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(NEW YORK) – Creating and enjoying the country’s national parks has become an American pastime a century and a half after the famous Yellowstone National Park was established in Wyoming.

But the survival of the parks – and the landscapes and ecosystems they house – is precarious as global warming continues and visitors encroach on natural settings.

The United States was the first country to take note of the abundance of natural wonders and say, “It’s something that we value as a society, that we want to preserve and that we want to share,” said Kathy Kupper, National Parks Spokesperson. Service, told ABC News. Before the creation of government-funded land, these spaces were often privately owned and only accessible to the owner, she said.

“It’s very democratic, and its idea of ​​doing our best and opening it up to all citizens of the world to come and enjoy the inspiration, the education, the recreation available on these public lands,” said Kupper.

National parks are created either by an act of Congress or by presidential proclamation. While sites have only been downgraded a few times in history, usually it is because there has been an impact on the park which has removed its importance, or it has been transferred to a another entity, like the state, that will preserve it, says Kuper.

A national and global movement has taken place in the 150 years since the founding of Yellowstone in 1872. Today there are 423 national parks in the United States – with at least one in every state – and hundreds of countries have themselves established national park systems, often using the NPS as an example and sending representatives to the United States to learn how to develop and maintain them, Kupper said.

“My favorite thing about the National Park Service and its mission is that it’s very selfless in nature,” said Riley Mahoney, founder of The Parks Expert, a travel guide for national parks, at ABC News. “It was not for monetary gain. It was not out of greed, but for future generations.”

This is why the preservation of national parks is so important:

They are so important for research and education

Climate change and other environmental factors are already affecting the natural landscape of national parks.

The redwoods of Redwood National Forest are at greater risk than ever from devastating wildfires. Glaciers and sea ice are deteriorating so rapidly in Alaska’s Denali National Park that sled dogs are no longer able to complete their long runs. Swamp waters in the Everglades are rising as melting ice raises sea levels around the world, and Joshua Tree National Park, nestled near the Colorado Desert and Mojave Desert, will likely lose all its iconic Joshua trees by 2070 due to continued megadrought.

The 85 million total acres of national parks are increasingly subject to environmental and human impacts that threaten the health of wildlife and their habitats, according to the National Park Foundation. They are also becoming increasingly crucial to understanding environmental effects resulting from factors such as human encroachment and global warming.

Last year, researchers described America’s national parks as the world’s “living laboratories” in a study published in the Conservation Biology Society.

Kupper compared the hundreds of national parks to the “largest university system in the country, with 423 branch campuses”. They “tell the story of America,” she said.

Mahoney agreed, saying each park has a different lesson to impart to its visitors, whether it’s teaching them the importance of national resources for historic landmarks such as the Liberty Bell, the Constitution and the Declaration Theater in Philadelphia, she said.

“Whether you like history, geology or volcanoes, there’s so much to learn and inspire,” Kupper said. “You can go to famous inventors or statesmen.”

In addition, the parks serve as educational tools for each other. Sister parks, such as several national parks in Hawaii that contain volcanoes, will often team up to learn from each other and help each other with aspects of protection and conservation, Kupper said.

However, parkland research, which is critical to assessing research needs and planning for the future, has not been nationally inventoried and has largely focused on the North Wooded Mountains ecoregion. West, according to the 2021 study.

We preserve history as well as the future

Unique origin stories are tied to the birth of many national parks.

“Each of the sites has a really deep story of its significance and why it was created and why it’s part of the National Park Service,” Kupper said.

In 1908, five years after visiting the Grand Canyon, President Theodore Roosevelt declared the Grand Canyon a national monument – a power granted to him as president under the American Antiquities Act of 1906. The status of the reserve as a national park became complete in 1918.

For decades, Sir Lancelot Garfield Jones had resisted the efforts of South Florida developers offering him millions of dollars to turn his family’s land into a vacationer’s paradise. Finally, in 1970, Lancelot and his sister-in-law sold their share of over 277 acres that would become Biscayne Bay State Park to the National Park Service for $1.2 million.

“You had someone who, under intense pressure to make money from their land, refused,” Kupper said. “He saw the value in it and wanted to share with the public, not expand on it.”

The prolific Rockefeller family was also involved in the creation of many national parks.

“JD Rockefeller was actually a big supporter of national parks and, through his philanthropy, parks like Shenandoah, the Great Smoky Mountains, Grand Teton, Acadia [and] Redwoods were established,” Kupper said. “His son, Laurance Rockefeller, continued that tradition with Virgin Islands National Park and Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller State Park, where he lived and spoke about his conservation efforts. .”

There is something for every taste

According to experts, you don’t have to consider yourself an “outdoor enthusiast” to find a national park you like.

Additionally, the most visited national parks are surprisingly those near urban areas, as they are the most accessible, Kupper said.

“They’re closer than people think,” Kupper said. “You don’t have to plan a week-long getaway to visit a national park. You can go out for a few hours and go to a closer park and enjoy the benefits of spending time in nature.”

While the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Zion and Acadia tend to be the go-to destinations for many national park enthusiasts, the NPS encourages visitors to consider activities in other regions, such as hiking six months on the Appalachian Trail, exploring a trail walk to see alligators up close in the Everglades, or researching the best spots to enjoy certain activities like picnicking, reading a book, or rock climbing or hiking. white water rafting.

“We always say there’s something for everyone in the national park,” Kupper said. “We have something for really all interests and abilities.”

Other areas have been declared national parks by Congress, including historic sites, battlefields, military parks, shores of lakes and seas, she said.

For example, people can flock to Golden Gate National Park in San Francisco to see the Rosie the Riveter Monument, where they can learn about the history of how women and people of color have responded to World War II, rather than embarking on a physically demanding hike, Mahoney said.

Visitors should be careful while marveling at the wonder

Visitor numbers to national parks have skyrocketed in recent years as the pandemic has taken hold around the world and people have pledged to spend their free time outdoors in order to avoid spreading the virus. virus.

The benefits of spending time outdoors amid the demands of the modern world come as no surprise, Kupper said, adding, “Nature is therapy.”

Last year saw a record 4.86 million visits to Yellowstone alone, and a record number of people also visited Zion National Park in Utah.

But while the constant flow of tourists may be good for surrounding businesses, it could jeopardize the very nature they are there to see – as well as themselves.

Visitors often feed the animals, get too close for a selfie or unnecessarily try to help the animals, which are in their natural habitat.

In 2016, a bison calf in Yellowstone was euthanized after visitors thought it looked cold and put it in the trunk of their car in an effort to help. The bison was later rejected by his herd and would not have survived if returned to the wild, Kupper said.

In 2019, a 9-year-old girl was thrown into the air by a bison in Yellowstone, and in 2020, a 72-year-old woman was gored multiple times after coming within 10 feet of a bison.

“Even if people see animals and feel like feeding them, petting them, or taking a selfie with them, it may not end well for the visitor, and it never ends well for the visitor. animal,” Kupper said. mentioned.

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