The Threat to Our National Parks
“There is nothing so American as our national parks. The scenery and the wildlife are native. The fundamental idea behind the parks is native. It is, in brief, that the country belongs to the people, that it is in process of making for the enrichment of the lives of all of us. The parks stand as the outward symbol of the great human principle."
-President Franklin D. Roosevelt
The year is 1967. Diane, 13, is crowded aboard a large burgundy Ford station wagon with her parents, five siblings, and everything they will need for the next three weeks. Their food is carelessly jammed behind the seats, while the tent and camping supplies have been neatly organized, atop their homemade wooden car rack. They head out across an open highway, a wild array of dangling limbs protruding from wide open windows, giving the burgundy station wagon an octopus-like expression as it cruises past.
Once they enter Yellowstone National Park, their imaginations run wild. Quietly they consider the animals they might meet, the views they will carelessly dance through, and the conversations they will encounter with their siblings over a hot dinner and a warm fire. This is what Diane remembers most from her childhood, the big family vacation to Yellowstone National Park.
“It was one of our most memorable adventures as a family.”
There is a pause and a sigh as she recollects, “we were all so excited to camp and play; to be kids really. It was a way of connecting, not only with family but with our country.”
She’s not alone. This was a common dream, the classic family vacation out on the road. It was this concept that gave our national parks their start. They were preserved in order to celebrate the many natural wonders of this country.
Today, the parks are more popular than they’ve ever been. There are currently 417 national park units, comprised of recreational areas, monuments, trails, seashores, and lakeshores. They can be found in all 50 states, encompassing more than 84 million acres, and are visited by approximately 300 million people every year.
And they require protection now more than ever. To better understand the why, let’s quickly review their history.
The Yellowstone Act of 1872 was signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant. It announced Yellowstone as the first public park to be protected and governed under the exclusive control of the Secretary of the Interior. This Act then inspired a worldwide movement of national park preservation.
Theodore Roosevelt was then successful in creating the US Forest Service, as well as establishing 150 National Forests, 4 national game preserves, 5 national parks, and 18 national monuments. He did all of this by signing The Antiquities Act in 1906. By the end of his presidency, he had successfully protected 230 acres of land under government conservation.
In 1916, a new branch of the US Department of Interior, The National Park Service, was established and then protected under The Organic Act, signed by President Woodrow Wilson. This Act was intended to “conserve the scenery, natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and…leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
This was the start of it all, the legislation that then led to Yellowstone, The Grand Canyon, Joshua Tree, Kings Canyon, Yosemite, and many more. For the most part, park funding and protections have consistently climbed alongside their popularity. However, there is one exception: in 2016 a new presidential administration began mapping out a new direction for our national parks.
As the Trump administration settled in, the budget for our National Parks was slashed 17 percent despite record-breaking crowds of 331 million visitors in 2017. The budget cuts were essentially just staffing cuts, with everyone from park rangers to researchers, wildlife biologists, botanists, and trail workers laid off across the country.
In addition to the cuts, in March 2017, oil and gas drilling rights were granted in over 40 of our parks. In June the “clean water rule,” a rule providing protections to streams, wetlands, and waterways was repealed. In December, two of Utah’s National Monuments, Bears Ears National Monument and the Grand Staircase-Escalante were both cut by nearly two million acres in order to make way for the drilling of oil and gas.
These budget cuts represented the largest rollback to protected land in US history.
In 2018, nearly all members of the National Park System Advisory Board abruptly resigned, leaving the federal government without a functioning body. Several lawsuits have also since been filed, specifically in protection of the American Antiquities Act, which "authorizes the President to protect landmarks, structures, and objects of historic or scientific interest by designating them as National Monuments.” These lawsuits were filed in order to expand on the legislative language regarding the President, placing limits on his power to then rescind on monuments that have already been deemed for protection.
This leads us to 2019 and the new fiscal 2020 budget proposal, released on March 11, where the funding for the Interior Department and its National Park Service bureau was slashed by another 14 percent. The new budget contained cuts on nearly every level: operations were cut by $64.2 million, construction by $113.4 million and land acquisition and state assistance by $176.1 million. The total reduction in aid for park service totaled $460.4 million.
The cuts represent a non-traditional approach to our national parks and alongside the new reduced budget are continued efforts to rollback environmental protections, such as the National Environmental Policy Act.
John Garder, Senior Director for the National Parks Conservation Association told National Parks Traveler, “The president’s budget proposal once again demonstrates that the administration is actively working to undermine our National Parks and the environment on which they depend. National Parks draw millions of visitors every year, and need more resources, not less. Choking off funding for staff who protect our national parks puts our country’s natural, cultural and historical heritage at risk.”
What’s more, the new proposed budget cuts were announced right after the government shutdown, which posed a great loss in revenue to the parks.
“I am proud to shutdown the government for border security,” Trump stated in retribution of his wall in a meeting with then incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on Dec. 11, 2018. “If we don’t get what we want, one way or the other, I will shut down the government.”
The shutdown lasted thirty-five days, from December 22, 2018 to January 25, 2019, the longest the U.S has ever experienced. During that time, the parks were forced to close and without their normal entrance fees, they lost approximately $400,000 in revenue per day. With the $11 billion that had already accrued in maintenance backlogs, our parks are now in over their heads.
The 35-day shutdown wreaked havoc on their budgets and maintenance costs. Employees were sparse, pit toilets had reached capacity and trash overflow was piled throughout the land. Rules were carelessly broken as individuals were caught camping in restricted areas, three deaths were reported, and some areas were damaged beyond repair. Two of Joshua Tree’s oldest trees were chopped down by patrons, to create new roads for themselves. When the government shut down, the on-duty officers left it up to the parks to clean up the mess themselves. There was no additional aid, no additional communication, and no further funding provided.
As the government continues to cut funding and aid, the parks are being forced to turn to alternative partners for funding.
Savannah Boiano, the executive director for Sequoia Parks Conservancy (SPC), confirmed that her company “funds and enables projects and programs that protect, preserve, and provide access to the natural resources of the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.”
She also said that “during the shutdown, the SPC had a loss of $120,000 in revenue, temporarily laid off 11 workers, and shuttered four facilities... it not only hurts on a financial level but an altruistic one.”
There is no doubt, this administration is making it incredibly challenging for the parks to survive, as even with their alternative funding, volunteer programs, and partnerships, these parks heavily rely on the government.
As we approach a new presidential election in 2020, and as we watch the numerous politicians make their various pitches towards policy, this issue is an important issue to keep in mind.
Preserving our land is clearly an important American tradition. In fact, Diane, now at the wise age of 67, continues to maintain her family’s tradition of visiting the Parks and breaking bread in the shadow of our country's monuments.
“I’m personally offended by the struggle our parks are facing today, so I donate and volunteer whenever I can,” she said, “but it’s ironic to me that the government involved in protecting these parks, now poses the greatest threat to them.”
I was the only car to take the next exit.
I was greeted by a large wooden sign covered in peeling blue and black paint that read “Welcome to Salton City Beach.” This was followed by arrows pointing to the bizarre town that stood alone in the middle of the desert.
Salton City used to be a luxurious resort located just an hour away from the U.S.-Mexico border - today it’s much different.
“This place looks like a ghost town,” I said to my boyfriend, Josue.
The neighborhood was made up of old, rundown trailer homes, which gave it an eerie vibe. Not one grocery story. Not one post office. In fact, we didn’t encounter a single person as my car weaved through the narrow, winding streets.
The Salton Sea, which was initially intended to bring water to the Imperial Valley, a valley known for rich agriculture, was derived from the Colorado River. But the passage of water was stopped due to an overflow, unintentionally creating a 40-mile-long lake known as the Salton Sea, the largest lake in California.
When we reached the beach, large houses with giant decks and wooden shutters sat parallel to the water, giving the owners an alluring view of the water and mountains that stood far beyond the sea. As I got out from the car, the smell of salt overwhelmed me and that’s when I realized why it was called Salton City.
“It looks like snow,” said Josue.
Sitting at only 125 feet above sea level, Salton City would most likely never know snow, but the sand that surrounded the sea gave a convincing illusion of it.
As we looked onto the beach, the water was a nice shade of blue while seagulls squawked as they flew overhead. Everything about the area seemed to be what a person would envision when thinking of a beach in Southern California.
Except there were no people, and, apparently, no fish in the sea.
In the 1950s and 60s, when people thought of California, Salton City Beach would be one of the first places that came to mind. Fishermen were attracted to the large amount of fish populating the lake, while recreational boating brought over a million vacationers each year. The city was also known for celebrity visits, ranging from Frank Sinatra to Dwight Eisenhower.
Soon after that, it became too saline to inhabit saltwater fish. In 1986, the California Fish and Game Commission declared the sea too contaminated for wildlife and urged people to refrain from eating fish caught from the sea.
Tourism and vacationing at Salton City Beach came to a sudden halt, resulting in the quality of the town beginning to diminish, a process that the town never recovered from.
As I walked up and down the salty sand, Josue took out his drone to take pictures of the sea from a bird’s-eye view. Only then did we realize the blue-colored water was just a reflection of the blue sky above. The actual color of the water was more of a deep, murky green, turning pitch black in other areas. Thick strips of foam and algae lined the majority of the sea and when we listened close enough, a bubbling sound came from the water.
Feeling queasy, I stepped away from the water. Moments later, we noticed a car going from house to house. This was evidence of life in the town. I watched the car, full of curiosity. As peculiar at it seemed, the person driving the car was delivering mail from house to house, but it was not in a United States Postal Service vehicle.
“Can this town get any weirder?” Josue said as he continued to take photos.
The town must have heard that statement and took it as a challenge. After the mysterious mailman finished delivering mail to the few surrounding houses, piano music began playing from one of them. Hearing it, we couldn’t help but make up murder scenarios.
“The murderer would just throw us in the black water and we’d never be found,” I told Josue.
Plans to pipe water from other places or build dams have been proposed by politicians and government organizations to try and save the Salton Sea since the 1970s, but none have come to fruition.
Today, a geyser threatens the Salton Sea and surrounding areas, according to a report titled “Geyser Emergency Project” released by the Imperial County Public Health Department. The geyser emerged from old gasses that were released by earthquakes over time and continue to grow in circumference every day. Plans to immobilize the geyser are still being sorted out, but in the meantime, nearby railroads have chosen to relocate, citing fears of being swallowed up by the monstrous geyser.
Despite its ghost-town vibe, graffiti-covered walls and hardly any evidence of human life, the city has a population of over 3,000 residents, although truth be told, it seems to be populated with more birds than people, birds that are unaware of the toxicity of the water.
As we packed up into my car and drove towards the highway we noticed the backside of a large wooden sign.
Through peeling paint, it read “Come Back Soon.”
The California black bear is the species of bear on the state flag, and has been extinct since 1924. With all this talk of extinction, de-extinction also becomes a part of the conversation.
Through genetic engineering, cloning and selective breeding, it’s hypothetically possible to bring back an extinct species. However, the problem is that in the time the species has gone extinct, its environment and ecosystem may have changed drastically and even if brought back it could just become endangered again.
Dr. Paula Schiffman, a professor at CSUN, believes “with the amount of time and money we would be investing into bringing back an extinct species, we may as well use that same energy to conserve the habitats and species we have right now.”
The first step to saving these endangered species, she added, is to become familiar with our environment and to appreciate nature in Southern California. “People believe that we are distant from nature, as they typically go from home to school to work, but they have no idea how close we really are to nature and how important it is to the ecosystem,” Schiffman said.
Climate change continues to affect weather worldwide and species of wildlife. In California alone, there are 305 species listed under the Endangered Species Act; 222 of these are endangered, and 83 of these are classified as threatened, to be endangered, according to Ballotpedia.
There are a number of reasons why wildlife is disappearing, with some of the most apparent ones being habitat destruction, urbanization and agriculture which add to climate change.
California has a very unique ecosystem. It belongs to the Mediterranean ecosystem, which can only be found in four other parts of the world: the Mediterranean region, Central Chile, the Cape Region of South Africa, and Southern and Western Australia. The characteristics that make up the Mediterranean ecosystem are bleak, wet winters and hot, dry summers.
The organisms that have evolved in these conditions cannot survive in any other parts of the world, so it would not be feasible to take organisms from California’s ecosystem and place them in other Mediterranean climates, without knowing what could go wrong to the native species.
The giant kangaroo rat is the largest of more than 20 species of kangaroo rats. The species is native to California and is named because of its hind legs, which help them hop. The giant kangaroo rat inhabits the San Joaquin Valley, from Kern to Merced Counties. The species has a number of predators which include owls, snakes, badgers and foxes. However, the main threat the species faces is habitat loss from agriculture. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Reserve, “Only about 2 percent of the species' original habitat remain.”
Kangaroo rats also have the ability to survive without water. They eat mostly seeds, but also insects and plants. If the giant kangaroo rat was to go extinct, it would limit the seeds the species spreads, making the vegetation more sparse. Although the species is not the sole prey of its predators, the loss of the giant kangaroo rat would also lessen the amount of its natural predators.
Franklin’s bumblebee is considered to be one of the most narrowly distributed bumblebee species. It is currently critically endangered. Its native habitat is a 70 to 190 mile span from Northern California to Southern Oregon, but has not been seen since 2006. This species of bumblebee is responsible for pollinating a number of wildflowers, which include lupine, horsemint and the official state flower of California, the poppy.
The bumblebee faces a number of threats. Among them are agriculture, invasive species, diseases and pollution. The species is in need of habitat protection and conversation, as well as legislation. According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, “There are currently no conservation measures in place to protect B. Franklini.”
The largest North American land bird, the California condor, became extinct in the wild in 1987. All remaining wild individuals of the species were gathered and have since been reintroduced into the wild. Currently there are 106 mature individuals that are able to reproduce, allowing the current population to increase, and about 231 overall, according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
As of now, the California condor is critically endangered, but no longer extinct. The species has been introduced to habitats in New Mexico, California and Utah. The California condor has one of the longest lifespans of a bird, living up to 60 years. This species is a scavenger, which eats mostly carrion.
In its early stages of existence, the California condor is thought to have eaten the carcasses of Megafauna, or large animals. The existence of Megafauna is now extinct in North America, which may have a hand in the decline of the California condor.
Condors typically live in shrublands, rocky cliffs and coniferous forests. They faced many dangers when nearing extinction, including lead poisoning, hunting and poaching, and habitat destruction. The lead poisoning was due to the lead shots hunters used, while the poaching was based off misinformation. Cattlers would witness condors feasting on the carcasses of their dead livestock and believed that the birds were responsible. This belief was so widespread that the reintroduction of the species was challenged by cattle farmers.
In 1981 there was a decline in population, only 22 of the birds were left in the wild. Two years later, eggs were taken from nests in order to further captive breeding efforts. The Los Angeles and San Diego Zoos were integral to the efforts in reintroducing the species back into the wild.
“Climate change is this universal emergency that we cannot even imagine how bad it is going to be,” said Dr. Schiffman. “It takes a lot for a climate event to affect us human beings because we are not very sensitive organisms. But in future generations people will think, ‘whoa why didn’t we think we have to change now’ when they think about the past.”
26.2: A photo essay
Twenty six point two miles.
Julio Diaz decided to run that distance on Sunday, March 24, 2019.
It was 4:00 a.m. when he woke up to start his day. The drive from his home in Hollywood, CA to Dodger Stadium was just seven miles, a short car ride compared to the distance he covered through the city of Los Angeles later that morning.
As he stepped out from the car to head to the stadium, the crisp air overtook his body with chills. The temperature was a brisk 56 degrees with grey, puffy clouds overhead and the sun still hidden beneath the horizon.
Nerves started to kick in as the racers began to line up at the starting line.
“Even though this is my fifth marathon, I still get nervous. I mean, anything could happen,” Diaz said before the race began.
After being packed like sardines up to the front line, the sea of racers cheered with excitement as they were about to embark on the physically and mentally draining battle that they all prepared for.
Then, BANG! The racers set off on their own individual war into the race abyss known as the L.A. marathon.
Seeing the streets of L.A. closed is an experience that not many get to witness. On any other day, these streets would be filled with people traveling or going about their daily lives, but on this day, the runners ran the city.
“It’s exciting running through the city with all the streets closed off because you get a better look at things,” Diaz said. “The race slows the pace down of everyday life.”
Support from the community consisted of volunteers handing out water and fruit to people. Some held out signs of encouragement, while others used their voice to show support. All in all, the cheers helped the racers get to the finish line with smiles on their faces.
Some may ask why people want to do this. Why put your body through this physical test? Why spend all this time training? Why, why, why?
For Julio Ruiz, he runs to overcome challenges in his life.
“Running is like life -- it has its ups and downs,” Diaz said. “But if you keep going and keep a positive mentality, good things will come.”
In the end, no matter the reason for running, Julio explains everyone’s journey as “you vs. you.”
It’s 6:30 on a cold and rainy Saturday morning and Melba Martinez is standing on a muddy path among tall grass and rocks in Tarzana. If you would have told her a year ago that she would be willingly awake so early on the weekend, especially to be outdoors in nature, she would have laughed.
She ties together the laces on her well-worn taupe High Sierra Trekkers to prepare for her hike up the Caballero Canyon Trail. She points out the pink stripe going down the side of the boots, a sign of her always trying to tie her femme identity to everything that she does.
“When I bought my hiking boots, I wanted to make sure that they were cute,” she says.
Her hiking boots are very important to her; they were the first active investment that she made towards her newfound love of the outdoors. Since she purchased them last year, they have joined her through camping trips to El Capitan in Yosemite, and supported her when climbing up rocks in Joshua Tree.
Martinez is amongst the many new unlikely excursionists taking up hiking and outdoor activities in the Los Angeles area. As a member of Fat Girls Hike Los Angeles, Martinez has found community in the outdoors -- a space in which she was uncomfortable in.
With the assistance of local community groups focused on bringing marginalized groups outdoors, the dissolving of societal barriers and expectations, and transforming government policies, the outdoors is becoming a more accessible space for marginalized groups.
For many Americans who do not fit the current mold of an outdoors participant, it can be daunting to even begin the process of hiking and participating in these activities. In a 2018 report compiled by the Outdoor Industry Association, researchers found that 74 percent of outdoor participants were white, 54 percent were male, and most participants had higher household incomes than the average American.
To curb that fear and build coalitions, there has been a growth in organizations and groups around the LA area, bringing underserved communities to the outdoors. From the creation of Los Angeles and San Fernando Valley wings of national organizations, to the establishment of new groups, community and identity-focused hiking and outdoors organizations are on the rise.
LA area groups centered around marginalized communities such as 818hikes, Outdoor Afro Los Angeles, Latino Outdoors Los Angeles, API Forward Movement, Fat Girls Hike Los Angeles, and Great Outdoors Los Angeles have grown to meet the demand for inclusive spaces in Southern California.
As a fat and queer woman of color, Martinez never saw herself in the outdoors and felt uncomfortable in those spaces. But since finding Fat Girls Hike Los Angeles, she has found a community that helps her feel “at home” in nature.
Alma Rocio, the ambassador for the Los Angeles chapter of Fat Girls Hike, felt similarly about experiencing the outdoors with a congenial community.
“It felt good to be in a space with other fat women where I felt comfortable,” Rocio said about how she felt after her first hike meeting. “I did not need to compensate for being the fattest or slowest.
“Hiking is important to me on so many levels,” she continued. “It is important for me to take up space exactly as I am -- brown, queer, fat, and living at the intersections. For so long the outdoors seemed like an exclusive space, now I appreciate the fact that literally anybody can show up and participate.”
In Martinez’s eyes, being outdoors and in nature has been integral for her mental health.
“It has been really exciting to see the potential of what my body can do,” she said.
Before being introduced to Fat Girls Hike Los Angeles, Martinez did not see many people with similar bodies to hers in nature and did not know that hiking was something that fat women could do. Fat Girls Hike Los Angeles provided her community, resources, and inspiration to challenge herself.
“I’ve learned that I do not need to be super fast. If I hike that takes someone else an hour to do that takes me four hours to do, that is okay. I am still doing it,” she said.
Local, freely organized group, 818hikes,was established by Northeast Valley residents Araceli Hernandez and Justan Torres to bring the outdoors to marginalized groups in the San Fernando Valley in an accessible way. At first, 818hikes was a zine that catalogued hiking trails that are accessible by bus; however, as Hernandez and Torres began posting this information on social media, they became connected to an entire community of hikers in the Valley.
For Hernandez, changing the narrative of a “typical” outdoors participant and understanding the culture connections to nature is vital to shifting the societal conventions about the environment.
“When I think about nature and the true first stewards of the land, I think of Native American Indians and their connection with the land,” Hernandez said. “We seem to have lost that connection, here in LA. When I think about who knows the most about nature in my life, I think back to my dad, who grew up in Zacatecas, Mexico. My earliest and most fondest memories are from when we would go back to visit family and the only thing I would or could do was explore. And the only thing to explore was nature: the nearby creek in my Tia’s backyard, riding horses with my prima, trying to play with goats, the chickens, and the pigs! It felt like another world at first, but at the same time, it felt...normal or right.”
What initially brought Hernandez to the organizing around the outdoors was learning about environmental injustices.
“I had always been very passionate about social justice issues, and when I started learning about environmental justice issues, I learned that many go hand in hand,” Hernandez said. “Redlining has led to less investment in communities of color, which has left them high and dry. This means less parks, or small and unmaintained parks. As we know, having access to green and open spaces and nature in general is highly beneficial for our mental and physical health.”
While there has been a growth in community organizations, there have also been recent policy changes that have attempted to push more diverse people outdoors. With the passage of California Proposition 68 in June of 2018, there is no better time for local underserved communities to get involved in outdoor activities and hiking.
Passed with 56 percent of the vote, Proposition 68 dedicates $4 billion dollars to environmental and public health programs. $1.3 billion dollars of that package is specifically dedicated to creating and maintaining parks in underserved community areas. This marriage of community organizations and government policies has the potential to radically remove the barriers for marginalized people to access the outdoors.
Other policy changes, such as the recent passage of the Every Kids Outdoors Act, have brought the outdoors to the doorsteps of marginalized peoples. The passage of this act helps children access the outdoors, which proportionally assists children from lower-income communities who were unable to access nature settings due to financial constraints.
Hernandez would love to see these policy changes in action because she has seen the power that policy can have on making the outdoors more accessible.
“If you’ve ever been to Yosemite National Park or Grand Canyon National Park, you might have noticed the shuttle that takes you to major hiking trails and visitor centers,” Hernandez said. “This shuttle takes so many vehicles off the road and creates a fun experience for all. Not only do they have the shuttle, but they have either a bus or train that enters the park from a major town or city. This makes it possible for folks that simply do not drive to be able to access these spaces. This is the sort of equity that I hope to see in our public lands. When we don’t see this, it makes me feel like these public lands are only for a certain type of person, a person with money.”
For Martinez, her involvement in the outdoors and hiking does not stop at Fat Girls Hike Los Angeles.
“I am really hoping to one day create or join a group that is focused on Fat QTPOC and the outdoors,” Martinez said. “I want us to all be able to enjoy the outdoors at our own pace.”