The U.S. has over 400 national parks across the country, which host a combined total to 330 million curious visitors every year. National parks have clear economic benefits for national and local economies, yet they also have important benefits for the environment within and outside of their borders. If you thought national parks were just a common place to visit for recreational activities, you might want to think again as parks are incredibly beneficial to the environment. Here are some reasons why national parks are great for the environment.
Biodiversity like nowhere else
National parks are often designated to protect threatened or unique ecosystems and geography. It is no surprise that parks are some of the most biodiverse places in the U.S. with strict laws about hunting, fishing and development— parks are ultimately a safe haven for threatened species.
Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming is one of the only places where you can see large numbers of bison and gray wolves, two species that were critically endangered.
By the numbers, Hawaii’s tropical parks contain the most endangered species of all national parks. At the top of the list, Maui’s Haleakala National Park is home to 103 endangered species.
Related: Almost all U.S. national parks have polluted air
Parks help power america
Many national parks are also protectors of the nation’s vital energy and water sources. The Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park supplies water to over 3 million people in 29 cities in the San Francisco Bay Area. Many other parks shelter the sources of natural drinking water by way of lakes, rivers and springs. Others protect mighty rivers that generate hydro-powered electricity. There is also a controversial idea to use Yellowstone National Park’s supervolcano as a source of geothermal power.
An unbreakable connection to nature
Studies show that spending time in nature is good for your physical and mental health. Nature encourages physical activity, recreation and tranquility, and has even been shown to reduce depression. National parks provide people with natural spaces to visit and connect with nature. This is particularly important for the 98 million Americans who live in urban areas with limited relationships with nature. Ideally, even after visitors leave the parks, they have a renewed respect for the environment that impacts day-to-day activities like remembering to recycle and refusing to litter.
Parks reduce natural disasters
National parks contain forested areas that not only protect water sources, they also help stabilize the surrounding land. This can save lives and infrastructure by preventing landslides, avalanches and erosion. These areas also reduce floods by keeping natural river basins intact and preserving wetlands. Finally, protected habitats along the coast, like mangroves and coral reefs, reduce flooding, sea level rise and storm surge and protect beaches from erosion.
Parks spur the economy
With over 300 million visitors, it’s no wonder that national parks also have immense economic benefits to the entire country. This benefit has helped park advocates argue for continued funding, despite current efforts to shut down and sell off national land. According to a study during the Obama administration, every $1 dollar invested in parks by taxpayers equals a $10 return to the U.S. economy.
Parks bring visitors from all over the country— and the world— to small rural communities that otherwise would never see the same economic activity. These “gateway” communities benefit through jobs in hotels, restaurants, gift shops and within the park as rangers and tour guides. In 2015, 4 million visitors at Yellowstone National Park generated nearly $500 million dollars in spending, leading to 7,735 jobs and $225 million in income for workers. Throughout the country, national parks provide 306,000 direct jobs within the parks.
Use this data visualization tool to calculate the economic benefit of your favorite national park.
Overtourism takes its toll
While the parks have invaluable environmental benefits and demonstrable economic benefits, the visitor traffic through vulnerable and protected ecosystems has had an impact. Furthermore, scientists predict that climate change may drastically change the parks altogether. Yellowstone National Park, for example, is expected to see increased fires and invasive species.
Related: Senate approves major public lands bill
“Our National Parks are being loved to death. As visitor rates continue at a high level, we must prioritize much-needed deferred maintenance including aging facilities, roads and other critical infrastructure,” said U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke.
Tips for how to be a responsible park visitor
Here are a few tips to help make you more aware of the importance of being a responsible park visitor:
- Read about the indigenous people who used to or continue to live in the area. Understand the history of how their land and sacred places forcibly became national parks.
- Bring a water bottle and use designated refilling stations instead of buying plastic bottles.
- Don’t litter– even organic waste like banana skins do not belong in these ecosystems even though they will decompose.
- “Leave no trace” also means don’t touch or take wildlife– don’t pick flowers and teach children and friends to do the same.
- Follow fire safety rules, including information about where and when you can or cannot build fires and whether or not you are allowed to collect wood. Read up about general fire safety tips before visiting.
- Never feed wild animals, including birds.
- Always read and follow signs– do not walk in prohibited areas. It could mean that a fragile plant ecosystem has taken hundreds of years to grow just a few centimeters, or it could mean the path is not safe.
- Always obtain any required permits before doing activities like backpacking.
- Use official guides for dangerous activities like canyoneering or white water rafting.
- Do not vandalize monuments, trees, benches or other infrastructure.
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