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National parks commit to net-zero emissions: What that means for visitors

  • April 26, 2023

climate crisis, and the NPS is front and center in viewing climate impacts,” National Park Service Director Chuck Sams said in the federal agency’s newly released third edition Green Parks Plan. “As such, the NPS is renewing its operational sustainability goals with a bold vision to attain net-zero status in its parks.”

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What is the Green Parks Plan?

The Green Parks Plan outlines broad goals and specific objectives for combatting climate change across the National Park System, which includes the “largest number of constructed assets of any civilian agency in the federal government,” according to the National Park Service.

The plan includes targeted benchmarks for progress and complements the Park Service’s existing Climate Change Response Strategy

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How are visitors impacted?

Mike Caldwell, National Park Service associate director for Park Planning, Facilities and Lands, told USA TODAY most of the plan’s work will be done behind the scenes, but visitors will be encouraged to do their part, too. “We’re all in it together.”

(Leave) No Trace things that we’ve grown up on, certainly I’ve grown up on, are very relevant to the things that we’re doing now,” he said. “Whether it’s making sure they recycle or whatever they carry in, they carry out, those are some basic things that everybody can do.”

He said visitors might see “more refill stations for water or more opportunities to recycle” and increased messaging about mindful resource use. They may also notice changes in what parks sell as they aim to phase out all single-use plastic products by 2032.

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The way visitors get around parks will also change as parks slowly transition to electric vehicles for visitor transit. “Starting this summer, if they go to Zion National Park, a new transit fleet, one of our busier fleets in the country, is going to electric vehicles,” Caldwell said. He noted other types of park vehicles, like ranger vehicles, maintenance trucks and garbage trucks will eventually go electric too.

Other changes will be more subtle.

“The things that we purchase on a daily basis. Whether that’s as simple as the lightbulbs that go in the exhibits or the way the lights go off, the motion detectors, all these little things can add up,” Caldwell said. “When you’re talking about such a large issue as climate change, a venue like a national park does provide an opportunity for a visitor to see what a small impact can make if we multiply that.”

What are the goals?

  1. Be Climate Friendly and Climate Ready: Combat the climate crisis by achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions
  2. Be Energy Smart and Water Wise: Achieve net-zero water use and net-zero energy for facilities and operations
  3. Buy Green and Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: Achieve net-zero waste and sustainable procurement
  4. Green Our Rides: Adopt and support zero-emissions transportation methods
  5. Foster a Sustainability Ethic: Engage the NPS workforce, partners, visitors, stakeholders, and communities to support and participate in sustainability, climate resilience, and environmental justice

Source: NPS Green Parks Plan

What does net zero mean for national parks?

The National Park Service aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2032 and achieve net-zero emissions by 2045 across its “buildings, campuses and installations.”

The Green Parks Plan defines net-zero emissions as “reducing greenhouse gas emissions to as close to zero as possible and balancing remaining emissions” with various carbon absorption and storage methods. 

The plan further calls for converting “direct fossil fuel use to electrical power so that 100 percent of facility energy use is carbon-free by 2030, with net-zero energy, water and waste objectives along their own timelines.

Eve Chen is a travel reporter for USA TODAY based in Georgia. You can reach her at

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