National Geographic : 1994 Oct
t the end of the last century the first wave of the American conservation movement called on the government to set aside vast areas of wilderness, particularly in the West. John Muir and Theo dore Roosevelt foresaw the onslaught of urban settlers in the region and moved swiftly to pro tect lands that remain, even to this day, splen did and unique. The early conservationists set these lands aside as national parks-a simple idea that is itself as uniquely American as jazz and baseball. These parks were, and are, America's secular cathedrals. Today they present more a continuing challenge than a mere reflection of our rich birthright. While many of the early conservationists believed they had protected the parks forever, they had in fact taken only the first steps. The national parks are beset by threats from without. Everglades National Park is dying. The steady sheet flows of water heading south from Lake Okeechobee are now diverted into canals for agricultural and urban use, while much of the water that does reach the Everglades is tainted with phosphorous fertilizer. A brief flight over Olympic National Park reveals lines as straight as those on a map. The lines reflect clear-cuts abut ting the park's borders. Such devastation leads to blow downs in ancient forest stands and topsoil runoffs that clog essential spawning beds for trout and salmon. Yosemite National Park is the center of an ecosystem pressed by urban sprawl; 30 million Californians live with in a day's drive of the natural world's most spectacular seven square miles-Yosemite Valley. Isolated vacation homes in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada have been replaced by suburbs for Central Valley communities. In another Sierra park-Sequoia-brochures warn hikers to avoid strenuous exercise throughout the summer months because of hazardous air pollution. To meet these challenges from without, a new wave of conservation must be let loose-one that recognizes that we cannot protect lands merely by setting them aside. The new movement to protect our parks must focus on entire ecosystems. There is another threat from beyond park boundaries: the alarming lack of financial support. Maintenance continually deferred has created a construction and repair time bomb. Yet small amounts of security can be achieved through new entrepreneurial efforts, such as allowing some of the entrance fees to stay in the parks rather than pass on to the federal treasury.