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America's national parks face challenges

Shifting climates and needed upkeep are issues facing America’s treasured spots.

By Staff writer for The Christian Science Monitor / September 29, 2009

Joshua trees now grow in abundance in the Mojave National Preserve in California, considered one of the Top 10 endangered parks due to commercial development and recreation.

Robert Harbison/The Christian Science Monitor/File

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Acadia National Park, Maine

Park ranger Matt Holly stands atop the bald, rounded top of Cadillac Mountain as a small knot of tourists huddles around him. At just over 1,500 feet, Cadillac is the highest point along the US Atlantic coastline. On this late summer day, the vista is spectacular: Lush green forests and azure ocean spread from the Porcupine Islands in Frenchman Bay to the east to the Cranberry Islands in the south and Seal Cove to the west on the Gulf of Maine. Most of the panorama is part of Acadia National Park, the oldest national park east of the Mississippi, which is made up entirely of lands donated by private citizens.

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But the view isn’t always this pristine, explains the slender young ranger from under his Smokey Bear hat. He holds up two charts: One shows high levels of air pollution in the park when the winds are from the west. Another shows sharply lower levels when winds are from the north or south. Ozone levels at Acadia sometimes rise to what are considered unhealthful levels, and the polluted air is suspected of causing the mercury found in fish caught in the park’s shimmering freshwater lakes. Without air pollution, a visitor atop Cadillac should be able to see 110 miles. Today, 33 miles is more like it.

In many ways, Acadia typifies the state of US national parks today. It possesses extraordinary scenic beauty that remains largely intact. Americans visit it in impressive numbers.

But less visible forces are at work that could undermine its future.

This fall may prove to be a watershed moment for the parks, which historian and conservationist Wallace Stegner called “the best idea America has ever had.” They will earn a rare moment in the national spotlight, largely because of a six-part, 12-hour series by award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns that began Sept. 27. The documentary, which Mr. Burns calls “the most beautiful film we have ever made,” took 10 years to research and six years to film.

In addition, later this year a 28-member bipartisan board called the Second Century Commission, led by former Sens. Howard Baker Jr. and J. Bennett Johnston, is expected to issue its report on the challenges facing the parks as the National Park Service approaches its centennial in 2016. Many park advocates are also eagerly awaiting the new direction they hope the arrival of Jon Jarvis as the next director of the NPS will bring. His appointment, awaiting approval by the US Senate, could come at any time.