Before they're gone: A family's year-long quest to explore America's most endangered National Parks

Michael Lanza and family in Glacier Bay, Alaska

Michael Lanza, TheBigOutside.com

Urgent: Our national parks have come under dire threat since we first published this blog in July.

Congress is considering deep budget cuts to federal programs this March, including to National Park Service budgets. If allowed to go forward, visitors can expect visitor center closures; less staffing for campgrounds and ranger-led programs; road closures and cuts to important conservation programs. 

How to help: Send a message to Congress to protect national parks


Before they're gone: A family's year-long quest to explore America's most endangered national parks

Guest blog by Michael Lanza, northwest editor of Backpacker Magazine

I paused and stared at the trail ahead of us. Barely more than a foot wide and plastered in hard-packed snow and ice, it clung to the face of a cliff with a sheer drop-off of hundreds of feet.

Then I looked down at my seven-year-old daughter, Alex, four feet tall and 50 pounds and believing to her core that her dad, holding her hand tightly, would guide her safely across that scary traverse — and however many lay ahead on our descent of the Grandview Trail, which zigzags across crazily exposed ledges on its steep drop into the Grand Canyon.

That was in the last week of March 2010, a bit premature for backpacking into the world’s most famous canyon precisely because you’re likely to encounter ice on trails. But it also was our kids’ spring break from school and we didn’t want to wait until they were out of school, in June, when the inner canyon would be too broiling hot for this 29-mile, four-day trek from Grandview Point to the South Kaibab Trailhead.

After much consideration, my wife, Penny, and I decided we could do this hike safely with Alex and our nine-year-old son, Nate (whom I also guided across every narrow, icy section).

Before They're Gone book cover

I smiled and winked at Alex and told her to “take small steps and go slow.” She nodded and winked back — we had an understanding and began shuffling forward. With my free hand, I clutched scrawny plants tenuously rooted to cracks in the crumbly cliff face. A minute crawled past like an epoch. When we finally rounded the corner to where the trail widened, I exhale a two-lung load of relief. And we finished that four-day hike with no lasting scars, only lasting memories.

That Grand Canyon trip launched a series of family wilderness adventures we took in 11 U.S. national parks in a year — a wonderful, majestic and only occasionally anxiety-provoking odyssey of backpacking, sea kayaking, cross-country skiing, canoeing and rock climbing. And it was inspired, ironically, by a steadily escalating disaster: the impacts of climate change on our parks.

 

That Grand Canyon trip launched a series of family wilderness adventures we took in 11 U.S. national parks in a year ... It was inspired, ironically, by a steadily escalating disaster: the impacts of climate change on our parks.

I have been reporting about the impacts of global warming on the natural world since April 2007, when, on assignment for Backpacker magazine, I skied high into the Northern Rockies of Montana’s Glacier National Park with Dan Fagre, a research ecologist who runs the Glacier Field Station of the USGS Rock Mountain Science Center. It was Fagre who made the now widely reported forecast that the 7,000-year-old glaciers in one of America’s most revered parks will disappear within a human generation.

The more I researched the impacts of climate change on other parks, the more troubled I became.

As winter precipitation falls increasingly as rain instead of snow, Yosemite’s famous waterfalls will peter out earlier in the year, with repercussions for virtually all living things that rely on snowpack feeding streams in summer rather than in spring. Joshua Tree National Park will lose its namesake flora. In Yellowstone, long one of the nation’s iceboxes — where we cross-country skied with ours kids past erupting geysers — winter is, incredibly, shrinking. Much of Florida’s Everglades, one of Earth’s greatest sanctuaries of biological diversity, is in danger of disappearing beneath the sea. Up to 40 percent of plant and animal species worldwide may go extinct by the year 2100, including 21 percent of mammals, 37 percent of freshwater fish and 70 percent of plants.

Reid Glacier, Reid Inlet, Glacier Bay

The more I researched the impacts of climate change on other parks, the more troubled I became.

These events are indices of the tectonic shifts tearing through the natural world, wrought by forces we have set in motion but which now possess a momentum of their own.

We’ve protected national parks and wilderness because these places inspire us. They bring out our best as individuals and represent our highest aspirations as a civilization. But now we have weirdly recalibrated nature. Fewer than 150 years after the founding of Yellowstone, which introduced the national park concept to the world, we are undermining one of our country’s greatest achievements.

I embarked on that year of adventures in the parks with my family in part because I wonder what my kids will not experience, thanks to the slow, warm flood inundating nature. But mostly, we did it for our kids — for joy, curiosity, and wonder. Because I want my kids to see these things before they’re gone.


Michael Lanza is the northwest editor of Backpacker Magazine and the creator of TheBigOutside.com, where he shares his stories and images from his outdoor adventures, many of them with his family, in the United States and around the world. His book, Before They’re Gone — A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks, traces his journey to show his kids iconic national parks that could be altered forever by climate change.

See also:

42 national parks threatened by oil and gas drilling

Nine national parks for fall color

 

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