While the COVID-19 pandemic seems to be on the retreat, our time spent at home has demonstrated just how important the great outdoors are to Americans. After spending months in lockdown, a road trip to a national park — or even a hike through a local park — feels like a much needed physical, emotional, and spiritual escape.
The National Park System welcomed more than 327 million visitors to over 400 sites in 2019. We are told that 2021 visitation will substantially exceed that number. Yellowstone National Park, for example, will almost certainly see half their annual visitation in just three months of summer.
Our national parks are clearly a very important part of our efforts to find a new normal.
Considering all this, President Joe Biden’s ambitious America the Beautiful Plan — which sets a goal to not only protect 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030 but to increase access to outdoor recreation opportunities for all Americans — could not have come at a better time.
I served the National Park Service for forty years and I have seen the impacts of climate change at parks across the country. Here in Montana, Glacier National Park is on the frontlines of the climate crisis. The park is warming at nearly two times the global average. While melting glaciers are the most obvious example of the impacts of climate change, park wildlife is struggling with changing habitat while human visitors are contending with hotter weather and greater risk of wildfire. Irreplaceable natural and cultural resources are at risk. The president’s plan promises to combat some of the most harmful impacts of our changing climate.
Following my career with the NPS I’ve lived in Montana for over 15 years. Both work and retirement experiences have given me a firsthand look at how much Montanans value their public lands, especially our national parks. So I’m thrilled to see that on the heels of the America the Beautiful Plan, the NPS has committed to the distribution of $150 million in funding to local communities through the Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership Program. This program will help communities with the greatest needs to create new urban parks closer to home and breathe life into existing outdoor spaces so more people can spend more time outdoors.
Our national parks and the NPS programs that support them are vital to the health of our country. National parks are economic engines that create jobs and support neighboring communities. They provide citizens of Montana, the country, and the world with places to seek adventure or peace. We must ensure that our national parks are not only protected and preserved for future generations, but accessible to all Americans today. And President Biden’s America the Beautiful plan is an important step forward to achieving both goals.
Doug Morris served in the National Park Service for forty years. He is a member of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks and lives in Victor.