U.S. National Parks Striving for Carbon Neutrality: Implications for Visitors

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Carbon Neutrality in U.S. National Parks

Visitors are urged to utilize green strategies such as nighttime visits and complimentary public transport by the National Park Service (NPS) as part of their efforts to lower carbon emissions.

In the early 21st century, the NPS initiated a direct approach to combat its environmental footprint with its inaugural Green Parks Plan. This initiative aimed to address broad concerns like transforming national parks into carbon-neutral spaces, identifying sources of park emissions, and determining the primary contributors to the parks’ significant carbon emissions.

Unsurprisingly, visitors turned out to be the chief culprits.

At Great Smoky Mountains National Park, emissions from guest transportation, which constituted the park’s primary source of greenhouse gases, surpassed park operations by 157 times. At Everglades, vehicular and watercraft usage by tourists made up 86 percent of mobile combustion, the largest sector for emissions generation.

The NPS is presently implementing the third Green Parks Plan, launched in early 2023. This plan is the most comprehensive yet, with ambitious objectives such as minimizing greenhouse gas emissions to near-zero, eradicating landfill waste, and investing in renewable energy. However, the reality remains: we need to do more to protect these delicate ecosystems.

“It’s crucial to acknowledge that the national parks are a public asset and that people significantly impact our natural resources,” notes NPS spokesperson Dave Barak. He asserts that visitor cooperation is critical for effective sustainability measures within parks. Working in concert, he adds, “will give NPS far greater success in preserving and protecting these natural wonders than we could ever achieve without [visitor] support.”

As the quintessential American road trip destinations, many national parks are now gradually transitioning towards eco-friendly practices. Here are some national parks leading the charge in innovative climate initiatives. Visitors can contribute simply by foregoing the car rental option.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Pollution caused by humans, such as burning fossil fuels and excessive traffic, has resulted in the Smoky Mountain views at this widely visited national park becoming foggy, reducing visibility from 93 miles to 25 miles. To mitigate congestion, the park has collaborated with seven local shuttle firms.

Lake Superior Parks

In January 2023, the National Parks of Lake Superior Foundation announced that all five park units surrounding America’s largest lake would be going carbon-free. This includes transitioning to electric equipment and transportation, investing in solar and battery energy storage systems (BESS), and upgrading all buildings to energy-efficient standards.

Alaska Parks

Climate change is significantly altering Alaska’s landscape: a landslide at Denali National Park, induced by permafrost thaw, has shortened the park’s 92-mile road by half. To contribute to the parks’ sustainability goals, visitors are encouraged to participate in immersive climate-change education programs.

Everglades National Park

Following successive hurricanes in 2005 and 2007, Everglades National Park had to adjust its infrastructure to become more climate-resilient. Visitors can contribute to this resilience by opting for the Homestead Trolley, which provides free entrance into Everglades and Biscayne National Parks and runs from November to April.

Grand Canyon and Grand Canyon West

Grand Canyon West is shifting to 100% solar energy, and Grand Canyon National Park is making significant strides in innovation. Visitors can cycle into the park via the Grand Canyon Greenway Trail and enjoy park facilities without contributing to long entrance queues.

Colorado Parks

In Colorado, the fight for a greener world has a unique twist, focusing on the preservation of dark skies. Five national parks and monuments in the state have been designated as International Dark Sky parks, where light pollution is controlled. This effort aims to decrease daytime visitation and educate visitors on the importance of dark skies to us, wildlife, and our planet.

Writer and photographer Jacqueline Kehoe, based in the Midwest, partnered with local land management agencies to create National Geographic’s Trails Illustrated maps. These maps highlight the best places for outdoor activities across North America. Find her on Instagram.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Carbon Neutrality in U.S. National Parks

What efforts are U.S. National Parks making towards achieving carbon neutrality?

U.S. National Parks are taking proactive steps to reduce their carbon footprint, including focusing on visitor-induced carbon emissions, such as those from transportation. They have introduced measures like free public transportation, encouraging visits at night, and promoting “silent adventures”. They are also making significant investments in renewable energy and striving towards zero landfill waste.

How can visitors contribute to the goal of carbon neutrality in National Parks?

Visitors can contribute significantly by adopting the green initiatives proposed by the parks. These include using free public transportation, reducing reliance on rental cars, participating in the “silent adventures”, and supporting renewable energy initiatives. The National Parks Service emphasizes that visitor cooperation is vital in achieving their environmental goals.

What is the Green Parks Plan by the National Park Service?

The Green Parks Plan is an initiative by the National Park Service to address environmental impacts within the parks. Its goals include reducing greenhouse gas emissions to near zero, eliminating landfill waste, and investing in renewable energy. As of early 2023, it is in its third iteration and is the most comprehensive version to date.

How is Great Smoky Mountains National Park addressing the issue of pollution?

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is working to reduce pollution and congestion by partnering with local shuttle companies. This initiative offers round-trip transfers to popular spots within the park, eliminating the need for visitors to drive and idle in traffic. Additionally, parking tag revenue from solar-powered vending machines is used for park improvements.

What are some examples of climate initiatives in other National Parks?

Examples of climate initiatives in other parks include Lake Superior parks’ transition to electric equipment and transport, Alaska parks’ zero-landfill goals and climate-change education programs, Grand Canyon West’s solar energy field and battery storage system, and Colorado parks’ regulation of light pollution to preserve dark skies.

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Julia N. August 4, 2023 - 7:54 pm

Love this!!! Always try to be green when I visit the parks. Glad to see the park service doing the same. Keep up the good work!

Ben P. August 5, 2023 - 3:20 am

Why did this not happen sooner???!! Too much damage done already. But better late then never i guess…

Kimberly S. August 5, 2023 - 5:28 am

I love the dark sky initiative. never realized how much we lose with all that light pollution. gonna start planning my nighttime visits now!

Samuel H. August 5, 2023 - 8:30 am

Man this is awesome! Great to see the parks making moves towards being green. Just hope visitors can do their part too.

Lizzy T. August 5, 2023 - 11:11 am

im all for the enviroment and love visiting the parks but what about accessibility for those who cant use the shuttles or hike? Just a thought.

George M. August 5, 2023 - 11:32 am

Its great to see efforts towards sustainability but what about all the other pollution sources? We need a bigger movement, not just in parks.


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