“This must be what the birds feel like,” Hake quips somewhere along our travels.
The birds Hake refers to are threatened piping plovers - small migratory birds that nest along the upper beach, their bodies and eggs blending in with the sand and pebbles there. Being trampled by beachgoers or run over by off-road vehicles are among the greatest threats to these birds. So managers, like Hake, expend a lot of time and effort finding and monitoring each nest, putting up symbolic fencing (really just twine strung between stakes) around certain areas, or closing trails and parking lots temporarily to protect fledglings.
Fences and Boardwalks
Fences and boardwalks have long been the hallmarks of efforts to protect fragile coastal ecosystems and endangered species from the nearly ten million human feet (two per person, remember) that pass through Cape Cod National Seashore each year. It’s a reflection of what Hake and many of her colleagues call the “dual mandate” governing the National Park Service – to protect the natural resources that make Cape Cod National Seashore special, while still providing public access and enjoyment of those resources.
The “Organic Act” of 1916
The 1916 legislation that established the National Park Service, popularly known as the Organic Act, created an inherent conflict by charging the new agency “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
“Because if you were going to preserve something then you might isolate it,” says George Price, superintendent of Cape Cod National Seashore. As an example, he jokingly says that the best way to protect all the presidential birthplaces would be to put them in a climate-controlled dome where nobody is allowed to enter. “But the mandate that we are also allowing the visiting public to participate in these special places – by definition we’re setting up a conflict already.”
As a result, the work of the National Park Service is a constant balancing act, weighing the demands and value of human use against the requirements of environmental protection. And there are no absolutes. Determining where the line is between acceptable use and excessive impact falls to natural resource managers. Price says that line changes with social norms, with the advance of scientific understanding, and with the tools available to resource managers.
Not surprisingly, such an ambiguous and potentially contradictory mandate can lead to disagreements. In one high-profile example, the National Park Service was sued for restricting vehicle access to backcountry areas in Canyonlands National Park. Here in Cape Cod National Seashore, closures and restrictions intended to protect piping plovers often meet with anger or resentment. Proposals to kill crows to reduce predation pressure on piping plovers has been another source of controversy in recent years.
But the scientists and managers I met at Cape Cod National Seashore seemed to have made their peace with the fact that they can neither fully preserve the natural resources of the outer Cape in pristine condition (a state they may not have seen in well over a century) nor provide unfettered public access. All displayed a pragmatic we-do-the-best-we-can attitude and said they thought that Cape Cod National Seashore did a good job of balancing the competing demands of the visiting and the visited.
A New Kind of Challenge
Increasingly, though, the greatest threats facing many national parks – the unique ecosystems and endangered species they encompass – come not from what people do while they’re visiting the parks, but rather, from what we all do every day at home and at work.
“To give you very specific example,” says Seashore superintendent George Price, citing a problem he calls personally distressing, “I think we have now posted about six of our ponds with signs that let people know that it’s dangerous to eat the fish if you are a child or if you’re a pregnant lady. And that’s because of the mercury content in the fish.”
Much of that mercury comes from power plants in the Midwest, carried through the air and deposited here. Power plants and automobiles also produce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that the vast majority of scientists now agree are driving climate change.
“Everything we do affects climate change,” says Mary Hake, “which then trickles down and affects every living thing including the beetles on the beach and the ant that’s walking across this bike path. So it’s hard to sort of cut where climate change is and where it isn’t. It is. It’s affecting everything. And I can’t myself in this program change that direction.”
And therein lies the rub.
Climate change ranks as one of the top challenges facing Cape Cod National Seashore as it enters it’s second five decades as a national park. Rising air temperatures threaten Cape Cod’s tranquil kettle ponds, while rising seas are overtaking some of the salt marshes that have helped make New England’s coastal waters so rich. As Hake says, climate change affects everything.
But fences and boardwalks can’t keep out greenhouse gases. Park managers can’t stop rising air temperatures or rising sea level, or the wholesale migration of plants and animals that shifting climatic conditions is spurring. There is no policy that the National Park Service can enact to stop global warming. Climate change poses a whole new kind of challenge for the National Park Service, one that can’t be addressed with traditional techniques.
Still, officials at Cape Cod National Seashore aren’t ready to give up the fight. Instead, they’re working with their usual creativity and pragmatism to address the challenges before them.
Ironically, the very visitors that have historically presented such a dilemma for the National Park Service may be one of the best tools they have at their disposal in combating climate change. The presence of people in national parks presents crucial opportunities – allowing people to connect with the natural systems that climate change threatens, educating them about the impacts of climate change, and raising awareness about the environmental consequences of daily choices.