U.P.'s national parks push green initiatives

The U.P. is home to three of the five national parks along Lake Superior -- each boasting unique natural and cultural resources that have been cherished for generations.

Those treasures, however, are being threatened by climate change. So, those national parks -- along with two others in Wisconsin and Minnesota -- have jumped onto the National Park Service's plan to slow the effects of climate change. 

“Visitors will hear fewer gas-powered chain saws, see more park equipment powered with clean electricity, and notice super-efficient air source heat pumps heating and cooling some park buildings,” says Tom Irvine, executive director of the National Parks of Lake Superior Foundation, a philanthropic partner of the five parks.

These efforts support the National Park Service’s ambitious Green Parks Plan to advance sustainable operations in national parks across the country.

What’s happening: The Foundation initiated the project with the National Park Service, and the multi-year effort kicks off this season at the U.P.'s Isle Royale National Park, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and Keweenaw National Historical Park.

“In January 2023 we announced a first-in-the-nation comprehensive plan to decarbonize the operations of Lake Superior’s national parks, and I am pleased to say that the parks are now beginning implementation,” Irvine says.

The goal: Switch to clean electricity as the primary power source at all five of the Lake Superior parks. The other parks are Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Wisconsin and Grand Portage National Monument in Minnesota.

Why it matters:  Great Lakes ice cover hit a record low in 2024, canceling outdoor events across the U.P. and sending a dire warning that climate change is here. Of the five Great Lakes, Lake Superior is one of the world’s fastest-warming. The effects of these changes at Michigan’s national parks are wide ranging.

At Isle Royale, for instance, temperatures are normally colder than the mainland because of the surrounding cold water. But as temperatures and water levels rise, habitat is lost for shoreline water birds and spawning fish

On land, warmer temperatures favor populations of winter ticks. No small thing:  more of Isle Royale’s moose are lost to ticks each winter than to predation from wolves.

Many of Isle Royale’s cultural structures also exist along shorelines. High lake levels promote erosion and threaten these structures.

At Keweenaw National Historical Park in Calumet, historic buildings from the state’s copper mining days are battered as lake storms increase in intensity.

Intense storms and rising lake levels threaten Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, too, exacerbating erosion of the colorful rock formations along the lake’s southern shoreline and threatening access to visitors.

What visitors can expect: Isle Royale National Park Superintendent Denice Swanke says each park is moving forward based on its needs, budget, and capacity. 

Isle Royale National Park is replacing the heating system in staff housing and administration areas, installing air source heat pumps. The new system can reduce energy use by up to 55 percent.

Keweenaw National Historical Park is moving toward solar power, identifying potential solar options, green practices, and programs across the Calumet and Quincy units of the park.

At Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, a pilot project calls for electric trail and grounds maintenance equipment including mowers, trimmers, and chainsaws.

Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and Grand Portage National Monument in Minnesota are beginning to transition away from fossil fuels to renewable electricity as well.

In all of the Lake Superior national parks, not only will energy use be curbed, but visitors will be able to see green technology in action.

“These national parks will use off-the-shelf proven technologies that people can adopt in their own homes or businesses,” Irvine says. “Ultimately, the goal is to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions at Lake Superior’s five national parks and do it in a way that inspires visitors to take their own actions.”

What people are saying: “The Green Parks Plan is a bold vision to pursue net-zero status in America’s national parks in response to climate change, and we are pleased that NPLSF is a partner to help Lake Superior’s five national parks achieve this goal in the near term,” says Bert Frost, regional director for the National Park Service.

“Lake Superior’s five national parks are proud to be early movers in achieving the National Park Service’s Green Parks Plan goals, thanks to our exciting collaboration with NPLSF and others,” Isle Royale's Swanke says.

Rosemary Parker has worked as a writer and editor for more than 40 years. She is a regular contributor to Rural Innovation Exchange, UPword and other Issue Media Group publications.
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