This is an expanded version of the Editorial that appeared in the print version of Chemical Engineering Progress, August 2016.
You might recall from some of my previous editorials that I love nature and hiking, especially in the Grand Canyon and other national parks. When I retire, I hope to celebrate by traveling throughout the U.S. to visit the 45 national parks that I have not yet been to and revisit many that I have.
Congress established the first national park, Yellowstone, in 1872. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the act creating the National Park Service (NPS), which today is responsible for 59 national parks and 353 others areas that include memorials, monuments, historical sites, recreation areas, and more. In 2015, more than 307 million people visited the national parks. On August 25, the NPS celebrates its centennial.
To get people excited about the centennial, Conor Knighton, a contributor to CBS' Sunday Morning, is on a year-long, cross-country trek "hunting down fascinating stories set in and around national parks." His journey began in the wee hours of New Year's Day, when he hiked to the summit of Acadia National Park's Cadillac Mountain to catch the first rays of sun to hit the U.S. in 2016. He has also gone scuba diving along an underwater trail at Biscayne and walked across the Rio Grande into Mexico from Big Bend National Park. This month he will be exploring the parks in Alaska. In an interview with the online news site UPROXX, Knighton explains: "So many parks offer one-of-a-kind landscapes or wildlife viewing opportunities. … And then, of course, there's the nurturing benefits of nature. … Getting out into these wild places is good for the soul."
These wild places are also good for science. Nineteen NPS Research Learning Centers (RLCs) bring together science and education to preserve and protect areas of national significance. The RLCs have fostered connections with researchers and educators, facilitated park research and its application to stewardship, mentored the next generation of scientists, and increased visitors’ and employees’ scientific literacy. Some of the RLCs provide opportunities for the public to participate in scientific data collection — i.e., citizen science. Through large, organized events known as BioBlitzes, volunteers can assist with biodiversity studies, for example, by searching for flora and fauna at Great Smoky Mountains and Yellowstone or for moths and butterflies in Acadia. Citizen scientists can also report observations on cloud cover for NASA's S'COOL program or note the blooming dates of local plants for the National Phenology Network.
The RLCs aren't the only places science is being conducted in national parks. A few months ago, Discover magazine referred to the parks as outdoor laboratories and reported on some of the research projects underway, including studies focused on the effects of fire on forests (Yosemite), the strength of fragile geologic structures (Arches), the geothermal piping of a supervolcano (Yellowstone), the effect of oil and gas development on air quality (Theodore Roosevelt), and coastal ecosystems' resiliency to extreme storms (Fire Island National Seashore).
Why not celebrate the NPS centennial by visiting one of the 412 parks and other sites in the national park system? Many of them are always free, and entrance fees at the others will be waived on six more days this year: Aug. 25–28 (NPS birthday), Sept. 24 (National Public Lands Day), and Nov. 11 (Veterans Day).
If you do go, heed these tips from the National Parks Conservation Association's blog, "10 Tips to Respect Wildlife, Stay Safe, and Avoid Internet Ridicule":
- Don’t honk at wildlife. This is harassment, and it stresses the animals.
- Watch your step — and the color of your shoes. Avoid stepping on birds' or turtles' nests. White shoes, clothing, and lights can disorient sea turtle hatchlings and make them more vulnerable to predators.
- Don’t put a bison in your car. Yes, someone did this.
- Sweat without the blood and tears. Mountain goats crave the salt in people's sweat and urine, and have been known to stalk hikers. Don't leave your sweat-soaked gear unattended, and don't urinate on rocks or snow within 100 ft of a trail.
- Invest in a zoom lens. Animals like their private space. Don't get too close, especially for selfies with your back turned to the animal.
- DEET and water don’t mix. Fish and amphibians are vulnerable to DEET.
- Carry bear spray. It works, but fewer than a third of Yellowstone's backcountry hikers carry it.
- Don’t feed the wildlife. They will often come back for more and may become aggressive in looking for food.
- The road doesn’t belong to you. Wildlife has the right of way. Pay particular attention at dawn and dusk.
- Don’t touch the wildlife. You could hurt them, or they could hurt you.
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