Government? Closed. Parks? Open.

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People taking pictures of things at a busy national park (I prefer to photograph the people taking photographs, obviously)

Reading the news is a small daily horror. We are currently in the longest government shutdown of the modern era, and people and places are suffering. The institutions we have built this country upon are failing us.

The national parks are staying open despite being understaffed and unable to handle the influx of visitors. Restroom facilities are closed. Trash is no longer being picked up. Landscapes are being damaged, sometimes irreparably so.

I’ll save you the trouble of digging through the news dumpster yourself:

We can blame the shutdown. We can blame the lack of money and resources that protect our parks. We can blame troublemakers and rule breakers.

But the root is us. Thoughtless, hurtful humans. Because it’s not one person causing all of this, not two, not a handful, not a couple “bad seeds.” We, the collective, are the problem.

Natalie Diaz tweeted the following in regard to the destruction at Joshua Tree National Park:

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I could make this post a philosophical musing on human nature and destruction and how we love to play god for the brief eclipse of power. I could cite scientific studies (hello, Stanford Prison Experiment). I could quote Shakespeare. But none of that is helpful.

See, what bothers me about news is that very few outlets tell me what to do about any of this. They inform me of all the bad things happening but don’t give me ways to help fix them. And for me that’s frustrating. I’m a doer. I believe firmly in my own agency and my ability to affect the world. I believe that change is brought about by people, and that I can be a source of power if only I do and act and try.

So I do. And I act. And I try.

This is me trying. This right here. This small, sparrow-boned post.

Want to help our parks? Here are some things you can do:

  1. Don’t go. Even if you promise not to litter or take a dump, human traffic is still a problem. Please don’t visit the national parks right now.
  2. Educate yourself on the Leave No Trace principles. There are seven of them. Learn how to best minimize your footprint in our parks–both national and local–so that when you visit in the future, you will know how to respect the surrounding wilderness.
  3. Donate. Money is helpful and necessary. Small local organizations are stepping in right now to protect our parks. Support them. Yosemite is one of my favorite national parks and through some research (AKA a recommendation from Beth Rodden, a Yosemite resident and pro-climber, on Instagram), I learned that Ken Yager and the Yosemite Climbing Association are doing a lot to help the park, especially with the current trash overload. They have a donation page!
  4. Write thank-you letters to park staff. Kind words are always welcome.
  5. Get involved with your local conservancy or park. Education is one of the best ways to develop an appreciation and understanding of nature. Will it help immediately? No. But change doesn’t happen overnight and the American wilderness faces a long, globally-warmed road ahead; it needs all the supporters it can.

What the parks need right now and in the future are kind, compassionate, thoughtful human beings who care about the people and the world around them. Because even if there isn’t someone there to tell us what to do, even if we are able to run free and wild with sunsets in our eyes, we need to do the right thing. For the planet we live on. For our own fragile humanity.

There’s no better time to start than now.

(Do you, dear reader, have other suggestions? How can people help our parks and wilderness? What cool, inspiring things have you done or heard about in this vein? Let me know!)

To Disappear

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Last summer I thru-hiked the Northville Placid Trail with my father. It was 133 miles of mud and mosquitoes, storm-ravaged bridges and swollen lakes. The trail only crossed four major roads (except for a several mile road walk at the end), and my dad and I could walk an entire day without seeing another soul. It was isolated wilderness at a local, accessible level, some of the loneliest forests you could experience on the carved up East Coast.

A 2016 study by the Wildlife Conservation Society predicted that there will be no globally significant wilderness in the next 50 years, and, in a separate study conducted by Peter Potapov, 20 countries will lose their large forests entirely within the next 60 years. The disappearance of wilderness has been happening for a while, debatably ever since industrialization and large-scale agriculture emerged. In the last 25 years alone, though, the Wildlife Conservation Society discovered that 10 percent of the world’s terrestrial wilderness had vanished, which is the equivalent of half of Australia disappearing.

The Adirondacks doesn’t count as “globally significant wilderness,” but when I read statistics and articles like the ones mentioned above, I have to find a way to relate to it personally, otherwise it feels too distant, too big, too easy to dismiss. It’s overwhelming to think that over 250 million people live in these vanishing forests, but when I remember my own time spent in the dappled sunlight, a beaver swimming in front of us as we lit up our backpacking stove for dinner, the crisis feels pertinent.

What does it mean for places to disappear?

I don’t remember when the woods I grew up in were thinned, trees torn down to make room for office buildings. One autumn the forest was thick, and then I left for college and the next time I looked out my best friend’s window I could see screaming light for the very first time. My friend said her mother cried when the trees were cut down.

I don’t look out that window anymore.

Vanishing places destroy our sense of permanence. Natural places encompass a type of forever that we don’t ascribe to humans. But they too can leave us. They too can break our hearts. And unlike fickle lovers, destroyed wilderness will never return. What is gone is gone and will not come again. The creek beds will stay dry despite our tears.

We often go into the wild to be lost and alone, to find something within ourselves that cowers in crowds and fluorescent lighting. And there’s a shapeless irony that we are losing places where we want to be lost, places we want to disappear inside of, as if moss and mud could swallow us whole.

What would it feel like to always be known, to never be able to vanish when your body cries for solitude?
What parts of humanity are we losing when we lose these vast and lonely places?
What are we really leaving behind?

 

 

In Their Own Words

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“We’ve been opposed to the PennEast Pipeline that’s bringing natural gas through here, but the problem is it’s almost impossible to fight. It’s an interstate pipeline and interstate pipelines are approved by a federal agency called the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. It was set up in 2005 by a bunch of secret meetings that Dick Cheney ran at which only energy executives were at, no environmentalists. And they got Congress to pass this thing, FERC as it’s called, and it’s never turned down a pipeline. So it’s very hard to fight.” —Don Miles, Executive Committee member, Pennsylvania Chapter of the Sierra Club

In Their Own Words

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Bethany Keene and Jason Zarnowski work for the Delaware Highlands Conservancy at their Hawley, Pennsylvania, office.

“We hope the community sees us as a resource. . . .We’re not here to tell people, ‘Don’t do that.’ We’re not pointing our finger and saying, ‘You can’t do that with your land.’ We’re helping people who want to protect what they have, who have this beautiful land and they want to say that it’ll still be a farm, it’ll still be a forest, whoever owns it. So we really help people meet their goals for their land, which benefits us all.” —Bethany Keene, Outreach & Development Team Lead

“I often get emails and phone calls saying, ‘I have this on my property, and I don’t know what to do about it.’ The latest one was about bees. ‘I’ve got all these bees, and I don’t know what to do with them.’ And while we didn’t know what to do in staff, we knew where to point them. If they don’t know what to do, they know we can send them to someone who can help.” —Jason Zarnowski, Outreach and GIS Coordinator

Delaware Highlands Conservancy

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The Conservancy focuses on land protection, education, and community initiatives within the Upper Delaware River region.

If Pennsylvania does one thing well, it’s waterways. From the Delaware River in the east to the Allegheny, Ohio, and Monongahela in the west, what Pennsylvania lacks in mountains it makes up for in rivers and waterfalls galore (fun fact: Ricketts Glen State Park has 22 waterfalls alone).

Water was a running theme (see what I did there?) in my talk with Bethany Keene and Jason Zarnowski from the Delaware Highlands Conservancy. They have a variety of community programs—everything from teaching women landowners on how to best steward their land, to running eagle viewing sites in the winter—but one of their primary focuses is land protection, which, in turn, protects water quality.

“Whatever you do to the land, you do to the water,” said Bethany. “So if you want to have clean drinking water, it’s based on what you’re doing on your land. If you’re dropping fertilizer, if you’re mowing right up to the edge of a lake or stream, everything you do on your land affects the water. And that’s why we work so hard to protect the farms and forests here because that’s really what’s helping to keep the water clean.”

Two numbers from our conversation really stuck with me: seven and 15 million. Seven is the number of Conservancy employees, and 15 million is the number of people who rely on clean water from the Upper Delaware River region, which is the area the Conservancy works within.

Seven people helping to preserve water quality for 15 million people.

Seven.

Fifteen million.

Of course, the Conservancy is not alone. There are other organizations and agencies helping to regulate water quality, but we, the consumers, trust a very small body of people to control something as essential as water. Like so many other things, a luxury of living in a first-world country is that water quality is something we don’t think about until something goes wrong. We assume it’s a given.

Which is why education is such an important part of the Conservancy’s mission: If we learn how our actions affect our water sources, if we all contribute in big and small ways to conserve and protect, then the ripple effect lessens and the ratio increases. It’s not just seven people safeguarding drinking water, it’s 100, 10,000, 10 million.

Want to take the first step in protecting local water sources? Bethany and Jason directed me to Clear Choices Clean Water, where you can learn easy ways to conserve water and take a pledge to make a difference. Check it out!