WEST GLACIER – The largest national park on the planet is 2 1/2 times the size of the state of Montana, and gets about 500 visitors per year.
The oldest national park in the world had 23 rangers when it was established in 1778 – the same year the U.S. Constitution was officially adopted – and has only five today.
If you want to get an idea of how different America’s national parks are from those in other countries, there may be no better place to do so than at the once-a-decade World Parks Congress.
Sponsored by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the most recent gathering was held in November in Sydney, Australia. The 6,000 participants from more than 170 countries included Glacier National Park Superintendent Jeff Mow, and U.S. Geological Survey research ecologist Dan Fagre, who is stationed in Glacier.
“It was my first opportunity to engage with the international community of conservation,” said Mow, whose trip was paid for by the Glacier National Park Conservancy after he was asked to make a presentation during the weeklong event – and wound up giving five of them, all on different topics.
Mow and Fagre discussed their trip last week at a special brown-bag luncheon at the West Glacier Community Center. The Crown of the Continent Research Learning Center sponsors the brown-bag talks from April to October, but made an out-of-season exception for this one.
Even though visitors to Glacier Park have largely been replaced by snow and ice at this time of year, close to 100 people showed up to listen.
It was Fagre who highlighted the differences in national parks the world over.
Some in Africa “are militarizing their ranger forces,” he said, “to battle sophisticated poachers. In Virunga National Park in the Congo, they have round-the-clock guards because their gorillas are poached so heavily. The chief ranger there was murdered last summer.”
Some of those same parks have trouble affording the most basic of gear for their rangers, Fagre added.
“Research to address management conundrums gets pushed to the back of the list when you’re trying to buy shoes for your rangers,” he said.
America’s national parks have been preserved for current and future generations, but in other places, they are established to lure tourism dollars.
One-quarter of Costa Rica’s entire landmass has been set aside as national parks and preserves, but whatever conservation goes on, “it’s always with the bottom line in mind,” Fagre said. “It’s still the world’s most national park-y country.”
In India, meantime, many national parks have nothing to do with tourism and everything to do with religion.
“Most national parks in India are sacred groves,” Fagre said. “They’re the home of gods and spirits, not tourism hot spots.”
The world’s largest national park is in Greenland, has no permanent residents, covers 375,000 square miles, and is so isolated only a handful of people, mostly scientists, visit. Northeast Greenland National Park is larger than all but 30 countries in the world.
While the world’s oldest national park, Bogdkhan Uul in Mongolia, predates America’s oldest (Yellowstone) by almost a century, most U.S. parks were established before humans had a chance to overrun them.
Not so in many places in Europe, Fagre said.
“Our concept of a national park is not possible in many other parts of the world,” he said. “Many we saw in Sydney were relatively recent. We had an easier time. The template was real open when Yellowstone was created.”
Some national parks in Europe were set aside long after castles and villages had been built, wars had been waged and agriculture started on the lands being preserved.
“It’s a completely different interface,” Fagre said. “They don’t know their natural uses.”
That comes into play in national parks such as Huascaran in Peru, established in 1975.
“They have issues with mining companies that say they’re not degrading the water, and no information on water quality before the mining started,” Fagre said.
In the United States, boundaries show what is park and what is not, but in other places on the globe, national parks may come with a core zone, a buffer zone and a transitional zone.
“It’s not as black-and-white as it is here,” Fagre said.
And were it not for a few old signs nailed up, visitors might never know they were in Sagarmatha National Park in Nepal – home to Mount Everest.
“There’s no education, no enforcement,” Fagre said. “For all intents and purposes, it’s a park on paper.”
Mow was one of three national park superintendents who were members of the U.S. delegation, headed by Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and National Park Service director Jonathan Jarvis, to travel to Australia for the World Parks Congress.
“Glacier Park really does have an international reputation,” Mow said. “Everywhere I went people told me, ‘Wow, we all know about Glacier.’ ”
Part of that, Mow said, stems from Glacier, and Canada’s Waterton National Park next door, becoming the world’s first international peace park in 1932.
“That really resonates with people,” Mow said, noting that there are now 20 international peace parks around the globe, and a growing emphasis on transboundary conservation efforts.
Rotary Clubs on both sides of the border pushed for the establishment of Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, “and it actually came about through legislation passed by both Congress and Canada’s Parliament,” Mow said. “It was established in 1932. Does that mean we’re done?”
Mow suggested elevating and showcasing Glacier and Waterton’s international peace park status during the National Park Service’s upcoming centennial in 2016, including Rotary’s annual celebration of the fact, which alternates between the parks and will be in Glacier that year.
He proposed exploring offering a bi-park pass good for entry into both Glacier and Waterton, and otherwise promoting peace park tourism. The superintendent also suggested offering up the Lake McDonald inholding and cabin Glacier recently received back from the family of the late U.S. Sen. Burton K. Wheeler for training sessions for the Global Transboundary Conservation Network.
Responding to climate change was one of the key topics in Sydney. Mow said a session he led on scenario planning was especially well received.
“Scenario planning is something we adapted from the business community, and have applied to climate change,” Mow said. “There’s so much uncertainty with climate change, and scenario planning helps you adapt to uncertainty.”
While Glacier’s disappearing glaciers are an obvious example of climate change, Fagre said one thing to come out of the World Parks Congress was that the greatest impacts to national parks from climate change will be felt in those located in South America, Africa and India.
“Many countries are on the ropes financially,” he said, “and that’s why organizations like the World Wildlife Fund and IUCN are critically important. There are species that won’t make it without their help.”