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Governor Bill Richardson's Speech from America's Summit on National Parks

Remarks of Gov. Bill Richardson


America’s Summit on National Parks: Taking Action for a New Century

Panel Discussion:  “New Dimensions in Park Protection”

 January 25, 2012

Washington, DC

My sincere appreciation to the National Parks Conservation Association,  National Park Foundation, and the National Park Hospitality Association for convening this Summit.  This is an incredibly important and timely event, and an impressive gathering.  And I offer my grateful thanks to the women and men of the National Park Service, whose work and dedication exemplify the very best in public service.

I am honored to be here with you, along with my distinguished fellow panelists and other speakers, and all conference attendees to discuss the future of our national parks, a subject that is near and dear to my heart and has been a focus of mine throughout my career in politics.

To effectively address the challenge of national park protection, our national dialogue on environmental issues and our efforts to care for the National Park System have to improve and advance to a new level.

We must utilize tried and true strategies and to accelerate creative new initiatives.  While we need action on numerous fronts, I would like to touch on the following four major areas:

  • energize congressional and executive branch action;
  • build partnerships for land use planning and resource stewardship;
  • adapt a low carbon economy to benefit parks;
  • engage citizens and ensure environmental literacy for all Americans.

1. Executive/Congressional Action

Unfortunately, some “tried and true” park protection approaches have stalled.  We’re in an era when Congress governs only by deadline, bi-partisanship is as rare as a Washington Wizards’ win, and too many so-called “public leaders” have forgotten America’s conservation story—which is one of the greatest narratives in our nation’s history.

Some have asked:  If “con” is the opposite of “pro,” then is “Congress” the opposite of “Progress”?  Today, the answer is “yes.”

Designations of parks, monuments, refuges, wilderness, wild & scenic rivers, other conservation overlays, have been key to protecting national parks and public lands and their broader ecosystems.  For decades, most of these measures were enacted with bi-partisan support.  Sadly, however, dozens of pending public lands measures generated at the local level and that have bi-partisan support are now languishing in Congress.

President Obama and numerous congressional, conservation and community leaders have also called for full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which supports essential land protection programs at the local, state, and federal levels.   LWCF is critical to National Park System protection and to President’s “America’s Great Outdoors” agenda.  But some in Congress want to kill LWCF entirely.  

We need a public lands  and LWCF bill in 2012 to bring together park, wilderness, wild & scenic rivers, and other conservation measures.  You could call it the “Stewart Udall Act,” since Stewart was one of the greatest voices for the Earth this country has ever had.  And what better way also to honor Senator Jeff Bingaman and his 30 years as a conservation champion.

Just a few Republican Senators and an anti-enviromental House Republican caucus block progress.  Bi-partisan leadership, Republicans re-discovering their Teddy Roosevelt conservation roots, Senate rule changes, and grassroots activism are now sorely needed in order to pass important park protection legislation.

Failing Congressional action, President Obama and Secretary Salazar should use their executive branch power to protect national parks and other treasured landscapes wherever possible, just as President Obama did last November when he showed great leadership to establish Fort Monroe National Monument in Virginia.

2. Partnerships

As a Westerner, I know first hand the challenges we face, preserving America’s vast natural resources, wildlife and landscapes.  Across the West, the steady disection of ranches and other private lands, urbanization, energy development, and roads cause habitat fragmentation.

Now and in the future, safeguarding national parks requires a wide variety of partners working together to develop landscape-scale protection strategies and new approaches for resource stewardship on both public and private lands.  I am pleased to see that the NPS “Call to Action” targets connecting large landscapes.  We must do this, and much more, with respect to land and water, drawing on the best ideas and combining resources from states, local government, conservation groups, the private sector, and the federal government.

Action on many issues, including most major environmental laws, has been preceded in some way by leadership and testing at the state level.

In 2009, former Colorado Governor Bill Ritter and I established a wildlife corridor initiative along our shared New Mexico-Colorado border in order to deal with the impacts of habitat fragmentation.  Now, New Mexico and Colorado are working together on wildlife population surveys and strategies for protecting migration routes and core habitats.  Similar work is underway elsewhere that should be encouraged and supported.

I see great opportunities for programs that:

  • forge new agreements and relationships with Native American communities;
  • expand use of conservation easements;
  • provide assistance to private landowners near parks to protect and restore wildlife and wildlife habitat; and, in general
  • incentivize state and local governments and harness the power of the market.

The success of the so-called “New Ranch,”for example, which combines goals for sustainable economic success and conservation outputs, is critical to national park protection.  In some cases, I think the NPS need to work through and provide support to non-governmental conservation partners, which often can have more success working directly with private landowners than federal agencies can.

But we need to go much further in these partnerships.  The federal government, including the National Park Service itself, needs to offer more in the way of legal and financial incentives and dis-incentives to states and local communities when it comes to things like land-use planning, conservation and open space funding initiatives, energy efficiency, night sky protection, and water management.

Many states, including New Mexico, have programs to leverage federal dollars from the LWCF with state dollars to purchase conservation easements, fund river ecosystem restoration projects, and make other efforts that protect national parks. 

And local and state governments and private citizens should be given other opportunities to step up.  For example, we need new approaches to water resources.  Rivers and streams are the backbones of ecosystems—the ecological architecture and lifeblood of the West and they are vital to many national park ecosystems.  They say that in the West, “Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting.” And with the impacts from climate change already being felt, the fight over water is intensifying.   

In addition to the need for states to reassess agreements and compacts and recognize ecological and economic benefits of in-stream flows, unprecedented new efforts should be aimed at water conservation—especially in the urban and agriculture sectors—which may save water for park ecosystems.

In Albuquerque, a 10-year campaign has helped reduce water consumption from 216 gallons per capita per day to under 160 gallons—a 25% improvement.  The target for most western cities, however, has to be in range of 130 gallons per capita per day, or better.  Agriculture also has to increase efficiency dramatically.

In Santa Fe, citizens have the option of voluntarily designating a portion of their monthly water bill to pay for acquisition of water rights to keep the Santa Fe River flowing; this kind of thing might be done for national park-associated rivers.

And Santa Fe is also contemplating a system of direct compensation for the watershed benefits that the upstream public lands provide.  This later concept is not without some problematic precedential aspects, but at the same time, it could also offer enormous new resources to national park and public land managers for the ecological and economic benefits that watershed protection actually provides.

In many places, the National Park Service needs to be a part of these types of campaigns and the educational process, to help make the direct connection between daily environmental and resource decisions and park health and integrity.

3. Adapting a Low-Carbon Economy to Parks

Most would agree that climate change represents a grave threat to park and ecosystem integrity and, if present trends continue, will impose enormous economic and social costs.

Following my service as Secretary of Energy, as Governor of New Mexico I led our state in some bold steps regarding climate change because of these impending impacts and because of basic inaction at the federal level to confront them.

I pushed New Mexico to conserve energy and expand the development of renewable energy, worked through the Western Governors Association to lead a regional clean energy and climate adaptation effort, assessed potential climate change impacts on the state and prepared a response plan, put in place a statewide greenhouse gas emissions reduction program, and authorized state participation in a carbon trading market.

Whether some of these and other similar efforts in the states and at the national level ultimately do any good will depend on the ability of humans to take action and collaborate on an unprecedented scale—and on whether the anti-science crowd and climate change deniers prevail.

Nonetheless, national parks and public lands have the potential to make significant contributions to climate mitigation objectives and are likely to play an important role in comprehensive climate policy.

I commend the NPS “Call to Action” goal to “be a leader in addressing climate change impacts on protected areas around the world,” and for NPS’s aim to focus on adaptation and resiliency.  Parks and public lands can promote connected landscapes and improve response to climate change and the NPS do all it can inside and outside the parks with respect to science, adaptive management, and education.

The sheer magnitude of renewable energy resources, greenhouse gas storage and mitigation embodied in parks, however, also means that they should be considered as part of any economy-wide climate policies.

For example, storage benefits and greenhouse gas sequestration could generate payments directly to parks, which could provide badly needed new financial resources.  NPS has an opportunity to develop innovative policy in the area of public lands to participate in the production and sale of carbon storage or GHG emission reduction credits (i.e., offsets), either directly or indirectly.

One study concluded that total economic value of stored carbon in 39 Canadian national parks was conservatively estimated to be $72 - 78 billion.  Some have even envisioned a system by which citizens can contribute directly to support park GHG storage benefits.

I believe that some pilot partnerships of this type are being tried on federal lands and in under California state forest law.  The NPS can do more under the umbrella of the Energy Policy Act of 2007, which established several efforts to gauge federal land mitigation capacity and recommend a framework for managing carbon sequestration activities on public land.

4. Engage Citizens and Ensure Environmental Literacy

Lastly, I want to comment on the critical role for both civic engagement and education in the protection of the National Park System.

The biggest threat to the national parks is not pollution or habitat loss; it’s actually ignorance and disconnection.  Educated and engaged park constituencies are the best defense against exploitation and agency mismanagement.

As the “Call to Action” and other reports have pointed out, the National Park System is not serving the great diversity of American citizens equally.  Far too many Americans do not know about the parks, do not visit them, and do not see them as central to their identity.

This issue has drawn and will continue to draw much discussion before, during and after this Summit.  I won’t belabor the situation, except to point out for the purposes of this panel’s discussion that we must recognize National Park System relevancy to all Americans as park protection.

For this reason, among many, we must dramatically improve engagement, so that the National Park Service, the composition of the National Park System, National Park System visitation, and national park supporters truly reflect America and her multi-hued story.

Ensuring environmental literacy in America is also a preeminent challenge of our time, for the parks and for the planet. 

Most Americans believe they know more about the environment than they actually do.  The truth is that four decades after the first Earth Day, only one-third of American adults can pass a simple test of environmental knowledge with a C grade or above.  Just 12 percent of Americans can pass a basic quiz on energy.

There is also evidence that, as the nation's education system has increased its focus on standards and testing, the amount of environmental education in schools has leveled off and may even be in decline for the first time in three decades.

This is sad and ironic, since 95% of this public supports environmental education in our schools, people clearly want to understand environmental issues and how they apply to their daily lives, and a growing body of evidence shows that environmental education produces higher-performing students, improved test scores, and quality character education; it even contributes to later career success.

And, environmental knowledge and literacy correlates significantly with a higher degree of pro-environment behavior and produces improved environmental stewardship.  In 1944, noted conservationist (and former New Mexican) Aldo Leopold wrote: “Acts of conservation without the requisite desires and skill are futile.  To create these desires and skills, and the community motive, is the task of education.”

As a 10-year study of environmental education in America concluded, “We need to improve the quality and delivery of lifelong education on the environment…We need to build more support for resource stewardship through education and use an informed public to mitigate some of the adverse effects of our actions on the environment.”

To achieve this, we need a massively expanded effort to achieve environmental literacy, primarily, though not exclusively, through preK-12 school-based programs.  In New Mexico, the Outdoor Classroom Program I started reached 60% of school districts and 50% of K-12 students within 3 years.  New Mexico is now developing its environmental literacy plan, following states such as Maryland, Oregon, Nebraska, Kansas, California, and Colorado that have completed their own ELPs.

Educators across America, including a group of New Mexico’s Golden Apple Foundation award-winning teachers, identify overemphasis on Standards Based Assessment testing as the single biggest impediment to improving environmental education.

The truth is that a huge key to improving environmental literacy—and with it park and public land protection—is reforming the educational system, both to fix the No Child Left Behind law (adding in a No Child Left Inside law) and to emphasize more experiential, inquiry-based learning over “teaching to the test.”

In closing, I want to repeat my call for a bold set of actions. We need Congressional and Executive action on public lands and conservation funding measures, innovative programs and partnerships for land and resource management, a low-carbon economy that benefits protected areas, and massive efforts to increase environmental literacy and engagement with parks.  We need cannot afford to wait.

Throughout last year, the National Park Service marked the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War.  "Be sure you put your feet in the right place, then stand firm," said Abraham Lincoln during those troubled times.

Our feet in the parks is the right place.  We must continue to stand firm in a posture of eternal vigilance to protect the parks. . . And given our challenges, we need to do a little fancy footwork, too.


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