Falling in love with the outdoors: how national parks inspire awe

Olympus, the Grand Canyon, Uluru and the Serengeti: national parks are home to many of the wonders of our natural world. Aaron Millar explores their importance in conservation and how these protected spaces encourage us to feel environmental empathy

The great environmentalist, John Muir, said: “In wildness, lies the hope of the world”. The outdoors is more than a pretty photograph, or a glimpse through a car window screen, it’s an essential part of who we are. You may spend your days in front of a computer; you may have never scaled a mountain or jumped in a freezing river at dawn, but make no mistake: the wilderness is inside you.

This Earth Day, on 22 April, a worldwide celebration of environmental protection held every year since 1970, we must remember not just the challenges ahead, but the successes we continue to achieve. Below are the stories of three national parks around the world. They’re not famous; they don’t make the headlines. But they are leading the way in the conservation of public lands.

That’s important. Conservation biologists around the world agree: our best chance of reversing the trend of habitat and species destruction is to protect large swathes of vital ecosystems. National parks help support local communities and indigenous populations, protect threatened species and key biological hotspots, preserve our history and help provide vital breakthrough in medicine, climate change and more.

Statues on Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean, created by the native Rapa Nui people. Image: Jantoniov

They’re not perfect. At times, native people have been displaced to create them; unmanaged visitor impact has decimated certain landscapes; and there is the enticing argument that these lands shouldn’t be conserved at all, but rather preserved, allowed to return to their natural, wild state without any human footprint whatsoever.

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But we should, nonetheless, take pride. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, national parks, and similar protected reserves, cover an astonishing 14.7 per cent of the Earth’s land surface and 10 per cent of its territorial waters. And they’re ours. Reserves can be private property, national parks are, by definition owned by the people. They represent the soul of a country. When we walk among the high peaks of the Himalayas we walk with the Tibetan people, for whom they are sacred; when we touch the red rocks of Uluru we touch the Dreamtime too. National parks don’t just show us a place, they let us feel it. They are the last bastions of wonder and awe.

Uluru-Kata Tjuta national park in Australia. Image: Tong Li

They’re also how we save the planet, because environmental empathy begins by falling in love with the outdoors. That’s what John Muir meant. Climb a mountain, gaze at the stars, bathe in the soft glow of the forest: the rest will follow. At a time when we are bombarded with bad news, when there are people in power who still view the Earth as a thing to exploit rather than a living system with its own intrinsic rights, national parks are a rare beacon of light. The wilderness is who we are; and we are the hope of the world.

Fjordland national park in New Zealand. Image: San Ferrara

Pumalin and Patagonia national parks, Chile

On 29 January 29, 2018 Doug and Kristine Tompkins (the founder of North Face and CEO of Patagonia clothes companies respectively) donated one million acres of wild lands to the Chilean people – the largest private land donation in history – a gift that was matched by a further 9m acres from the Chilean government. Together they will create three new national parks and expand five existing ones, linking together wilderness areas from the northern forests of Patagonia to the icy fjords on the tip of the South America, in order to form the largest contiguous network of protected land on the planet. If successful, this new network, which is projected to generate $270m (£188m) annually and create some 43,000 jobs, could provide a new model for sustainable development and inspire countless nations around the world to follow suit.

Image: Eric Carlson

Pumalin and Patagonia national parks are the Tomkins crown jewels – a pure, wild land nearly the size of Switzerland filled with mountain spires, emerald lakes and glaciers spilling down from the high country like icy fingers all around. Before he died in 2015, Doug Tompkins called national parks: “one of the greatest expressions of democracy that a country can realise, preserving the masterpieces of a nation for all of its citizenry”. These may be the newest parks on the world stage, but they may also yet prove to be the greatest masterpieces of all.

Gwaii Haanas national park and marine reserve, Canada

The Haida Gwaii archipelago, a string of more than 150 mist-covered islands 62 miles off the northern coast of British Columbia, is unlike anywhere else on Earth. Lush forests, dripping in moss, tower like skyscrapers hundreds of feet above the ground; bald eagles soar through the sky; the bays swell with salmon, sea lions and orca whales. Known as the Galapagos of the North for its remarkable levels of endemism, life is richer here, more wild and vast.

Image: Cory Schadt

But the native Haida people, who have lived here for at least the last 12,500 years, had to fight to protect it. In 1985, frustrated by the relentless logging of their homeland, they banded together, linking arms to form a blockade against logging equipment and roads. Some 72 Haida were arrested in total, many of them elders dressed in ceremonial regalia, saying they had no choice but to protect the land for their unborn grandchildren. The protest gained national attention and only lasted two weeks before the country had seen enough. Two years later, in 1987, the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve was officially created, with the vision that it would be co-managed by the park service and the Haida people themselves – a new model of indigenous based wilderness preservation that is now held up as an inspiration to other native communities around the world.

More recently, a National Marine Conservation Area Reserve has been added to extend the park six miles offshore – the only place on the planet where an entire landscape, from mountain summit to ocean bed, is protected.

Volcanoes national park, Rwanda

In the mid 1980s, the number of mountain gorillas left in the wild had dropped to just 300, with populations seemingly doomed to decline further due to the pressures of deforestation and poaching. Volcanoes national park changed all that, adopting a revolutionary economic model that gave 20 per cent of the park’s revenue directly to the communities that surround it, helping to fund schools, health centres and more. The formula worked. Poaching has fallen; the lives of the local people have improved; and the numbers of mountain gorillas living in the wild is slowly, cautiously climbing. It’s all thanks to one remarkable woman.

Image: Neil Palmer (CIAT)

Diane Fossey, the famed US primatologist (who the film Gorillas in the Mist is based on) spent her life living in these mountains and publicising the true gentle nature of these once-feared distant cousins. That mountain gorillas are not on the long list of extinct animals may be largely thanks to her. But you can help save them too.

At Volcanoes national park, you not only see one of the world’s most extraordinary animals up close, your money goes directly towards their protection too. It’s an experience you’re not likely to forget. Highly intelligent with strong familial bonds and playful, toddler-like young, to see one of the world’s great apes up close is to understand immediately our existential bond. Look in their eyes and you will see yourself reflected back. Fossey would have been proud.

Aaron Millar’s latest book, The 50 Greatest National Parks of the World, is published by Icon Books

Featured image: Banff national park, Canada’s oldest national park, photographed by Gorgo

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