Environment column

National parks should do more to conserve the nature it seeks to protect

/ The Daily Orange

The national parks are testaments to cultural, natural and historical preservation in the United States. But with the extreme expansion of tourism and concessions, we have lost sight of the parks’ genuine purpose: to conserve.

State legislation passed earlier this month to begin reviewing Fort Ontario and the Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum in Oswego, New York for their addition to America’s list of national parks. Not only has Fort Ontario played a role in most U.S. wars, it has also served as the only War Relocation Authority emergency refugee camp that provided shelter for close to 1,000 Holocaust refugees.

Fort Ontario, while not as large as Yellowstone or Yosemite, should become a national park. Its appointment as such is long overdue in acknowledgement of its historical significance for New York state. Yet, the political push for this formalization of protection is for all the wrong reasons. It’s one step forward for commercialization and two steps back for the environment.

Fort Ontario seems to be a good investment: a recent National Park Service study showed every federal dollar invested in U.S. parks leads to $10 dollars in economic activity. Most of this money goes toward lodging, transportation, food, shops and other necessary services that you’ll need when you visit a national park.

Looking at these statistics, it’s easy to see why a politician would push for national park status because it makes it eligible for federal money and protection and draws in more tourists.

Rep. John Katko (R-NY), who spearheaded the review process, has dedicated his political platform toward central New York’s tourism-based economy and Fort Ontario is his exhibit A.

Another thing to consider is that in 2014, the parks generated $30 billion in economic activity and supported 277,000 private-sector jobs, according to the National Park Service. While the vein of economic growth through job creation is important, it also comes with car pollution, single-use plastic water bottles, pamphlets and ticket stubs, all of which distract from the park itself and contribute to environmental degradation.

Matthew Huber, a geography professor in Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, remembers his visit to Yellowstone National Park, where “car culture” was extremely prominent and Conoco gas stations and advertisements were littered throughout.

“It just sort of hit me at that moment, like ‘Wow, this is kind of creepy,’” Huber said. “Having oil companies promoting and sponsoring national parks seems like a weird sort of cognitive dissonance.”

The gas stations throughout the park accommodate the many cars and trucks driving through Yellowstone, where in 2015, vehicle entry numbers exceeded one million. With the U.S.’s low vehicle taxes, heavily subsidized roads and, you guessed it, the highest rate of car ownership in the world, it’s no wonder Yellowstone National Park’s website actually recommends driving in the park. This is the kind of environmental stress that we are setting Fort Ontario up for.

A study released in July by the National Park Foundation found that 95 percent of Americans believed protecting national parks for future generations is important. Likewise, 80 percent were willing to pay higher taxes to ensure the protection and preservation of the National Park System.

But talk is cheap. Everyone will say they’re a conservationist, but there is response bias in that statement: no one wants to damage the earth for centuries to come. But we do it anyway, because of our culturally-ingrained syndromes of autonomous transportation mechanisms, single-use items, dominion over nature and so on.

Experiencing our country’s landmarks from outside of a car not only helps the environment, but will also help you. A car detracts from the overall experience and literally separates you from nature, thus contributing to our all-too prominent lack of appreciation for our planet.

American essay writer and environmental advocate Edward Abbey, in his book “Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness” demands no more motorized vehicles in national parks: “We have agreed not to drive our automobiles into cathedrals, concert halls, art museums, legislative assemblies, private bedrooms and the other sanctums of our culture; we should treat our national parks with the same deference, for they, too, are holy places.”

Natural parks are for conservation of nature, but they are also for the people, and the public needs to ensure integrity and beauty through preservation. Yes, it is wonderful that Fort Ontario and the Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum are being reviewed for national park status. But visitors and admirers of nature should use their ability to guard against environmental degradation because they have the power to do so.

Victoria Chen is a senior international relations major, and an environment and society minor. Her column appears weekly. She can be reached at vlchen@syr.edu.

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