Room to grow? For Eastern US Parks, More Than You Think
As a major first step toward achieving its goal to “conserve, connect and restore” 30% of the nation’s land and water by 2030, the Biden administration released its “america the beautifulreport in 2021, setting out the broad principles guiding the effort, but lacking specific details on exactly what land should be conserved. Despite this lack of detail, it’s clear that “America the Beautiful” will rely heavily on the National Park Service.
While it’s easy to imagine reaching 30% simply by expanding the vast units of the park to the West, that doesn’t do much good for the millions of people, plants, and animals in the East.
“The answer is a network of sites across the country, it’s not a big area somewhere,” said Dr. Mark Anderson, director of conservation science at The Nature Conservancy. Traveler in a recent interview.
Luckily, there’s more room for parks to grow in the East than you might think.
Dr. Anderson led a team at the Conservancy that created the Network of resilient and connected lands. The network has identified areas with high “landscape diversity” and “local connectivity”. Varied landscapes with varying topography and elevation provide protection against a wide variety of threats: high ground to avoid flooding, shade to avoid heat, berries to eat when fish populations are low; and as climate change forces animals to migrate to find suitable habitat, it is essential that they have a connected land path to get there.
Diverse and connected lands are “most likely to remain resilient” to climate change, Dr Anderson said.
Using Conservancy’s Resilient and Connected Earths Network, the Traveler identified several parks that are in or directly adjacent to resilient land and have the power to acquire more land without additional (notoriously slow) Congressional approval, making them prime targets for further expansion.
Two such sites are the Blue Ridge Parkway – a 469-mile scenic route that crosses North Carolina and Virginia – and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, at the Parkway’s terminus in North Carolina.
The vast forests the parks protect store vast amounts of carbon dioxide, provide an essential wildlife corridor for millions of birds and other animals, and protect one of the East Coast’s largest watersheds.
The primary driver of any park unit’s ability to acquire and protect more land is that park’s enabling legislation. Some parks have strict limits that they cannot exceed. Others, like Great Smoky, are more flexible. When Great Smoky was established in 1940 it was licensed to cover up to 750,000 acres, but today it is only 522,000 acres due to existing private land within the park boundaries. Assuming the owners are willing to sell and the land meets park criteria, the park could have over 225,000 acres of space to expand.
According to Phil Francis, former superintendent of Blue Ridge Parkway and the Great Smoky Mountains and past president of the Coalition to Protect US National Parks, there are more than 4,000 individual landowners adjacent to park land. With so many different landowners, there is no one answer.
“We have a toolbox that we can choose from: conservation easements, donations, acquisitions,” he told the Traveler.
Blue Ridge Parkway, by its enabling statute, is permitted to acquire land contiguous to the current park, to meet the park’s protection purposes and, of course, to have a willing vendor, current parkway superintendent Tracy Swartout said. . Traveler in a previous interview.
Even if the seller is willing, it may not be realistic. “I received a call