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Is America Failing the World's National Parks Movement?

Alvaro Ugalde; Slate photo by Natalie Angier

Alvaro Ugalde; Slate photo by Natalie Angier.

"America's Best Idea."

It is a mantra that has been repeated for decades when talk turns to the United States' national park system, an idea that some proudly say has been exported around the world. But during the National Park Foundation's Leadership Summit in Austin, Texas, at least one participant voiced concern that America is failing the global national parks movement.

"We admire the United States for having come up with the idea, but I think it’s been lagging behind in environmental issues in general in the last several years," said Alvaro Ugalde, who in the 1970s at the age of 24 became superintendent of Costa Rica's first national park, Santa Rosa National Park. "I used to say that the United States was our leader, planetary-wise, in national parks. But I’m not sure lately about that."

An invited speaker to the Leadership Summit, Mr. Ugalde is considered one of the "founding fathers" of the Costa Rican National Park System. On Monday he tried to introduce the issue of climate change to the conference by pointing out that Nature Air, a Costa Rican airline, has entirely offset its carbon emissions by investing in offsets.

During a panel discussion on "The Business Case: Opportunities and Responsibilities," Mr. Ugalde asked Bella Goren, American Airline's senior vice president for customer relationship, marketing and reservations, what her airline is doing to address climate change. Ms. Goren, saying emissions represent both a tremendous challenge and opportunity in terms of addressing climate change, replied that American Airlines hopes to reduce its overall emissions by 20 percent by 2020.

Later, when David Rockefeller, the grandson of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who tapped his family's vast fortunes to help set aside land for Grand Teton, Acadia, and other national parks, was speaking, Mr. Ugalde noted that the United States is still focusing largely on itself in terms of climate change and that the world has grown much smaller and the United States can't overlook its global impact.

Mr. Rockefeller agreed climate change is a serious issue that needs to be addressed, but discussion of that topic ended there.

During a break, Mr. Ugalde was quite candid in discussing the matter with National Parks Traveler.

"The challenges you’re proposing to enhance your park system is what I’ve been missing for many, many decades from the United States," he said in reacting to the Bush administration's Centennial Initiative. "Way back in the '70s, I got so much inspiration, but more than that. ... And then all of a sudden you kind of retreated to your own nation, while the world started becoming worse and worse in terms of environmental problems."

In Costa Rica, Mr. Ugalde pointed out, Nature Air has invested in growing and protecting forests to offset its emissions.

"It takes only a few weeks or a few months to calculate the emissions of the airline, at least in our case," he said. "It’s a small airline that flies to Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama, that’s it. So the kinds of planes, the kinds of fuel, the amounts of fuel, per year, can be easily converted to tonnage of carbon or CO2 and then you calculate the money and then you put that into forests, growing forests or protecting forests, so it’s not that difficult to calculate the emissions of a flight or a person in that plane.”

While he appreciated American Airlines' bid to reduce its fleet's emissions by 20 percent by 2020, Mr. Ulgade said that was too little, too late.

"I think it’s not very significant," he said. "It’s going to be too late by the time they decide to do so.”

Asked whether he sensed a lack of willingness in America to seriously deal with climate change or whether the United States simply had too many other priorities to address, Mr. Ugalde said:

“I don’t think there is any priority now, higher than the problems of climate change to the planet. I don’t see any other, much less wars," he said. "And there will be more poverty unless we keep a sustainable state of the planet and the biosphere. So you can have many priorities right now for the present generation, but then you abolish all the possibilities for the future generations, so it’s a contradiction. It’s (climate change) a very high priority. It should be for every politician, every country, every citizen of the planet.

“I’m very proud to be here, I’m very proud of all of you. But I think that the biggest issue for the planet is being ignored.”

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Kurt, many thanks for bringing this important summit to are attention: the National Park Foundation's Leadership Summit in Austin Texas. The summit definitely touches on some of the most important and critical issues facing are National Parks and country today. It's dire time for all of us to wake up and pay attention, to read, to see and hear these important messages that you (and Jeremy) print out for us to read every day on the NPT. You both have kept us well informed on such pertinent issues that were discussed at the Austin summit on the NPT. Above all, many thanks for allowing us to give critical in put and feedback with honest candor on your blog. This is journalism at it's best and keep up the good work!

I had the great good fortune to work with Alvaro Ugalde during an extended detail assignment in Costa Rica. He was one of the most inspiring, motivated leaders I have ever met. The sad part about his message that the US is losing its place as a leader in the world conservation movement is that this is the second time he has publicly said this in a US meeting. The first time occurred during the 75th anniversary of the National Park Service in a meeting held in Vail, Colorado.

The saddest part of this story is that not only is the US Park Service losing a chance to share what its employees have learned with their protected area colleagues around the world, we are losing a chance to learn from others. Many protected area systems around the world do not have the financial resources that the US National Park Service posseses. Their employees have to be more creative and innovative to resolve issues that we tend to throw money at. Let's hope that the next administration will pull its head out of the sand and recognize that good conservatin any place in the world provides benefits to us here in the States.

Thanks to Alvaro for reminding us of that fact.

Rick Smith

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