What’s ailing America’s national parks?

National Parks Service

Tom Kiernan, president of the National Parks Conservation Association, said the parks (such as Glacier National Park in Montana, pictured) are “not in the best of health.” The NPCA released a report Tuesday that show the parks face serious threats to natural and cultural resources.

As president of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), Tom Kiernan is, not surprisingly, a fan of Ken Burns’ documentary, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” but he’d like to add an addendum.

“The national parks are America’s best idea,” he said, “but they’re not in the best of health.” In fact, according to an NPCA report out Tuesday, many face serious threats to their natural and cultural resources.

Conducted by NPCA’s Center for Park Research, the report encompasses 10 years of research gathered at 80 of the 394 units in the national park system. Among the findings:

  • Of 61 parks assessed for the condition of their natural resources, 95 percent showed the disappearance of at least one wildlife or plant species.
  • Of 77 parks assessed for the condition of their cultural resources, 91 percent were found to be in “fair” or “poor” condition.
  • More than half of the parks studied had overall air quality conditions that were rated “fair,” “poor” or “critical.” At parks such as the Grand Canyon and Great Smoky Mountains, the issue goes beyond diminished visibility of scenic vistas: “On some days, it’s unhealthy for visitors to hike in the parks according to federal air-quality standards,” said Kiernan.

Despite the report’s dire findings, Kiernan also points out that there are success stories in which declines have been reversed due to collaborative conservation efforts. At Channel Islands National Park, for example, park staffers and volunteers have removed exotic plants and reintroduced native species in an effort to restore the park’s natural balance.

“The park is returning to its former health and becoming a wonderful destination,” said Kiernan, who sees the project’s success as a model for future efforts. “When we give the Park Service and its partner organizations funding and leadership, we can restore and enhance our national parks.”

One such effort is the National Parks Project, sponsored by Nature Valley, the granola-bar company, now in its second year. This year, the company has pledged $400,000 to support restoration projects surrounding six parks, plus up to another $100,000 based on retail sales.

The projects are indicative of both the diversity of America’s national parks and the myriad challenges they face. From trail construction in Acadia to restoring pronghorn migration routes in Yellowstone, “they’re a small way to make sure they’re still there for years to come,” said Nature Valley marketing manager Scott Baldwin.

For Keirnan, such collaborative efforts serve a two-fold purpose: to counter the threats facing the national park system and to ensure the parks remain worthwhile destinations for travelers.

“The parks are here for one reason — because Americans stood up and said they wanted them protected,” he said. “It’s like going to the doctor and being told you’ve got a serious illness but that there’s a proven cure.

“Now is the time to apply it.”

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Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.

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