Along the way he’s seen first-hand how a changing climate is altering the way we experience America’s national parks. So the Boise-based writer and his wife spent a year journeying with their children through 11 of those parks. The result is a new memoir titled, Before They’re Gone: A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks.
Lanza will appear June 24 at the Idaho Green Expo in Boise to share his tips on raising children who love the outdoors.
EarthFix: Hi Michael. It’s great to have a chance to talk with you. Let’s start with the title, Before They’re Gone. I found it to be a really clever way to convey the dual meaning I think you found in this journey that you made with your family.
Lanza: Absolutely right, Dave. The original thought for Before They’re Gone in my mind was that these national park experiences will change significantly within my kids’ lifetime. But it occurred to me shortly after I got that idea that in a short time, relatively speaking, my kids will be grown and gone and I want to share these experiences with them before they are.
EarthFix: How many national parks did you write about in the book and why don’t you talk a little bit about the trip that you made with your family, your wife and two children.
Lanza: We spent a year, beginning in March 2010 and going through February, 2011, 12 months. We made 11 national park trips. We were backpacking, sea kayaking, canoeing, rock climbing and cross-country skiing. Each faces a different set of threats from climate change.
The first trip was in the Grand Canyon, for instance, and the Southwest of the United States is an area forecast to face some of the biggest increases in average temperatures in the entire country. So a place that’s certainly very challenging for a family to backpack in now, because you have to carry so much water, will be perhaps exponentially more difficult by the time my kids are my age.
We went to Glacier National Park and backpacked there and Glacier National Park’s glaciers, which have been there for at least 7,000 years, are forecast to be completely melted away by 2020. We tend to view the impacts of climate change as far off things that will happen to future generations but the changes are underway now. My kids in 2020 will still be teen-agers. That was part of the reason I wanted to get them on these trips because I think these places will be really different.
So we saw some of the classic national parks, places like Glacier Bay Bay, Alaska, the Everglades, Mount Rainier and Olympic national parks in Washington, Yosemite, Yellowstone, some of the classic parks of the West.
EarthFix: You just mentioned two that I wanted to talk with you a little more about, two here in the Pacific Northwest that you visited and wrote about: Mount Rainier National Park and Olympic National Park. What stood out for you most with each one of these?
Lanza: Olympic was one of our kids’ favorite because we hiked for three days along the southern stretch of the Olympic coastline, which is the longest wild, wilderness coastline in the lower 48. But it’s a beautiful coastline. You’ve got these amazing sea stacks, rocks, towers, rising from the ocean just off shore. And of course for the kids it was beach time, except on a wild beach with hardly any other people there. We saw sea otters, we visited tide pools. We saw boulders that were covered with mussels and sea anemones and starfish. It was really a magical experience.
EarthFix: It seemed like, as far as the influences you documented and saw first-hand of climate change, at Olympic, it seemed like it was these really large, wild waves that are really changing the experience there.
Lanza: That’s exactly right. The Olympic is a very dynamic environment anyway. The ocean is constantly tearing down the Olympic coast, which is why those sea stacks exist. Those are remnants of the former shoreline and they’re composed of a much more dense and harder rock than the land that had previously existed around them. So the ocean there is constantly eroding the shore and creating these sea stacks.
But because warmer air holds more moisture, one of the forecasts of climate change is that the storms that hit the Pacific Northwest — which as we know can be very violent today –- are forecast to be much more intense, and the winter storms especially in the Northwest hit the Olympic Peninsula very hard. So there’s a lot of data that indicates that what will happen is that the softer parts of the Olympic coast will erode away much more quickly. And that will tend to happen in devastating, catastrophic single events when a really big storm comes in and takes out one big section of the coastline there.
EarthFix: Now take us to Mount Rainier National Park and talk both about the adventure you had with your family and also the lessons this experience drove home for you when it comes to climate change.
Lanza: Mount Rainier is a special place for me. I’ve spent a lot of time there backpacking and climbing on the Mountain. For kids, it’s a magical experience. They saw marmots. They were playing in snow in the first week of August. And I realized that Mount Rainier also kind of exemplifies how changes have already taken place because of what’s happened with the climate. Mount Rainier has the Carbon Glacier. The toe of it is the lowest glacier in the lower 48. It comes down to about 3,500 feet. And you used to be able to reach it on day hikes, which was a prized experience for people in the Northwest. It was something that park managers were very proud of. To think that you could reach the toe of a glacier on a day hike and then be back to your car that day, that was an experience that a lot of new hikers, beginning hikers, and families could enjoy.
But in that storm in 2006, the flood of the Carbon River took out the Carbon River Road. It basically wiped out two or three miles of the road and the park has decided that there’s no way they can keep up the resources to maintain a road that they expect future floods would wipe out again. So they’ve given up the Carbon River Road to climate change, essentially, and you can no longer day hike to the Carbon Glacier. It’s now a multi-day hike to get out there unless you’re a super-hiker who can cover 18 or 20 miles in a day.
That’s what can happen with climate change. It’s not all just slowly rising sea levels or slowly melting glaciers. It’s catastrophic events that are caused by changes in weather patterns, as well.
EarthFix: Did you discover anything that really surprised you when you were actually out there?
Lanza: To visit these places, it was very poignant for me, but as much as anything, they were really, really special experiences just to have with our kids, and to see these places through the eyes of my kids. I explained to the kids that I was writing this book, of course, and that it was about climate change and about our trip and these places. And we would talk about climate change at their level.
But for the most part, for my kids, these were very immediate experiences. They would interact with their immediate environment very, very intensely and directly. It wasn’t about these big views. It wasn’t about climate change. It was about all these sea anemones and mussels and starfish clinging to this boulder. Or it was about seeing a bison as we cross-country skied in Yellowstone. Or coming upon a mountain goat blocking the trail as we were hiking up the Gunsight Pass in Glacier National Park.
So I realized these parks will always be special places, as one scientist actually said to me. But it’s important for us to draw some really big lessons about what is happening in these places that we know are very important to Americans. Americans cherish their national parks. And to take some lessons away from the knowledge of what’s going on here and apply them to how we make decisions about public policy in our own lives.
EarthFix: Well, thank you Michael. Michael Lanza is Northwest editor for Backpacker magazine and author of the newly published book, Before They’re Gone.
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