National Park Service touts green themes and waives fees

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Pedestrians walk through a cloud of dust and diesel exhaust from a transit bus near Yosemite Village on June 16, 2000, in Yosemite National Park.

It’s not easy being green, but the National Park Service (NPS) has decided it’s worth the effort.

On Thursday, the agency that oversees 397 units comprising 84 million acres of land across the country unveiled a new plan to integrate sustainable practices into all aspects of its operations. Announced by NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis, the plan sets out ambitious goals for conserving energy and water, reducing greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions and limiting waste.

"The Green Parks Plan asks each park and office to review routine activities, operations and programs and reflect on how we manage our work to prioritize actions and leverage existing funds to lessen our impact on the environment,” said Jarvis. “Much of our success will hinge on adopting sustainability as a guiding value and embedding it in what we do, every day.

The nine-point plan covers everything from purchasing decisions and waste management to vehicle use and construction projects. Among the goals:

  • Reduce GHG emissions from on-site fossil fuel and electricity consumption by 35 percent by 2020 from a baseline set in 2008.
  • Reduce fossil fuel consumption in NPS vehicles by 20 percent by 2015 from the 2005 baseline.
  • Reduce system-wide building energy costs by 35 percent by 2016 from the 2003 baseline.
  • Reduce “water use intensity” (gallons per square foot of facility space) by 30 percent by 2020 from the 2007 baseline.
  • Divert 50 percent of annual solid waste from landfills by 2015.

It won’t be easy given the current budget environment and the fact that the NPS manages more than 4 million acres of maintained landscapes, such as campgrounds and battlefields; more than 3,000 utility systems, and more than 67,000 structures.

“Unfortunately, the Park Service has lagged a bit — not through a lack of commitment but because of their fiscal reality,” said Mark Wenzler, vice president for climate and air quality programs at the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA). “You can’t make it into a clean, green machine overnight.”

Still, there has already been progress as new facilities and operations adopt more sustainable practices. Among them:

  • John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, Ore.: Using solar power and other energy-saving systems, the ranger residence in the monument’s Painted Hills Unit is so efficient, it meets all its own energy needs with enough left over to charge the site’s utility vehicle.
  • Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, Calif.: Set to open on June 9, the Anthony C. Beilenson Interagency Visitor Center scores high on several sustainability fronts. It’s being built in the repurposed stables of the King Gillette Ranch (lower construction costs), it will be shared by four agencies (fewer buildings required) and it will meet its own energy needs via a 95-kW solar array.
  • Mammoth Cave National Park, Ky.: On April 27, park officials will cut the ribbon on several green vehicles, including four propane buses, two propane pickup trucks and a small Global Electric Motorcar. They’ll replace four older buses (three 1990 models and one from 1977), two bi-fuel pickup trucks and a gas-powered golf cart.

In and of themselves, such efforts may seem small but they also serve as examples that can inspire park visitors to adopt more sustainable practices, says Wenzler: “When you think of parks, you don’t think of them as big polluters but they get almost 300 million visitors every year that they can influence.”

That’s especially pertinent now, he added, noting that National Park Week (April 21–29), when the parks that charge admission waive those fees, starts Saturday and the summer travel season is around the corner.

“As we approach the heavy visitor season, it’s really important that the parks show what they’re doing to address climate change and sustainability,” he told

Or, as Kate Kuykendall, public affairs officer for the Santa Monica Mountains unit, put it: “This is the Park Service walking the walk.”

Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.

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