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National Parks Service Presents at September Eco-Reps Meeting

October 5, 2015

Promoting sustainability in the National Parks system is not unlike promoting sustainability at Penn, Penn’s Staff & Faculty Eco-Reps learned at their September 22 meeting. The lunch speaker was Kris Hewitt, Environmental Program Manager for the Northeast Region of the National Park Service, and his descriptions of key challenges sound much like ours at a large, decentralized academic institution: budgetary limits, organizational and logistical challenges, striving for employee buy-in and participation, effective communication across a large organization, data availability and accuracy, and the pros and cons of dealing with historical preservation.

Mr. Hewitt described a few scenarios to which those of us promoting sustainability at Penn could relate.  He spoke of trying to bring standardized green practices to the independent management of each park, often with their own vendors, practices and traditions – much like our Schools and Centers at Penn.

He told the group about working to get buy-in on the purchase of sustainable materials and locally-produced goods by the hundreds of restaurants, gift shops, and hotels that are affiliated with the Parks but not governed by them. He described one success of totally eliminating disposable plastic water bottles from Climate Friendly Parks (see below) by substituting them with branded refillable bottles that can be purchased by visitors and double as souvenirs.

And, like Penn, the National Park Service has many wonderful, historic, but aging buildings and facilities that need maintenance and upgrades – theirs totaling $11.5 billion in deferred maintenance, according to Mr. Hewitt. He also provided a summary of plans and programs espoused by the Park Service to bring sustainability to the management of Parks’ operations, lands, and resources:

The Green Parks Plan (GPP) is the sustainability vision of the National Parks Service. Released on Earth Day 2012, the GPP defines a collective vision and a long-term strategic plan for sustainable management of NPS operations.

An individual park can be certified as a Climate Friendly Park – a program launched in 2002 in partnership with the EPA. To get involved, national park staff and stakeholders from around the country have participated in Climate Friendly Parks workshops in order to develop park-based solutions to address climate change. According to Mr. Hewitt, 95 parks have been certified under this program.

Adaptation to inevitable climate change is also part of the Parks’ long term planning, Mr. Hewitt said as he closed his presentation. Changes are expected, he said, naming just a few contributing factors: floods, storms, wildfires, and invasive species.  All of these, and more, put stress on Park facilities and resources. The NPS message around this issue is to let the potential for climate change be a motivation for the public to take action. He described each of the Parks’ 280 million annual visitors as an educational opportunity.  For the NPS, there is value in showing visitors that disposable water bottles can be eliminated, and that solar panels can be used somewhere like Assateague Island. Mr. Hewitt reminded the group that 2016 will mark the 100 year anniversary of the National Park Service, and that much of their celebration will focus on a sustainable future.

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