It’s our duty as Americans to protect our national parks for the next hundred years —Alex Honnold

Rock climber Alex Honnold argues we must do more to defend US national parks from a slew of imminent environmental threats

It's our duty as Americans to protect our national parks for the next hundred years —Alex Honnold

Just over eight years ago, I completed a free solo ascent unroped of the one of the most beautiful and challenging climbs in the world: a 350 metre crack called Moonlight Buttress in southwestern Utahs Zion national park. At the time, Alpinist magazine called it one of the most impressive free solos ever achieved.

While I find it hard to articulate exactly why Im drawn to this type of exposed, unroped climbing, the setting certainly plays a big role. Zion is aptly named: its a promised land of striking multicolored sandstone cliffs soaring from a green valley below. Though Im intensely focused when I climb, the gift of doing it in such breathtaking places is not lost on me.

Unfortunately, Zion and other parks and public lands around the US are at risk from a variety of threats. Its easy to assume that these lands are protected, but thats not the case. Especially out west, our shared lands are, as Navajo Nation president Russell Begaye and other tribal leaders recently wrote, under siege.

In this centennial year of the National Park Service, let us celebrate the parks and lands that are our birthright to use and enjoy. But let us also commit to protecting these places for the next hundred years and beyond and recognize that defending these commonly held treasures requires our vigilance and effort.

Zion is one of nine Western parks and lands across Utah, Colorado and Arizona where, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), air quality is threatened by dangerous emissions from two 70s-era coal-fired power plants in central Utah. Harmful pollutants, including nitrogen oxides and particle pollution, also threaten the families and businesses that call this region home.


Monitoring studies have shown that visibility at Arches and Canyonlands national park is harmed by human-caused haze 83% of the time, relative to the annual average level of natural haze, due in part to pollution from the Hunter and Huntington plants. In fact, Hunter and Huntington, owned by Warren Buffetts PacifiCorp, are so dirty that they account for nearly half of all the nitrogen oxide pollution emitted by Utahs electricity sector.

Not far to the south, the jewel of our national park system Grand Canyon national park is fighting a multifront battle. While the coal-fired Navajo Generating Station in nearby Page, Arizona, is among more than 250 coal-fired power plants nationally that have installed or are installing effective controls to reduce haze pollution, Utahs coal-plants continue to emit dangerous nitrogen oxide pollution unabated. And not only does the Grand Canyon have Utahs Hunter and Huntington plants to contend with, but its dealing with the legacy of toxic uranium mining within and around its boundaries, as well as the specter of new mining development.

The public lands around the Grand Canyon contain abandoned, active and proposed uranium mines and hundreds of claims. Despite devastating illnesses from uranium mining on nearby tribal lands and poisoned waters within the park, four states have joined mining companies like Uranium One, owned entirely by Russia, to overturn a 20-year ban on new mining issued by former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in 2012.

Solutions are within reach. In early June, the EPA will rule on the Hunter and Huntington coal plants, choosing between a plan that would reduce pollution using industry-standard technology, and a proposal by Utah that requires no reductions in harmful emissions. The more the agency hears from Americans before that time, the more likely we are to see a positive outcome.

To make the moratorium on uranium mining in the Greater Grand Canyon permanent, President Obama should invoke the Antiquities Act to declare a National Monument. In doing so, he would have the support of tribal leaders and an overwhelming majority of Arizona voters, as well as a blueprint in House Resolution 3882, a bill submitted in November by Arizona Congressman Ral Grijalva.


Theres a business argument to defending our parks and public lands: they make possible Americas outdoor recreation economy, which generates $646bn in consumer spending and 6.1m direct jobs.

But something more fundamental is at stake.

These wild places are our national heritage: an immeasurably generous gift from previous generations. They provide all of us, regardless of wealth or creed, the opportunity for personal challenge and spiritual renewal. They give us the opportunity to forge, in a uniquely American way, who we are and what we will become.

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