It's the parks, not the pipeline

Pressure is mounting for President Barack Obama to make a decision about TransCanada Corp's pipeline carrying oil from Canada to the U.S. -- a decision with implications for Canadian and U.S. energy security, jobs, climate change, and wildlife habitat. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is eager for the opportunities a possible favorable decision presents. And just recently, a new page-turner in the KXL story: a Nebraska judge ruled against a law allowing the pipeline to run through Nebraska land denied by property owners -- ensuring the debate will continue for at least a few more months.

Ostensibly, the Keystone pipeline story is about Obama's eventual decision to tap crude oil from Canada or to reject the project and ensure an environmental legacy that focuses on limiting greenhouse gas emissions. I would argue that Obama's environmental legacy does not hinge at all on what he decides about Keystone. His real environmental legacy will be what he does to protect the United States' hugely popular national parks and monuments.

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The infamous U.S. government shutdown of last October, in addition to stalling the pipeline environmental study, revealed the magnitude of public support for the nation's protected lands. There was incredible public outrage over the closure of America's National Park System. Moreover, according to the U.S. Travel Association, the shutdown cost the U.S. $152 million a day (U.S. dollars) in economic output due to lost travel-related activity. New data from the National Park Service pegs the lost visitor spending at $414 million total.

The U.S. Travel Association reports that 66.6 million international tourists visited the United States in 2012, up from 62.7 million in 2011. Many of these tourists flock to America's coveted national parks.  The U.S. is also the country where international tourists spend the most money - supporting those small American businesses and local economies that were all over the news in October.

The diverse system of protected U.S. parks, monuments and public lands, admired by so many, is the legacy of U.S. presidents from Abraham Lincoln to Theodore Roosevelt and yes, to George W. Bush, who protected the largest marine reserve in the world. Obama has also conserved several historically-significant monuments such as Chimney Rock in Colorado, which preserves the heritage of the U.S.'s First People, and Fort Monroe in Virginia, where enslaved people first found freedom.

These parks and monuments, as well as being a driver for the U.S. economy and a history lesson for schoolchildren, offer a "safe haven" -- a Wildlife Conservation Society Canada term -- for wildlife from the effects of climate change. The mountains, glaciers, watersheds and wetlands in parks provide clean water and habitat. Protecting these ecological values for wildlife also ensures the long-term viability of our human communities.

In Canada, we're working to secure a land use plan for the Yellowstone to Yukon Corridor where I work.  This core biological area, which includes Glacier National Park in Montana and Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, is special place that establishes a nature sanctuary and preserves the natural trans-border migration route for wildlife along the spine of the Rocky Mountains. The people of British Columbia agree that this land is an irreplaceable ecological wonder worth permanently protecting from energy development.

This is the very issue upon which I believe Obama's environmental legacy will rest -- conserving the best of America for the benefit of people and wildlife in balance with energy development. As witnessed by the strong negative reactions to park closures during the shutdown, people really care about access to "America the beautiful." And from his State of the Union promise to use his authority "to protect more of our pristine federal lands for future generations," it looks like Obama cares as well.

So, now that the U.S. government has been back in business for a while, I would encourage the president and his staff to take a closer look at the lessons offered by the shutdown. Don't just talk to pollsters. Don't just talk to economists. And absolutely don't spend too much time talking with Prime Minister Harper about his pipeline.

Instead, get out and talk to U.S. park rangers. Talk to small business owners. Talk to tourists. And most importantly, visit with the communities that want to protect wildlife habitat, clean water, and their public lands. The shutdown had a "silver lining." It was a wake-up call for President Obama, a chance to more clearly see and seize a great opportunity to cement a truly lasting legacy for the generations that come after us.

Just a hint: It has nothing to do with a pipeline.

Nelson is Southern Rockies Program Manager for Canadian nonprofit, Wildsight. He works locally and internationally to protect the globally significant landscape of British Columbia's Southern Rockies.