Bisons. Yellowstone National Park
Watched from above, America is a mosaic of landforms and actions: sunny coastlines, mountains and forests, endless fields, either farmed or just punctured by wells, here and there, suburbs that are double the surface of the cities to which they belong, craters left behind by mining activities, gigantic dams, endless and sinuous roadways which lead everywhere and are permanently jammed.
America is a big country. In order to be able to handle its distances, you must have a car. Some Americans even drive their cars to the ATM and there are drive-in drugstores. If you have a car, it is probably a big one, a Dodge SUV with a horsepower of about 500, a mastodon hungrily guzzling gas, which is cheap - sometimes even half the price of ours. And if it's not big, then it's a last generation hybrid, silent and steady, which warns you to reduce consumption when you accelerate. In any case, if you have a diesel car, you're kind of shady. Electric cars are growing increasingly more popular. Bicycles are relatively few.
Between March the 31st and April the 26th, I had the rare occasion to participate, together with 23 other people from around the world (specialists in the field of environmetal protection), in an international program for the visitation of the main nature conservation "trouble spots" in America (International Visitor Leadership Program). Carried out under the tutelage of the State Department and impeccably coordinated by World Learning, the program included meetings at the specialized federal institutions in Washington DC, visits to top universities, on-site meetings (in the national parks), discussions with the environmental protection organizations, volunteering activities and participation in cultural events. I visited 6 states, 4 national parks, swam in two oceans, attended over 50 meetings, collected plastic waste from the Miami beaches and watched the Everglades alligators, the Yellowstone wolves and the shorebirds in the vast New York urban park - Gateway National Recreation Area. It was a program that forever enriched not only my personal experience, but also my professional career.
Visiting the U.S. Department of State, Washington DC
Surprise! "They" have the same problems. Invasive species, climate changes, insufficient budgets, corporations that ignore the rules of the game - sometimes even with support "from up high", too many visitors in the season, the dwindling of species, the loss of habitats. But you know what? Ever since the 70’s, the people, gathered in environment organizations, have begun to sue the institutions or the companies responsible for poisoning the environment. And they won. And the culprits paid dearly and began to clean the waters, the forests, the air, the soil. If, at the end of the 60’s, because of the DTT, there were only a few pairs of bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), now, the proud bird on the American coat of arms is nesting like there's no tomorrow, is thriving and has been removed from the list of endangered species. The same happened with the Yellowstone brown bear, or the wolf - brought back in the park in the 90’s. If, during the 70’s-80’s, swimming in the waters of the Jamaica Bay Archipelago in New York was downright dangerous for health (it could even send you to the hospital for "detoxing"), now, the people have resumed swimming, fishing and even eating the fish there.
One of the most shocking meetings took place at the hunting Association in Bozeman - Montana, a town on the coast of the famous Yellowstone park. The Association donates millions of dollars to the conservation of biodiversity. In a room full of trophies, each one "sturdier" than the next, the hunter in chief, a charismatic gentleman, very confident of his words (with an academic profile in biology), told me that he considers himself a committed ecologist and that his favorite animal is the elk (Cervus canadensis) - a sort of larger stag. Hunting is part of the mountain states' tradition just like pig slaughtering for Christmas is part of ours. People eat the meat of their kills, preferring it to the hormone-grown one. Anyone can hunt, provided that they get a license. And when hunting season opens, it's holiday and the schools close.
But there is no hunting in national parks. At the University of Montana, Professor Jerry Johnson from the Department of Political Sciences was aware of the Romanian bear situation. They faced the same problem in the 70’s, until they realized that they can use the ferocious predator. And they used it so that the bear became a state brand, a symbol of nature and environmental protection. Thanks to the bear and the woods, the state of Montana has one of the highest economic growths in America, and the small university town is becoming an increasingly more popular place with the hipsters who are in the mood for a "downshifting".
American specialists are quite panic-stricken by President Donald Trump's plan to put an end to the research programs in the field of climate changes. The phenomenon is present everywhere and cannot be ignored. The city of Miami, mercilessly hit by last year's hurricane, has started to become flooded by the ocean waters and, by the end of the century, the water level is expected to increase by up to 16 - 20 feet (approximately 3 meters!).
New, exotic species invade the waters, the forests and the shores. The Everglades National Park - the famous wetland in the South of Florida, is invaded by a species of python (Python bivittatus). The park rangers have declared defeat. Not only can they not extract it anymore, but it appears that even maintaining the species at a controllable level is very difficult. America invests enormously in the control of invasive species. And it does not know whether or not it will win the battle.
Alligator. Everglades National Park
In New York, I met with the team of the "Gateway National Recreation Area" national park. I had the rare occasion of visiting and understanding what an urban national park is, with large spaces of wild areas, shelter areas for birds, beaches, historic buildings. They have a team of 100 people, over 10,000 volunteers a year and a budget that is far higher than our entire necessary budget for national parks. The park people listened closely to my presentation of the Vacaresti park's story. They congratulated us for our success. We will look for ways to collaborate. We have a lot to learn from them.
Then, we went to Fresh Kills, a famous place - the largest landfill in America until the 90’s - which began to be transformed into a park, with many wild areas that may be visited, suitable for education and recreation. The former landfill, which harbors the remains of the World Trade Center, is gradually turning into the second largest park in the city of New York.
Birdwatching platform. Sandy Hook. Gateway National Recreation Area. NYC
Also in New York, I met Sandy, a strange character. But a constant presence, especially among the ecologists. Sandy is a finicky and angry god, whose blast hit the East coast in 2012 and wreaked havoc. But people respect Sandy, because it helped them come together. Hurricane Sandy helped the communities overcome their small disagreements and collaborate. The hurricane awakened the Americans' formidable power of collaboration! All projects of ecological reconstruction that are being carried out in the Jamaica Bay Archipelago take into account the warning given by Sandy 5 years ago, forcing people to look for solutions, so that they are prepared when the next hurricane strikes again.
The great American nation is facing same big issues, with respect to environment protection and nature conservation. But the people have solutions, which they implement by working, investing, getting involved by doing (a lot of) volunteering, communicating and being creative. America understood that nature can bring a multitude of services to the community and started investing seriously in its well-being.
For my participation in the program, I want to thank the United States Embassy in Bucharest, the U.S. Department of State, the World Learning representatives and my colleagues in the Administration of the Vacaresti Nature Park, without whom I could not have taken our Park's story overseas.
Author: Dan Bărbulescu
Photo credits: Dan Băbulescu