Author: Hans Gonzembach
Hans is an undergraduate at Florida International University. Follow the author’s own blog at hdude07.wordpress.com.
When I was 11 years old, I went on a road/ski trip with my aunt, uncle and cousins from Miami, Florida to Flagstaff, Arizona. It was the day after Christmas and I had never seen snow before – it was what I was looking forward to the most on this trip. After 3 days of driving, we finally arrived at our destination, where every inch of building and land was covered in snow. The next day we drove to the Grand Canyon National Park. Entering the park, I remember seeing an enormous landscape of cliffs and empty land, and I was amazed by the sheer size of it all. Coming onto the canyon, I thought to myself, “this looks so beautiful, it is like god carefully structured this cliff just for everyone to enjoy.” It was a serene moment in my life. After exploring various parts of the park, we decided to go on a hiking trail for beginners. It was a cold afternoon (around freezing), and the first thing I noticed was a fox that was only 20 yards away from me. It was my first time seeing a fox in the wild and I remember thinking to myself, what a beautiful animal. It was one of the greatest moments I had on that trip, better than the skiing.
After that trip, I wanted to visit every National Park that I could. Unfortunately as the years went by, and as I got older, my family never had time to take me to all of the parks. Although, I did have the pleasure of visiting a few: Biscayne National Park, Everglades National Park, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Each park had its own distinct beauty– that is what is so amazing about these parks.
I visited the Great Smoky Mountains in winter but no snow had fallen that month. Driving in the mountains was a surreal feeling for me; I was awestruck by all the trees. I was truly in the heart of nature, where no urbanization was taking place, no mining, and no agriculture, just nature being nature. I never saw a black bear or a large animal I had imagined I’d see, but just viewing the landscape was enough for me.
Everglades National Park is right in my backyard, an hour drive from where I grew up. My first experience visiting the Everglades was an airboat ride my parents took my cousin and I on when I was 13 years old. I saw a diversity of wildlife on the water, from herons and egrets, to alligators and turtles. I thought to myself, “Why is this considered a park? There is no land, just water and swamp.” When I got off the boat ride and took a hiking trip, I proved myself wrong. That day I realized the Everglades not only had swamps, but also land where deer, the Florida panther, wild hogs and even snakes roamed.
I began to notice, the more parks I visited, the more diverse the wildlife was from the previous. Not only was the wildlife diverse but also the terrain would be different at each park. From desert, to hills covered in trees, to swamp land filled with water, to coral reefs and mangrove trees that would act as nurseries to fish. These parks are homes to all these amazing animals and little did they know that these parks are their only protection.
Earth is made up of many different ecosystems that sustain these living organisms. These life forms have been present on Earth since Cambrian times (approx. 540 to 490 million years ago) with the help of evolution and adaptability. Scientists estimate that modern humans have lived on this planet for only 200,000 years. Yet we have succeeded in disrupting the balance that is so essential to life. Fortunately, there are still ways that we can take action to conserve the biodiversity resource around us, and help preserve the plants and wildlife found in natural areas and the habitats our wild neighbors call Home. The government has done just that, protect and preserve the land and wildlife in it designed the National Parks System.
In 1872, Ulysses S. Grant established the first National Park in America, Yellowstone National Park. This park covers three states in the United States, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. It is a symbol of conservation in my eyes because it was the first national park ever established and set off a chain of events that led to more and more National Parks. There are a total of 58 National Parks in the United States and all are under threat from the same species that established them, humans. National Parks are the only landmarks that have total protection from destruction, but even with total protection, they still face a deadly future if we do not act immediately. Without these parks, people will forget what true preservation and sustainability means. These parks teach us how to better our lifestyles in the urban environment we live in. Some issues our precious National Parks face today are:
Neighboring Development: The land surrounding parks are often areas used for power plants, and mining grounds. As human populations expand exponentially, more and more land is used for humans and consequently wildlife habitats are minimized and more often than not, destroyed. Even though mining and other developments are strictly forbidden inside the National Parks, the borders are under great threat from these activities. Unfortunately, the wildlife living within the National Parks do not recognize our imposed boundaries between the parks and the land outside them, so they often move to lands outside of the parks during migration. The events that occur on the parks’ border have an impact on the environment inside the park.
Foreign Invaders: Introduced exotic plants and animals often cause havoc on our native ecosystems. Invaders that establish themselves don’t always have natural predators in their non-native ecosystem and some can cause extinction or shifts in their new ecosystem. Even though extinction due to natural causes is inevitable, I believe animal extinction that is human-caused is unnecessary and unacceptable. More than 6,500 non-native invasive species have been found in U.S. National Parks, 70% of them being plants. Most of the invasive animals found in our National Parks are the result of the exotic-pet trade. Everglades National Park has an enormous problem with people releasing Burmese Pythons into the park. These snakes are destroying the delicate ecosystem and they have no competition to balance out the destruction they have caused. Since 2000, park personnel have caught or killed 1,825 pythons. Sighting of raccoons are down by 99.3%, sightings of opossums are down by 98.9%, and sightings of white-tailed deer are down by 94.1%! To add insult to injury, there have been zero sightings of marsh rabbits or foxes too. Could we be seeing future extinctions on certain native mammals native to the everglades? All because of our need to have exotic pets and then irresponsibly chuck it out on our own backyard?
Climate Change: With global warming currently underway, glaciers are melting, even in Montana’s Glacier National Park. Fire seasons may grow in length and severity, causing destruction to a variety of habitats in the parks. Changes in temperatures often cause species to migrate to a more comfortable environment and which may cause more competition between species, including humans, for resources and space. Another reason why climate change is a threat to our National Parks, is that certain species are not going to adapt quickly enough to the fast rate of change and may become extinct as a result.
Water: With relentless droughts these past few years, some parks are feeling the effects of drought already. In Florida’s Biscayne National Park, where freshwater comes in from the Everglades upstream, a freshwater shortage is becoming an issue. The Colorado River, along with its tributaries, is in contact with ten parks. These waters are also being drained by the high demand of agriculture in growing cities in Utah, Colorado, California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and Wyoming.
Ecosystem Balance: In the 1920’s, the American gray wolf was seen as a nuisance; ranchers saw them as pests that killed their livestock and hunters saw them as a threat to their Elk hunting. After the American gray wolf was eradicated in Yellowstone National Park in the 1920’s, it caused a noticeable ecosystem shift. In 1997, researchers noticed Aspen trees in the park were declining and when researchers set off to find an answer, they found that an increased number of elk, the wolves’ preferred prey, was the cause of the decline of Aspen trees. Elk like to feed on seedlings that the tree produced and when the wolf population disappeared, it created an imbalance in the ecosystem; which allowed an overpopulation of Elk that ate away the Aspen tree seedlings. When wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995, researchers hoped wolves would be able to restore the ecosystem in the near future. In 2003, a study was done on wolves in Yellowstone National Park and found out these wolves were rebalancing their ecosystem. There will always be those groups of people who think life would be better without certain species, but the truth is, no matter how much an animal jeopardizes your source of income, cuts off your recreational activity, diminishes your food supply, or even scares you because it is a dangerous “wild” animal, we need them. Scientists today still can’t figure out how many species are vital to their ecosystem and exactly which ones are nonessential, but one thing is certain, they all play a vital role in their habitat and it is nature’s way of maintaining a balance.
My favorite analogy about ecosystem balance and is from Bill Nye, the Science Guy (see episode below). In this episode, he demonstrates how important biodiversity is to an ecosystem by stacking small pieces of wood on top of each other to form a high tower, just like a game of Jenga. The tower is supposed to represent the ecosystem. Each wood block represents a species in that ecosystem. Bill removes individual wood blocks as a representation of the affects of human disturbance or habitat loss to a particular species, explaining how each species plays a vital role in the ecosystem and if we eradicate too many, it would take a drastic effect on the ecosystem and would eventually collapse. Ecology’s overall message is simple: the Earth is a very delicate system in which each species plays a vital role in order to balance out the resources on this planet, and any removal of a species affects the overall balance of an ecosystem.
These species have been here for millions of years and have the right to make a home on this planet. We humans, supposedly the most intelligent species of them all, have often used our power to damage our ecosystems instead of maintaining them. We have the power to change our ways and make this planet better but we need to start caring and act immediately. Scientists have just started studying the intelligence and the sentience of animals like elephants, whales, and wolves. Dolphins that are able to identify one another with names just like humans, and elephant and chimpanzee clans who mourn their dead, should all send shivers down your spine. We are blessed to share this planet with such amazing and powerful creatures, and we should learn to coexist with them.
If more people become more educated on these issues and start changing their lifestyle, we can still save many habitats and species, but if we do not stop and change soon, it will be too late, and we will start to see devastating effects. If you do not want to look at it with an ethical point of view, than look at it with a survivor’s point of view, we need wildlife for our own survival, and to save wildlife, we need to save their homes. I will leave you with a quote and hope that after reading this, you will have a better understanding of the importance of ecology and conservation.
“Let us be good stewards of the Earth we inherited. All of us have to share the Earth’s fragile ecosystems and precious resources, and each of us has a role to play in preserving them. If we are to go on living together on this earth, we must all be responsible for it.” ~ Kofi Annan