Nearly 100 years ago, President Woodrow Wilson created the National Park Service, the agency that currently maintains 84 million acres of American land in 397 national parks—from the nation’s tallest mountains to our most wild forests. Since Wilson’s era, the U.S. park system has grown substantially. In 1920, one million people visited the parks each year. Now, more than 280 million visitors utilize our parks annually. That’s nearly 90 percent of Americans. But the preservation of these wild spaces is not a given.
Vast, underground reserves of oil and gas sit beneath federal land—which includes not only protected national parks, but also territory managed by the Bureau of Land Management.
Oil and gas companies are jockeying to obtain rights to extract resources from public soil.
A recent report from the Center for American Progress shows that 12 national parks have been leased to oil and gas companies and are currently undergoing drilling, and an additional 30 park units will likely be drilled in the future.
Parks that are currently being drilled include Big Cypress National Park in Florida, which is home to the endangered Florida panther, and areas around the Aztec Ruins National Monument in New Mexico, which features a 900-year-old Ancestral Great Pueblo House. Glen Canyon is on the list of possible future drilling sites.
Oil and gas drilling on public lands poses huge risks to the environment.
“Drilling involves not just the construction of a well pad but the associated infrastructure, including roads, pipelines, and truck traffic. Often, drilling creates a larger area of disturbance than actually meets the eye,” Jessica Goad told TakePart.
Goad, who is a co-author of the Center for American Progress report, says that the oil spills and negligence by “bad actors” like BP add to the risk.
In North Dakota, there were more than a thousand spills of oil, wastewater, and drilling fluids in 2011 alone. Last year, an ExxonMobil pipeline burst and spilled 1,000 barrels of oil into Yellowstone River.
But the damage goes beyond national parks. Huge swathes of federal lands are being poked, prodded and extracted. Statistics from the Bureau of Land Management show that by 2011, a total of 38 million acres of public land were leased to oil and gas companies.
The Bush administration encouraged oil and gas drilling on federal lands, but in recent years Obama has tried to slow these “reckless land deals,” according to The New York Times.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney does not share Obama’s measured policies on public lands.
Romney’s energy plan, unveiled in August, calls for allowing states to control energy development on federal lands, a move that would bypass important federal regulations aimed at conservation. Last week, Romney’s chief energy advisor, Harold Hamm, assured legislators that the candidate’s energy plan did not involve drilling in national parks or monuments.
Romney’s plan says state management of national land would not include “lands specifically designated off-limits,” but does not identify which lands would be considered “off-limits,” ThinkProgress has reported. This raises questions about the fate of other public lands, like the 100 million acres in the U.S. protected by Congress as wilderness, or the country’s national wildlife refuges and recreational areas.
Anyone who has witnessed the Old Faithful geyser at Yellowstone, traipsed across the breathtaking Maine coastline in Acadia National Park, or gazed up at the starry night skies from the Adirondack mountains, has enjoyed our national park treasures—and even aided in conservation efforts.
Protected public land helps conserve critical ecosystems, and can slow the loss of endangered species and their habitats. Preserving forests also helps to curb carbon emissions and resulting climate change.
If you want to help preserve national parks, Goad recommends that the public do a better job of holding elected and campaigning officials accountable for their positions—from presidential candidates to local leaders.
“Ask questions of candidates about national parks and public spaces,” Goad says. “Get our candidates on the record about these issues, and ask them where they stand on their future vision of lands and conservation.”
Should there be a federal law banning the oil and gas drilling in the U.S. national park system?
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Alison Fairbrother is the director of the nonpartisan Public Trust Project, which investigates and reports on misrepresentations of science by corporations and government. She has written for the Washington Monthly, the Washington Spectator, Grist, and Politics Daily, among others. Alison is based in Washington DC. @adfairbrother | TakePart.com