MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK, Wash. – Karen Lasch and her family recently pulled over their car near a glacier-fed creek in Mount Rainier National Park, piling out for a glimpse of the snowcapped peak in the distance.
But she hadn't given much thought to the impact that she, millions of other tourists and the national parks themselves have on the wilderness. Each year, vehicles and parks operations spew thousands of tons of emissions that contribute to climate change.
"This is such beautiful scenery," the Louisville, Ky., tourist said recently, as her family snapped pictures. "It would be such a shame to lose."
Officials at parks across the country are trying to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by cleaning up their own operations, with the help of federal stimulus dollars.
"We know we have to green our own house," said Sonya Capek, the Pacific West region's environmental program coordinator. "It's part of our mission to protect and preserve the resources."
The National Park Service and the Environmental Protection Agency have started the Climate Friendly Parks network program to help parks address climate change. Parks must measure their amounts of emissions, come up with plans to curb them and educate the public on what they can do to help.
Seventeen parks, including the Everglades in Florida and Fire Island National Seashore in New York, have already created plans. Sixty parks are developing their own plans.
National parks, like other federal agencies, have already been under orders to reduce energy and gasoline use. But the Obama administration has pushed greening parts of government further, including replacing government fleets with more fuel-efficient cars and trucks.
Parks are turning down thermostats and sealing windows, providing loaner bikes to employees and installing food composting and recycling bins.
One recent morning at Mount Rainier, workers climbed atop the park's emergency operations center and installed 48 solar panels to provide energy to the building. They have also added dual-flush toilets that reduce water use and use electric vehicles to pick up trash at campgrounds.
"The goal is really to knock (down) our carbon footprint," said Jim Fuller, the park's energy coordinator.
Each year, Mount Rainier creates greenhouse gas emissions equal to about 1,100 households. Visitors to Mount Rainier account for two-thirds of the 12,170 metric tons the park emits each year, mostly in driving to the park and inside it.
Federal stimulus dollars are giving national parks a boost in their efforts. Of $750 million for national parks, there's stimulus money for energy-efficient windows at Alabama's Russell Cave, wind turbines at Alaska's Gates of the Arctic and solar panels at Georgia's Cumberland Island.
Visitors to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park may soon hop on hydrogen-powered shuttles, while those visiting parts of Golden Gate National Recreation Area will find mostly organic food grown within 30 miles rather than shipped from across the country. Rocky Mountain National Park runs shuttles so backpackers don't have to drive to trailheads. Other parks such as Wisconsin's Apostle Islands National Lakeshore are asking visitors to do their part with tours, education programs and public awareness campaigns.
"We're basically trying, without hitting people over the head, to say this is an issue," said Bob Krumenaker, Apostle Islands' superintendent.
Rainier acting superintendent Randy King said the park doesn't want to discourage visitors. "It's very important that people enjoy the parks and make a personal connection." So the park is looking in-house first to conserve where it can.
"We need to set a good example and do what we can," he said.
Roger Scott, from Southfield, Mich., said he's noticed solar panels at several national parks he visited since retiring last year.
"Parks get used an awful lot and they're going to get used even more," he said, adding that now is a good time to start thinking about human impact to the parks.
It's unclear whether parks can realistically become carbon neutral through conservation alone or without buying offsets, but park officials say the expectation for now is get as close as possible.
"It's OK to have a difficult goal," King said. "It's important that we take it seriously."