Biscayne National Park

Magazine Articles

June/July 2016

Our Connection to the Parks

The Nature Conservancy's global managing director for public policy weighs in on the value of our national parks.

The U.S. national park system is made up of more than 400 sites ranging from small monuments like the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to the 13-million-acre Wrangell–St. Elias National Park in Alaska. Tallied together, these parks, monuments, waterways and sites encompass some 84 million acres and host more than 280 million visitors each year.

But the value of the national parks extends far beyond what can be measured in acres and visitors. Many parks protect critical watersheds, tree cover, wetlands and other natural systems that provide basic benefits to surrounding communities—including protection of water supplies, coastal storm surge protection and better air quality from forests, the lungs of the earth. National parks anchor habitats and networks of protected lands; they bring people together through shared experiences; and they connect past and future generations. Early park advocate John Muir put it this way: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

I witnessed these connections many times during my nearly eight years at the Department of the Interior, where I worked before joining The Nature Conservancy. A few years ago, in Canyon De Chelly National Monument in Arizona, I found a link to a woman—she must have lived around 1,000 years ago—who left behind a bone bracelet etched with designs. I saw her bracelet amid thousands of pottery shards on a hill below a cliff dwelling while visiting with Park Service archaeologists. I couldn’t help but wonder about this woman’s life and marvel at the ways that parks connect us to the past and to one another.

“The value of the national parks extends far beyond what can be measured in acres and visitors. Many parks protect critical natural systems.” --Lynn Scarlett

At the Conservancy, we are connected to the work of the National Park Service in many ways. We’ve helped protect landscapes that became national parkland, including Golden Gate National Recreation Area and Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park. We also team up with the Park Service across the country to share land management knowledge, like helping with fire management and removal of invasive species. Another way we partner with the parks is by owning and managing lands that neighbor parkland, providing important buffers and links to other protected lands. For example, the Conservancy owns ranchland that borders Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park, which we were instrumental in creating and where we now jointly manage bison herds. I remember the complex teamwork involved in creating this park and how essential it was for the Department of the Interior to collaborate with the Conservancy and others to achieve success.

The national parks, after all, are a story of many partnerships—with ranchers, firefighters, biologists, community leaders, First Nations peoples, and countless others whose lives and livelihoods are tightly linked to these lands and waters. They care for these places that define their communities—places that are often a reflection of our vision at The Nature Conservancy to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends.

Just as my experience at Canyon De Chelly with the archaeologists connected me to the past, the national parks are also about connecting to the future. A founding principle of the National Park Service is to preserve landscapes for the enjoyment of future generations. From our children’s connection to this natural world will spring the next generation of scientists, artists, environmental engineers and citizen stewards. Chronicler of the West C.L. Rawlins observed that the best way to know a country “is not to hunker down and dig in, but like the pronghorn and bison and coyote, to stretch out and go.” Through collaborations with the National Park Service, the Conservancy will continue to help protect some of the best places in the country to “stretch out and go.”