trailheads like Cathedral Lake don't have enough parking so cars are dumped on road shoulders, a problem that is being addressed. "It'll be interesting to see what Yosemite does about the day traffic," Repanshek says, "because the other park officials will be watching."

Solution: Traffic needs regulating and infrastructure upgrading, as well as limiting access to the ever-more-popular backcountry sites.


Mount Rainier National Park, Washington

Peril Level: High

The mountain for which this park was named towers 14,410 feet above sea level in the Cascade Mountains. It also has the largest number of glaciers in the lower 48 states. But the glaciers, which feed rivers and streams, have been steadily retreating over the last century, a process that's been speeded up by the last three decades warmer-than-average summers. The plants and wildlife have also been affected by powerful storms that have whipped through the park. The storms washed out roads as well and put a financial strain on park, which can barely afford the repairs.

Solution: There's little immediate action that can be taken. Warmer winters and oceans that lead to the strong storms are the root of the problem.


Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee/North Carolina

Peril Level: High

This is historically the nation's most visited park, with ten million people a year hiking the 850 miles of trails and picnicking along the ridge. But the view hasn't been so pristine as the mountains are often shrouded in smog with high sulfur dioxide levels. One of the major causes is old-fashioned coal-fired power plants that were grandfathered in by the Clean Air Act that throw off 10 times more pollution than modern coal-fired plants. But that's not all. "Environmental groups like to point at the plants," Repanshek observes, "but cars and trucks are just as bad."

Solution: There are no entrance fees to the park and implementing one might lighten some of the traffic. Another possible solution? Distant parking and shuttles into the park. At the moment, the EPA is powerless over the coal-fired plants.


Glacier National Park, Montana

Peril Level: High

There's been much written about the rapidly retreating glaciers for which this park is named and various estimates project different dates for their demise. Other issues include open-pit coal mines, a methane project and gold mines proposed for the Canadian headwaters of the gorgeous, pristine Flathead River. The detritus from these proposed projects would irrevocably pollute the river. A third problem is the death of 45 percent of the whitebark pines, which are being attacked by a non-native fungus called white pine blister rust. These trees need to age 75 years before they produce cones that are the favorite food for grizzly bears as they prepare to hibernate. Aside from that crucial role, the trees also serve as a snowshed.

Solution: Rocky Mountain National Park is using insecticides, and if this is helpful it will likely be implemented at Glacier. The fate of the forests and the grizzly bears hangs in the balance.


Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming/Montana/Idaho

Peril Level: High

Our first park -- created by Congress in 1872 -- has multiple problems. The infrastructure just isn't up to handling the 3.3 million people that visit the park a year and there's a backlog of things that need to be done -- but no budget. In summer, so many visitors descend on Yellowstone that the sewer plant overflows. The main problem in the winter, and the one that receives the most press, is the noise- and air-polluting snowmobiles that traverse the backcountry. Like Glacier National Park, Yellowstone is losing its whitebark pines at a rate of seven percent a year. Other pine trees are falling victim to bark beetles. The old forests have evolved with the beetle, producing resin that smothers them. But with warming, the beetles have doubled and quadrupled their life cycles, overwhelming the trees.

Solution: Snowmobiles are a proven menace, but the public loves them and the manufacturers have a strong lobby so they remain. Traffic must be reduced and the infrastructure upgraded. Only extremely cold fall and winter temperatures can kill the beetles naturally.
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