This year will mark the centennial of Grand Canyon National Park.
Although it’s hard to believe now, the Grand Canyon’s status as a national park wasn’t a given. Indiana Sen. Benjamin Harrison introduced legislation to turn it into a public park in 1882, 1883 and 1886, but the bills failed to pass.
Momentum picked up in 1916 with the creation of the National Park Service, whose express purpose, according to the Organic Act, was to create and protect national parks and monuments — “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein,” that they would remain “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
Grand Canyon National Park has delivered on that promise. Hundreds of millions of people have visited the park since its opening, including more than 6 million visitors in 2017 alone.
But keeping that promise over the next century may prove a more difficult fight. The wild species of the Grand Canyon region — and those that inhabit all our national parks — are struggling to adapt to climate change.
To survive, many of the Grand Canyon’s native species will need to move north. Bighorn sheep, for instance, are especially sensitive to climate. The spruce and fir that blanket the canyon’s higher, chillier North Rim are also vulnerable to heat and drought.
In order to successfully relocate, both animal and plant species will need to cross national forests, wildlife refuges, monuments and wilderness areas. These spaces will need to serve as “physical bridges,” according to the ecologist Carlos Carroll, whose research forecasts the future effects of climate change.
“We can no longer hope to manage national parks in isolation from each other,” Carroll told me recently. Rather, our millions of acres of public land will need to serve as “holdout habitat.”
But our vast public lands can do this only if they are maintained as natural spaces, and the mining and fossil-fuel industries are waging a relentless campaign to ensure that they are not. Corporations in league with the American Legislative Exchange Council, for example, are seeking to break up our natural public landscapes and convert them for industrial uses.
These firms invest handsomely in political campaigns. They have eager allies in Washington. And sadly, they are winning.
Under the Trump administration, a number of previously protected monuments have been opened to mining, logging and fossil-fuel development. In a single day in 2017, President Trump executed the largest rollback of federal land protection in the country’s history when he reduced the size of Bears Ears National Monument by 85% and Grand Staircase-Escalante by about 50%.
Many of these projects were overseen by the ethically challenged former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. When Zinke assumed office in early 2017, he had been the recipient of more than $350,000 from gas and oil interests for his one congressional campaign. By the time he resigned in December 2018, Zinke had overseen the rollback of federal land protection and tripled oil and gas leases on federal lands.
The disposal of federal lands is baked into the Republican Party’s official platform. In 2016, the GOP called on Congress to “immediately pass universal legislation providing for a timely and orderly mechanism requiring the federal government to convey certain federally controlled public lands to states.”
According to one recent report, the forests, wetlands, deserts and grasslands of the Western United States are currently giving way to development at the rate of one Los Angeles-size footprint every year.
For animal and plant species adapting to climate change, the protection and linking of federal land will make all the difference. Research conducted by the biologist William Newmark and his colleagues suggests that even modest connectivity among public lands could have a significant effect.
“We can dramatically reduce current rates of extinction,” Newmark told me recently. “If we really want to conserve species in the future, we have to think seriously about linking the parks.”
An advocacy group called the Wildlands Network is calling for the protection of a corridor that links the Grand Canyon, the Kaibab National Forest, Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and the Bryce Canyon National Park region. There are similar opportunities in the Eastern United States.
It’s the good fortune of the United States that a third of our landscape belongs to the public. We can choose to plan for climate change by guarding our irreplaceable natural landscapes and their wild inhabitants.
It is our ill fortune that private interests are, for now, extending their reach. If we don’t reverse this trend, the legacy of our national parks will be at risk, at the Grand Canyon and everywhere else.