Sustainability in Our National Parks
“Green is the new black,” Vanity Fair magazine recently declared, and popular media surveys claim that over 80 percent of Americans agree with the goals of the environmental movement. Even Wal-Mart, once decried for its unsustainable business practices, recently announced its intention to “go green.” Sustainability has entered the common vernacular, with the effects of global climate change and environmental degradation impacting our daily lives.
Sustainability is also the key to the survival of our cherished public lands. We must act immediately in order need to save these beloved, familiar places—from Yosemite’s grand waterfalls and granite cliffs, to Yellowstone’s spectacular herds of bison and elk.
Our environmental efforts at home help ensure the survival of the parks, but some remarkable innovations in sustainability are also taking place within and around park boundaries.
Rising energy costs and the impacts of fossil fuel pollution have caused National Parks—like consumers and businesses--to grapple with the issue of the environmental cost of generating the energy necessary to maintain visitor services and recreation. And many have strived to implement renewable energy projects to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
At Death Valley National Park, Xanterra Parks & Resorts, a park concessionaire, constructed one of the largest non-utility owned renewable energy systems in the United States: a one-megawatt solar photovoltaic system that will generate 2.2 million kWh annually. For those not familiar with the mathematics surrounding terms like kWh and megawatt, these statistics translate into a system capable of providing enough energy for over 500 homes per year.
Andrew Todd, president and CEO of Xanterra Parks & Resorts, commented, "This installation will result in significant benefits for the environment. The sunny skies of Death Valley will make this system create a tremendous amount of energy while reducing greenhouse gases.”
In Yellowstone’s idyllic Lamar Valley, thousands of visitors attend educational classes organized by the non-profit Yellowstone Association and the National Park Service. Most come to view the awe-inspiring sight of the re-introduced wolves frolicking in the expansive meadows, as Lamar affords some of the best opportunities for wolf-watching in the world. Class attendees stay at the rustic campus of the historic Lamar Buffalo Ranch, which has become a model for sustainability. Except for the phone line, the entire campus is self-sustaining. A solar electric array and propane generator provide for its energy needs. In the summer of 2006, the institute ran on 100% renewable power, replacing the propane with vegetable-based fuel.
At the remote Channel Islands, located off the coast of Southern California, park staff utilize over 72 renewable energy applications for operations, including a hybrid wind and photovoltaic system, and solar lighting for restrooms. In Yosemite, the park houses thirteen photovoltaic systems and a fuel cell generator that furnishes 30 percent of the energy needs for the administrative offices.
Solar panels and hyperbolic solar collectors render heating for water and buildings in Maine’s rocky Arcadia, while Galapagos National Park in Ecuador installed a solar electric system to support one of its tortoise breeding centers. At the visitor center at John Day Fossil Beds Monument in Oregon, visitors can view the fossil remains of early ancestors of horses, as well as observe the park’s photovoltaic system in action through a monitor that displays both real-time energy production and net CO2 savings.
Efforts to increase renewable energy usage in our parks are underway. In 2006 Joshua Tree National Park, which employs solar for many applications, hosted the ‘Summit on Practical Alternative Energy.’ The EPA and The National Park Service have created the ‘Climate Friendly Parks’ program to encourage the development of alternative energy and conservation measures. To date, over 30 parks including Glacier, Yosemite, Hawaii Volcanoes, and Rocky Mountain have begun implementing ambitious plans. The Department of Energy and the Department of the Interior have also initiated the ‘Green Energy Parks Program.’
National non-profits like the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) are also working with the NPS and park concessionaires to promote renewable energy use. Through its Climate Savers program, WWF mobilizes companies to set ambitious reduction goals for greenhouse gas emissions; along with corporate giants such as Nike and Johnson & Johnson, Xanterra Parks & Resorts has joined the effort. The NRDC co-sponsored a study on the threatening effects of climate change in the national parks, and has undertaken a ‘Solving Global Warming’ campaign.
Not every park has the benefit (at least in terms of solar energy) of being located in one of the sunniest places in the country like Death Valley, but because of the efforts noted above, plans for renewable energy have begun to proliferate.
Along with solar, wind energy, fuel cell technology, and other applications are expanding in our national parks: Rocky Mountain plans a full energy efficient lighting retrofit. The Apostle Islands Lakeshore is investigating the potential of geothermal energy. Bob Krumenaker, superintendent of the Apostle Islands, recently acknowledged in an article in National Parks “We’re … working on ways to adapt. We must all be as ecologically sound and sustainable as we can possibly be and still get the job done.”