What Will Our National Parks Look Like in 2116?

It's the dawn of a new era as the national parks finish celebrating the first 100 years and look ahead to the next. (Photo: shaferaphoto/Shutterstock)

In 2016, the National Park Service commemorated its 100th anniversary with a year-long celebration that included special programs, a brand new IMAX film, collectible coins and even a new series of stamps. The NPS took a look back at the last century and recognized the preservation and protection of the 417 park service units scattered throughout every state in the country.

Now that those festivities have wrapped up, it's time to look toward what the next 100 years might look like for the nation's parks. Will the nation's parks remain relevant to a generation raised on selfie sticks and Siri? Will corporate sponsorships see us handing over the reins of "America's Best Idea" to the highest bidder? And will climate change leave us with any national parks to protect over the next 100 years?

Here's a look at some of the major issues facing our nation's parks over the next century:

Climate change will affect all parks

I spoke with park employees from national parks all over the country, and climate change is the biggest conservation issue on their radar for the foreseeable future. From rising sea levels at Everglades National Park to the glacial changes at Kenai Fjords National Park, park managers are predicting major changes as a result of the temperature and weather fluctuations that will accompany climate change.

At Shenandoah National Park, park officials note that rising temperatures in streams have already impacted native fish. They are also concerned that climate change will lead to an increase in droughts, floods and wildfires. Staff at Assateague Island National Seashore, a national park that is comprised of a chain of barrier islands off the coasts of Maryland and Virginia, expect to feel the effects of climate change firsthand. Rising sea levels and intensified storms may produce new beaches and inlets while destroying old habitats, threatening species such as the piping plover and the sea beach amaranth. At Golden Gate National Recreation Area in California, park officials are predicting heat waves, coastal flooding and erosion, and habitat destruction in response to climate change.

Warmer temperatures may bring more visitors

Across the country, many — but not all — national parks are anticipating a rise in attendance thanks to the warmer temperatures brought on by climate change. But some parks — particularly those located in warm or hot locations such as Arches National Park in Utah or Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida will likely see a decrease in attendance as temperatures climb.

So if people still flock to national parks 100 years from now, what will those visitors look like? Next to climate change, diversity may be the biggest issue facing the national park service in the next century — because to put it bluntly, it doesn't have any. At present, the average park visitor is old (over 50,) and white. Without a fan base, national parks may become irrelevant to the next generation of environmental stewards.

"There are times when it seems as if the national parks have never been more passé than in the age of the iPhone,” former NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis said in a speech leading up to the centennial. "The national parks risk obsolescence in the eyes of an increasingly diverse and distracted demographic."

The park service has invested heavily in attracting youth and minorities to its doors for this very reason. New brochures and signage for the national parks features visitors of all shapes, ages, and colors enjoying the parks in different ways. And an initiative called Every Kid in the Park, which gives free nationwide park passes to every fourth grader and their families, is hoping to get national parks back on every family's vacation destination wish list.

Studies show the investment might be paying off. In a recent AAA survey, 46 percent of millennials noted that they were more than likely to visit a national park in the next year. That's more than generation Xers or even baby boomers. That interest may have been spurred by all of the buzz around the NPS centennial, but park officials are hoping that even one visit to a national park will spark an interest that could lead to a lifelong love affair.

Another thing the parks are doing to reach out to younger generations is to embrace screens. It seems counter-intuitive: get kids off their screens by giving them more screens. For years the park service has turned up its nose up at this approach. After all, the parks were supposed to be the places you go to escape technology, not embrace it, right?

But the park service has found that even something as simple as having cell service in the backcountry can help potential visitors feel more comfortable about taking a walk in the woods. And it certainly doesn't hurt when visitors also happen to Instagram scenic shots from their hike. When 19-year-old actress and singer Bella Thorne told her 6.5 million followers to #findyourpark, the impact was immediate.

With their stunning scenery and adventure-ready atmosphere, the nation's parks are made for social media, and park officials are ready to embrace that concept. "We’re doing everything we can to have the face of the national parks reflect the face of the United States," said Sally Jewell, the former Secretary of the Interior, in an interview with National Geographic.

Visitors behaving badly

When Yellowstone National Park was designated as the nation's first national park back in 1872, Congress had not yet established funds to staff or protect its newest resource. As a result, park visitors regularly poached, plundered and vandalized the area until the military stepped in.

Today, poachers and vandals still aim to make their mark on the natural and cultural resources protected by the National Park Service, but the NPS now has its own branch of law enforcement officials who are tasked with protecting those resources for (and often from) park visitors. There are still plenty of stories about people attempting to feed the bears or pet the bison or vandalize ancient rock walls, but as seen by this story, social media is making it easier to capture and prosecute would-be park abusers who can't seem to resist documenting their crimes.

And then there's that maintenance backlog

Of course one issue that may be bigger than both climate change and diversity for the national parks is funding. Last year, Jarvis issued a new order that for the first time allowed national parks to pursue corporate sponsorships as a way to bridge budget shortfalls — like that $11.9 million maintenance backlog. At the moment, sponsorship is limited to signs and certain exhibits, but detractors warn that it's a slippery slope and one that invites the notion of handing the parks over to private corporations.

Despite opposition from the more than 200,000 who signed petitions and spoke out against the directive, the new policy went into effect at the end of 2016. With budget shortfalls and maintenance at all-time highs, it's likely that these sorts of partnerships will only become more likely in the future.

The next 100 years

Despite some major concerns, the future of the National Park Service looks promising. Climate change will certainly take its toll, but park managers are working to adapt to those changes as they come. And younger generations are looking into new ways to explore the nation's parks and make them their own.

With a renewed level of interest, and the help of some corporate sponsorships, the parks may be able to stay relevant and therefore protected for the next century. The nation's parks may look different in the next 100 years, but they are still likely to remain "America's Best Idea."