Opinion — June 15, 2019
From the Redwood Forests, to the Gulf Stream Waters
In the 1860s, on the opposite coast of the waging civil war, Carleton Watkins lugged his large format camera equipment through treacherous paths upon the backs of pack mules. The photos he took of Yosemite Valley are credited to the origins of the establishment of the National Park System, as they inspired Abraham Lincoln to sign a designation of that land to become a state park and thereby laying the groundwork for federally protected land. Now, centuries later, there are over five dozen parks and several hundred significant landmarks under the National Park Service and iconic photographs of these locales plaster everything from calendars to desktops. There is no story better than that of Carleton Watkins to explain the power that images have. Through a combination of written word, and my own collection of images within the National Parks Charity Collective, I hope to achieve a similar impact with this article, imploring the importance of continuous conservation.
Written & Photographed
by Alyssa Mattei
In January of 2019, the United States entered the longest government shutdown in the country’s history, impacting nearly every aspect of its running and leaving hundreds of thousands of employees in limbo. Besides the immediate political facets, one branch which was also immensely affected by this was the National Park Service. Followers and supporters of the National Parks kept up-to-date with the status of the parks through the “Alt National Park Services” social media pages, as they were forced to remain accessible to tourists and operate through extremely limited staffing. About 21,000 of the 25,000 people employed by the NPS were furloughed (essentially a forced leave of absence without pay) during the shutdown, however the parks remained open, losing an approximate $400,000 per day in revenue from lack of entrance fees alone. Because there is no staffing at the entrances, fees- which are used for the advancement of visitor services, and park restoration amongst other things- are not collected. Over the course of the 35-day shutdown, it is estimated that the National Park Service lost about $10-11 million dollars in potential revenue.
Not only did the shutdown have massive fiscal consequences, but it also affected the condition of the parks themselves. With Visitor Centers closed, the park website un-updated, and no one to answer questions, visitors were left to their own devices and resources to navigate the park, in more ways than one: the “pack in, pack out” (leaving with whatever trash you brought in) was in ultimate effect as trash bins and even restrooms, were not being emptied and cleaned. One ranger who stayed working at Yosemite (one of the most visited parks) during the shutdown reported piles of feces, and toilet paper all over the park: there were one dozen staff working to keep “a park the size of Rhode Island” running with crowds of over two hundred cars per hour coming into the park through a single entrance. It was impossible to keep up with the amount of crowds given the staff ratio. Parks across the country reported overflowing trash cans and toilets.
Of all the parks, Joshua Tree was the most detrimentally impacted. An update in January, which was picked up by multiple news outlets, told of vandalism and destruction of property within the park boundaries; the Joshua trees themselves, were being hewn and destroyed for people to make new backcountry roads. Destroying not only the eponymous plants, which grow only a maximum average of three inches per year, but also the delicate ecosystems preserved on that previously unspoiled land. Originally planning to close, the park ultimately diverted Federal Land and Recreation and Enhancement funds to increase park staff and maintenance crews.
“The shutdown not only caused the park to lose a catastrophic amount of money from a lack of entrance fees, but also forced the diversion of recreation fees- which is meant for park restoration, as well as potentially irreversible ecological impacts from an overall lack of supervision-and sanitation- of the parks during the month long (+) hiatus.”
The National Park Service, a branch of the Department of the Interior, strives to preserve and protect “natural and cultural resources” for the “enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this, and future, generations,” according to their motto. The system values sites for a variety of reasons: from their natural importance to biological diversity in both plants and animals, as well as varying geological landscapes, to historically or archaeologically significant locations. The shutdown not only caused the park to lose a catastrophic amount of money from a lack of entrance fees, but also forced the diversion of recreation fees- which is meant for park restoration, as well as potentially irreversible ecological impacts from an overall lack of supervision-and sanitation- of the parks during the month long (+) hiatus.
Over the past three years I have visited half (over thirty) of the U.S. National Parks, and each one is as unique from one another as they are beautiful, and ecologically significant. I’ve spent hours chasing the rainbow of Upper Yosemite Fall while hiking to the top of the tallest waterfall in the United States, marvelled at the biggest tree in the world at Sequoia, caught a glimpse of a once extinct-- and still one of the planet’s rarest bird-- species gliding free over Angel’s Landing in Zion, traversed the rocks of Pinnacles, spotted the milky way in Joshua Tree, and had my camera focused every inch of the way. Learning and reading about the downfall of the National Parks, I knew I had to do something, after all the experiences the parks had given me, it was time for me to give back. Hence the creation of the “National Parks Charity Collective,” a selection of some of my favorite shots taken at these locations, edited and posted available for sale through my RedBubble shop, as a variety of prints and products. By making these photographs purchasable through my site I hope to donate a portion of the proceeds to national park foundations which support the park’s mission. The government shutdown may be over, but the protection of federal lands is evergoing: National monuments in Utah, such as Bear’s Ears, which was just established a couple years ago via negotiations from input of various Native American tribes to protect sacred land, was just reduced to 85% of the original land proposal, thereby opening it up and making the resources accessible to energy companies. The current administration continues to strip important environmental protections necessary to sustain the beauty of this country’s natural landscape. So, whether you buy yourself a new canvas print or stationary set, share the store link, donate directly, or just keep reading this article to learn more about various park conservation efforts, the most I can do is to implore you to keep exploring, and stay educated. The best way to gain an appreciation for these parks is to experience and be enchanted by them for yourselves.
Importance of National Parks: Protection of Biological Resources (Plants)
The Redwood park system is home to some of the tallest trees on the planet. Hundreds of years old, and towering over 300 feet into the sky, these behemoths of biology are breathtaking spectacles of feats by mother earth. But they didn’t always inspire awe in this way. In the 1800’s, as people began to move west due to the gold rush, Redwood trees were harvested by loggers for timber and building. In only 60 years, the number of acres was reduced from an estimated 2 million to merely hundreds of thousands. It is estimated that between then and the 1960’s almost 90% of the original old growth forest- made up of trees that can live up to two thousand years, and average age at the mid hundreds- was culled. Thanks to concerned citizens beginning in the early 1900’s purchasing land, and the official establishment of the National Park in 1968, many now live under the protection of the park service: free to grow without the threat of human destruction, and create the same sense of wonder for generations to come.
If I told you to close your eyes and picture a desert, the iconic Saguaro cactus is probably what you picture first. These tall standing succulents, while a symbol of the American West, can climatically only grow within the boundaries of the Sonoran desert, a range limited to almost exclusively southern Arizona. While they are abundant within this area, they are extremely slow growing-- gaining only about an inch in height per year, they do not grow arms until 50+ years old, and reach maturity around 125 years-- and face some threat from invasive plant species, and human disturbance. Protection within the park boundaries allows management to prevent the growth of exotic plants, such as grasses, which make the landscape more susceptible to fires, as well as outlaws and mitigates damage such as vandalism and transplanting. Thereby preserving this archetypal flora, which is integral for maintaining ecological balance with its provision of shade, food, and habitat, not only to local fauna, but also to the Native American peoples (Tohono O’odham), who hold inextricable cultural ties to the plant and lands.
Importance of National Parks: Protection of Biological Resources (Animals)
No more than 50 Years ago the California condor was extinct in the wild. When the population dwindled down to 22 in 1980s the last remaining birds were taken into captivity, in attempts to revive the population. Successful programs overseen by federal facilities as well as zoos, allowed captive-bred individuals to be released into the wild starting in the early ‘90s. They are still one of the most endangered species on the planet, but with the help of education (both of the birds and of humans) there looks to be hope for the continual rise in population of this species over time: Two of the most common causes of death in the species comes from collision with power lines, and lead poisoning. After several released condors were killed from flying into electrical wires, facilities began incorporating props into the bred-condors enclosures in order to condition them to avoid power lines before they are released into the wild. Additionally, conservationists are also trying to spreading awareness to hunters of the harm of lead bullets, as scavenging condors can suffer illness, or death, from eating carrion tarnished by the toxins. Because of these continuous efforts there are now over two hundred of these once-extinct birds flying free, with the population growing from continual releases as well as new breeding pairs in the wild.
Channel Islands Fox
Another remarkable conservation story is that of the Channel Island fox. Islands have a unique ecology, which supports unique evolutionary development, due to the isolated nature of the environment. It is not uncommon for islands to have species similar to those on the mainland, but with mutations in size, known as gigantism (larger in size: for example the tortoises that inhabit the Galapagos Islands), or dwarfism (smaller in size: pre-historic residents of the Channel Islands, included pony-sized wooly mammoths). Such is the case of the island fox: resident of the Channel Islands’ archipelago, these canids resemble the grey fox, but clock in at a fraction of the size. Evolutionarily speaking the smaller size was an advantage. However, it became a detriment when the scales became tipped. A couple decades ago the fox population plummeted, in part due to the species now becoming prey. The golden eagle, one of the largest predatory birds, could easily hunt and eat the small, diurnal mammals, which had not previously fallen prey to these hunters. So how did this happen? Up until this point the islands were mostly inhabited by bald eagles, these slightly smaller, fish-eating birds are highly territorial, and kept the other eagle populations at bay. However, coinciding with the mass-use of DDT, an extremely harmful pesticide, the bald eagle population on the islands plummeted (chemicals infiltrate the ocean, get into the fish, and further concentrate as it moves up the food chain), allowing for the golden eagle to take over. By re-introducing the native bald eagle, as well as the increasing the island fox population, conservationists were able to repopulate the Channel Island foxes in one of the fastest successful conservation acts of repopulation.
Importance of National Parks: Preservation of Historical Resources
Mesa Verde was the first national park specifically designated to protect archaeological resources; established in 1906 by Teddy Roosevelt to “preserve the works of man,” it set the standard for preserving not just natural, but culturally significant heritage sites, through the National Park Service. The park serves to educate about the ancient Puebloans who inhabited and built these cliff dwellings (castle-like stone lodgings made directly into the rock many feet above ground level) nearly a thousand years ago. After being abandoned in 1300 CE, they were rediscovered in the late 1800’s. A unique discovery, they quickly gained notoriety that attracted tourists, which, without protection, suddenly became subject to vandals and looters. Concerned citizens urged for federal protection and these historical feats of architecture are now preserved for current and future generations to learn about the lifestyles of early American living.
Dry Tortugas National Park is a stand-alone, in more ways than one. It is one of the least visited national parks, given its secluded and difficult to reach location (only accessible via a chartered boat, it is located 70 miles off of Key West). Although a seemingly random location, the US spent extensive resources and intensive manpower to fortify this section of the ocean, protecting the valuable trade routes. A feat of architecture, Fort Jefferson, comprised of over 16 million bricks, is the largest brick structure in all of America, and resides in the middle of the sea. Although never finished, this fort stands as a fascinating, albeit mostly unknown, part of American history, standing to show the importance of these islands and waters to sea navigators. While Fort Jefferson is the most obstructively obvious landmark of the island, Dry Tortugas National Park also protects several of the surrounding lands, as well as a vast border of ocean.
So from the treetops of the Redwood forest, to the oceans of the gulf stream waters, the National Park Service protects these lands for you and me, and all future generations to see.