The sun sat just above the horizon of the Pacific, and I stood looking over it, 10,000 feet above the ocean. The ground was red. Red dirt, bathed in red light, stark and alien against the thriving life of the forests and the blue line of the sea. I was on Haleakalā, the volcano that makes up East Maui, the “House of the Sun,” home to the most endangered species in a national park in the United States. The view was astounding.
Behind me lay a paved parking lot packed with cars: Haleakalā is popular, and my astonishment was accompanied by the astonishment of a hundred others.
On Haleakalā, I saw a world in conflict between appreciation and conservation. To appreciate nature, to understand its full worth, it’s best done within nature itself. But conserving nature, protecting it, requires limiting human impact.
The human impact on Haleakalā came in the form of over 1 million visitors in 2018. In the past, this impact has been devastating to local life. The population of the rare Haleakalā silversword, a metallic plant that blooms only once in it’s up to 90-year life span, was decimated to 100 plants in the 1920s due to visitor vandalism and the introduction of invasive species.
The silversword has since made a recovery, but remains a vulnerable population. Along with the nēnē (Hawaiian goose), ‘ua’u (Hawaiian petrel), and many varieties of plants, the silversword relies on the conservation efforts of the park and the awareness and conscientiousness of visitors in order for it to remain in the wild.
Standing 10,000 feet above the sea on the peak of a 2 million-year-old volcano, I wondered if just awareness was enough.
I was aware, and yet my very presence had left a negative effect. I drove up the mountain, releasing exhaust into the atmosphere. I walked along the ridges of the summit, contributing to soil erosion that has driven the mountain down 5,000 feet from its former peak. I took a flight to Maui, participating in an industry that has the highest per-passenger greenhouse gas emissions of any mode of transportation.
I am aware, and yet while trying to appreciate the planet, I participate in actions that hurt it.
Around 23% of species listed as endangered in the United States were known to have been threatened by recreation on federal lands, making recreational activities the second largest cause of endangerment in the United States.
Recreation, particularly nonmotorized recreation, is often viewed as relatively harmless to the environment and thus is not highly regulated. Of the 109 million acres of protected land under the National Wilderness Preservation System in the United States, the vast majority allow nonmotorized forms of recreation, including hiking, hunting, and fishing, as well as scientific research and other activities considered noninvasive. Worldwide, 94% of protected areas under the International Union for Conservation of Nature are open to recreation.
However, a 2016 review of hundreds of studies on this type of “nonconsumptive recreation,” which follows the philosophy of “leave no trace,” revealed that the human interaction with our natural areas is not as harmless as we wish it would be. Of the 274 articles reviewed, 59% revealed at least one negative effect of recreation on wildlife.
One study in particular found that populations of native carnivores in areas of Northern California were more than five times lower in protected areas that allowed recreation versus areas that did not. This is important because it reveals the possibility that recreation could be negating the intended biodiversity conservation in protected areas, as changing the predator population affects the balance of the entire ecosystem.
The popularity of these wilderness areas has trended upward in recent years. In the United States, nearly a third of the total recreational visits to national parks since 1904 have occurred in the past 10 years, according to data from the National Park Service. Within that same time span, recreational visits have increased by 28%.
For those who agree with filmmaker Ken Burns that national parks are “America’s best idea,” this recent surge in popularity may seem rightful. But in the face of increasing evidence that our presence is harming the areas we intended to protect, we may need to reevaluate our relationship with these protected natural areas.
For national parks and other protected areas to ensure the conservation they are intended to provide, humanity may need to take a step back. Of the 247 studies reviewed for the effects of recreation on plant and animal life, 32% recommended establishing trail-free areas within protected land, and 14% recommended limiting the number of visitors that can enter an area per day.
This advice lies in contrast to evidence put forth by other recent research relating to the environment: exposure to nature is good for us, and we may need it even more as the world becomes increasingly urbanized.
“Studies have shown that there are a whole bunch of different ways that spending time in nature can have positive health benefits,” Joshua Lawler, professor in the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS), said. “There’s things that you would expect like … depression and anxiety, reduction of the depression rate, but then there are some things that … might be less obvious.”
Lawler is a lead researcher on the Nature for Health Initiative in the EarthLab at the UW. According to Lawler, Nature for Health is trying to answer the question of how spending time in nature translates into changes in our mind and body.
Nature for Health’s research agenda, published in 2017, lists 20 possible evidence-based health benefits, including improved mental health, improved immune function, and reduced mortality, as well as greater happiness, well-being, and satisfaction.
Though the mechanisms behind these benefits are not yet understood, “there’s enough evidence out there that in many cases contact with nature benefits people living in urban and suburban settings,” Greg Bratman, professor in the SEFS and Nature for Health researcher, said.
The research being done by Nature for Health isn’t limited to pristine wilderness — nature exposure can also occur in small urban parks and through viewing “abiotic elements such as sunset or mountain views,” according to the Nature for Health research agenda.
Nature for joy, nature for conservation, nature for health. We hurt nature, nature helps us. I don’t know where we go from here.
One truth we can find: If we continue to damage the environment, there will be no questions because there will be no choice.
In the face of all the damage nature withstands, sometimes I think the natural environment would remain on this earth longer if I stopped trying to experience it. Maybe I should just stay home, stay inside, stop intruding into places in which my presence only hurts. But that’s not a solution I want to live with, and in terms of quality of life, that may not be a solution I can live with.
However, something must change if we want to ensure the conservation of the environment. A potential solution lies — counterintuitively — in increasing, rather than decreasing, access.
“We need more parks, and we need more open space, and we need more places where people can go,” Lawler said. “The demand will go up and that’s going to require counties and cities and states to provide more green space.”
In increasingly dense areas like the Puget Sound, home to 4 million people, the focus is on vital urban greenspaces.
“Green spaces clean our water and air, protect wildlife habitat, and offset the urban heat island effect by cooling our neighborhoods, while also continuing to provide healthy options for recreation and stewardship of natural areas,” a representative for Seattle Urban Forestry said in an email.
Urban natural areas are not the answer to all our problems. Every year, urban areas lose about 36 million trees. However, they do provide something national parks don’t: access to nature that does not threaten vital ecosystems and biodiversity.
Humanity's relationship with nature has existed for millennia, and I, for one, don’t want it to end. I can’t single-handedly stop climate change, become an animal whisperer to coax animals back to their former habitats, or plant 36 million trees in urban areas.
I can, however, help out those with a little more knowledge than I have. I’m going to go back to national parks, but next time, I’m going to bring along a donation. If I must impact them negatively, the least I can do is provide some support to mitigate that impact.
Reach contributing writer Rachel Suominen at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @_rsuominen
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