For Biden’s climate agenda to succeed, he must start with parks
In the wake of unimaginable personal tragedy, a young Joe Biden sought solace in Yellowstone National Park. Like millions of people before and since, he found something in a park that he couldn’t find anywhere else. When we stand at the edge of the Everglades’ River of Grass or gaze upon Mesa Verde, we share the experience of connecting with nature, with history and with each other. That’s what makes national parks America’s common ground.
As Joe Biden assumes the presidency, the need for common ground is more important than ever. And the need to protect our common ground is even more urgent.
A recent report shows that the United States loses a football field worth of nature every 30 seconds. If we don’t come together as a country, we stand to lose one of the things that truly unites America: our national parks.
Experts agree that we must protect 30 percent of America’s lands and waters by the year 2030 to defend against the worst impacts of climate change, as well as stave off habitat and biodiversity loss — all of which dramatically impact national parks. This “30 by 30” plan is a cornerstone of President Biden’s new executive order to confront climate change.
While national parks account for just over 3 percent of protected lands, they are hubs for much larger landscapes and ecosystems. We’ve known for decades that parks thrive when they’re connected to their surrounding landscapes. The iconic grizzly bears of Yellowstone move freely in and out of the park. The Colorado River flows through the Grand Canyon. Noise, dust, and even light pollution can pour into a park and disrupt plants, wildlife and visitors. Put simply, park borders by themselves don’t always protect park resources.
Even the most well-known and beloved national parks aren’t immune from these threats. Time and again, communities that love parks have rallied together to fight back against development plans that would have endangered national parks. A gold mine at Yellowstone, a landfill at Joshua Tree, and a casino at Gettysburg have all been proposed in just the last few years.
Those fights have shown that Americans understand the importance of looking beyond park boundaries if we are to succeed in protecting the places we all value. Those fights should also show the Biden administration why it should begin its “30 by 30” plan by strengthening national park landscapes and ecosystems.
Park advocates have been fighting for — and winning — protections for America’s public lands for over a century. We understand that the value of a place isn’t expressed in dollars or acres, but in the lives those places have touched. Nothing brings people together like a national park.
Like the national parks themselves, park landscapes are unique. While surrounding lands are often already public lands, many are privately owned or are Tribal lands. Just as a “30 by 30” plan should connect parks and their landscapes, it must also connect all these stakeholders to collaboratively determine how best to protect and use the lands.
Private lands can be protected through a variety of cooperative management plans, and the Land and Water Conservation Fund even allows landowners to sell their lands at fair market value for conservation or inclusion in national parks. Tribal lands can and must be protected according to the needs and wishes of Tribal communities to protect against the industrial development that has often run roughshod over sacred lands and irreplaceable cultural resources. And at every step, the National Park Service must bring its century of expertise to the table as a full cooperating agency.
Instead of piecemeal protections and fragmented fights, President Biden’s “30 by 30” plan could bring together an enormous coalition founded upon an appreciation for the value of each and every one of America’s national parks. By building outward from places people know, love and value, this “30 by 30” plan can make enormous strides in protecting every place on Earth from the impacts of climate change. We can protect our common ground, together.
President Biden’s executive order is a strong start, and national park lovers across the country are looking forward to working with his administration to protect more of America’s precious public lands — starting with national parks.
Theresa Pierno is the president and CEO for National Parks Conservation Association. For over 100 years, the nonpartisan National Parks Conservation Association has been the leading voice in safeguarding our national parks.
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