Sustainability the National Parks in 2019 and beyond

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In the United States, we have been blessed with a massive gift. A long line of men and women recognized that we have some incredibly special landscapes and they need to be protected from development. That system started with one 2 million acre national park that has grown into 419 parks that protects over 52 million acres. That is just the national parkland in the United States. Today, there are over 3,000 national parks worldwide.

I have been blessed to explore national parks in the United States, Iceland, Colombia, Uganda, and Kenya. Each park is a wonder and I am so thankful that these areas have been protected for future generations. But simply protecting the land is no longer enough. Generations before us protected the land now it is our turn to do our part.

Research is starting to show that actions outside of the National Parks can have as much of an effect as that inside of the National Park. Making the effort to live more sustainably can help protect our parks.

How to be More Eco-Conscious in the National Parks and in Life

Get and Use a Refillable Water Bottle

In July 2019, the California Condor Recovery Program celebrated hatching of the 1,000th California Condor chick. This is a huge milestone for a species that in 1987 had a population of 27. In October 2019, I was devastated to see this family of highly endangered birds has developed an interest in collecting discarded plastic water bottles in Zion National Park. The chick is finding these improperly discarded bottles.

Cheap single-use plastic water bottle is one of the biggest wastes of plastic in the United States. It is estimated that 2.5 million of these bottles are trashed HOURLY and less than 7% are recycled. The vast majority of plastic water bottles in the United States are a stain on the environment and wallets.

In most of the United States, we have access to safe and clean drinking water by just turning on our taps. We don’t need to buy bottled water to access safe drinking water. There is really no excuse for not regularly carrying and using a reusable water bottle.

I am a sucker for light-weight gear so I prefer to get Nalgene water bottles. My favorite Nalgene water bottle it about 17 years old. I put my first Ocoee River sticker on it in 2002. While Nalgene’s are made of plastic, they are rough and tough and built to last. I use that bottle every day.

If you prefer to keep your water cold all day long, consider getting an insulated water bottle such as a National Park HydroFlask bottle.

If you are traveling somewhere that doesn’t have safe drinking water there are other options for buying bottled water. SaganLife recently gave me one of their Journey™ Water Purifier bottles to test on a trip to Voyageurs National Park. I spent the entire 4-day trip filling up my water bottle out of Lake Kabetogama and Rainey Lake and I never got sick. The SaganLife filter is effective against 99% of bacteria, viruses, and protozoan contaminations making perfect for the traveler looking to reduce their plastic use. A single filter is good for 250 gallons or over 900 1-liter single-use bottles of water.

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Recent visitors to the park have had an opportunity to see some strange behavior exhibited by California condors in the wild. Since Chick 1000 fledged, the condor family has spent more time at the base of the cliffs under Angels Landing. This photo shows female condor 409 (wing tag 9) carrying a water bottle. Condors are curious birds and natural scavengers and are attracted to small bits of trash that stand out from the surroundings. This is worrisome because if micro trash were to be swallowed, it cannot be digested and will negatively affect the health of these critically endangered birds. People travelling the strenuous Angels Landing trail constantly pass high above the area where condors roost. Anything dropped from the trail could injure one of the condors and becomes litter that may interest them later. Park biologists spent a short time collecting trash in this area last week and gathered mostly single-use plastic bottles. Please use caution while hiking and never leave anything behind. Make sure to secure all of your items so that they cannot be dropped. Side pockets of backpacks are notorious for letting items slip out as hikers travel the rough trail. Put your belongings inside the main part of the backpack. Using a reusable water bottle can also help reduce the amount of trash in our world. Thanks for helping make the park a safer place for these incredible birds. NPS Photos / Brian Whitehead and Kelly Teale #Zion #nationalpark #lnt #condors #zioncondors #californiacondors

A post shared by Zion National Park (@zionnps) on

Rethink your Hot Beverage Habit

Americans drink over 400 million cups of coffee a day. Some Americans can’t survive without their coffee. You don’t have to give up coffee to make an environmental impact.

Bring your own mug

The exact number of reusable cup verse disposable cups isn’t known. Even if only (and this is probably a huge underestimate) 1% of those cups of coffee is in a disposable cup, it means that 1 million single-use cups are being disposed of every day.

The coffee and tea industry has made great strides in being eco-friendly. Many coffee places now offer biodegradable cups, but that isn’t enough. Biodegradable is better than before but it still wasteful to only use a cup once then throw it away.

If you are a regular coffee or tea drinker, bring your own reusable mug and skip the disposable cup.

Avoid Single Serve

In 2015, Keurig produced 10 billion K-cups. That number doesn’t include any of the other coffee pod manufactures or tea bags. All of those pods and tea bags are now sitting in a landfill and will take forever to decompose.

There are other options. It might be a little more work to heat water for a single cup and brew it through a reusable filter but think of all the plastic you can save. This statement included tea drinkers as well. Plus you will learn to appreciate the high quality of coffee or tea with this method.

Once you have made your hot beverage, the coffee grounds or tea leaves can go straight in the compost bin.

Buy Fair Trade and Organic

Stick with coffee and tea brands who care about their environmental footprint. Look for brands that buy Fair Trade Certifed products and give back to the communities that grow their products.

Reduce other plastic use

In the United States, we can get just about anything pre-packaged in individual portions. It is shockingly wasteful how many products we buy that come in plastic bottles or wrappers. Most of which can’t or isn’t recycled.

I have started trying to figure out easy ways to reduce the amount of plastic waste I produce. Here are a few of the ways I have found to minimize my plastic use.

  • I keep a ChicoBag Micro Reusable Grocery Bag on my keyring. So that way I never walk into a grocery store without a reusable bag. This small change has eliminated my use of plastic single-use grocery sacks.
  • I have stopped putting my loose fruit in individual bags by type. I just put all my bulk fruit into a washable reusable bag while in the cart and then the cashier can weigh them at checkout.
  • Buying products that come in glass containers when possible. While my county doesn’t offer glass recycling, I am able to reuse many of the glass containers.
  • Buy products in bulk and store them in glass containers. This goes back to the previous idea. Tomato sauce jars work well for storing nuts and dried fruits.
  • I have stopped using straws. I don’t even carry a reusable straw. I simply decided that I don’t need one.

These are just a few of the changes I have made to help reduce my plastic use. This post my Manuel Bergmann sums it up perfectly.

Rising Micro-Plastics Concerns

One of the rising concerns in national parks and other natural places is micro-plastics. Micro-plastics are officially defined as small pieces of plastic less than 5.0 mm in size. I consider micro-plastics to be any piece of plastic smaller than a quarter and easily missed during clean-up.

National Park’s such as Dry Tortugas are very concerned about these small pieces of plastic. They can be mistaken by wildlife for food or inadvertently consumed. They can then accumulate in their bodies. We are already seeing devasting effects from microplastics. Fish and birds have been found dead with their stomachs full of plastics.

These plastics come from a wide range of sources that consumers don’t have direct control over such as industrial waste.

We can help eliminate a few common causes of micro-plastics by picking up all the litter we see including those small pieces such as a corner on a candy bar wrapper. We can limit the amount of polyester, nylon or acrylic clothing we buy. Small pieces of plastic break off from these types of clothing and make their way into the environment.

Limit your fossil fuel use

Visiting the national parks is not the most eco-friendly endeavor. Only a handful of parks can be reached and explore by public transportation (bus or train).

In parks where tours are offered, consider taking a guided tour. The tour bus will drop you off the most popular sites. You don’t have to worry about finding a parking space and you minimize your fossil fuel use while in the park.

At home, take public transportation when possible. If you live in a bike-friendly area, bikes are a great fossil-fuel way to get around cities and crowded areas.

Speak out

I have a platform to share my opinions and I do but that isn’t nearly enough to get public officials to listen and act.

Share your opinion with your elected officials. If your city doesn’t offer public transportation, start a petition and share why you think your city would benefit from public transportation.

Write the Secretary of the Interior and your Congressman and complain that most of our parks need a public transportation system. Adding buses to many parks will help minimize the number of cars in the park and allow for better traffic flow.

My Biggest Struggles in Living Sustainably

My biggest struggle in being more sustainable is finding a balance between everything. I want to travel and explore but I am aware of the impact it has on the environment and the places I visit. I also want to live in the modern world and enjoy a few creature comforts.

Traveling Sustainably

I try to combine my travel so I am not overlapping things and expending resources bouncing around from place to place. Sometimes it is hard to find a balance. I do my best to balance it out. It is like I’m juggling a bunch of balls and someone keeps adding balls.

When I solo travel, I prefer to patronize locally owned places. These are owned by a local who loved their home or transplants who have fallen in love with their adopted home. They want to take care of it because it’s their home, their community, and their livelihood. The money spent there stays in the local economy.

When I am booking packaged tours, I prefer to book with companies that specialize in a region. Tour companies like Yellow Zebra Safaris focus on a region to ensure they provide the highest quality tours while protecting the areas they are visiting. They tend to favor working with local experts to ensure the best possible tours.

Hiking and Backpacking Sustainably

Backpacking and hike are fun outdoor hobbies but Leaving No Trace on the landscape often means an environmental cost elsewhere. Most hikers already use refillable water bottles on the trails but finding ways to pack food that is minimal waste is a challenge. The options are limited to buy-in bulk then repackage to ziplock bags or buy individually packaged food. I still haven’t figured out which method is better for the environment.

Purchasing Sustainably

For my purchases, I have developed a mental checklist before I buy anything.

  • Am I sure I need this?
  • Am I sure I don’t already own something that will work?
  • Is the new product reusable? What will I use it for, realistically? Where will I store it? Will it wear out just sitting around? Once it breaks, how will it be recycled?

I go through these questions with every purchase. That last question “how will it be recycled” is probably the most important one.

Another thing I factor in is am I able to get it locally? If so I would rather get it locally. Amazon Prime has made it so easy to just order things without thinking. It is made to take advantage of impulse purchasing. So I have added a rule that I have to wait 48 hours before I buy anything off Amazon and try to limit my ordering to once a month.

My Future Sustainability Goals

Keep speaking up

I plan to continue to use my voice and platform to fight for the protection of National Parks and other public lands. I will continue to try and educate people on how they can help.

No matter how many times I get told to “F**K OFF” for politely saying when I see illegal and environmentally damaging activity, I will not stop. If no one says anything than others will think these actions are ok.

Keep trying to do better

I want to keep looking for more ways to reduce my consumption of energy and further reduce my plastic use. New ideas and products are always appearing and I want to continue to improve.

Do more research

Many new products come out and claim to be “super environmentally friendly” or “sustainable” but upon closer look, it isn’t nearly as cut or dry as people claim. I want to do a better job at researching where things are coming from the broader impacts of that product on the environment.

Take Pacific salmon. It is often packed as “wild-caught sustainably harvested.” But is it really. The long history of overfishing and habitat loss along with climate change has brought the salmon populations to all-time lows. This is having a huge effect on more than just the salmon. The ocra whales of the Pacific Northwest are starving to death because their primary food in this region is the salmon. We have depleted the salmon populations so far that the ocra population is unable to thrive.

I have stopped eating salmon for this reason. Atlantic Salmon which is often farmed raised has its own host of problems.

Everything has an environmental impact and I want to ensure that when I make a lifestyle change that it is going to have a positive impact rather than just shift the problem.

How have you made any recent changes to make your life more sustainable? Do you have any other suggestions to live a more eco-conscious life? Let me know in the comments below.

Jennifer Melroy

Jennifer has been obsessed with national parks as a child.  This Tennessee native spent her childhood exploring the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and traveling with her parents to National Parks and around the Caribbean.  She is always planning her next adventure and is ready to see the world while trying to visit all 59 National Park (*She is ignoring the hunk of concrete that just became a national park).

Jennifer Melroy has 96 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Melroy

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