On my night table: Michael Lanza’s Before They’re Gone

January 8, 2014

For Christmas Denise gave me a book by Michael Lanza: Before They’re Gone: A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks (Beacon Press, 2012).

Mr. Lanza is an outdoor writer who has climbed, skied, and backpacked some of the wildest places on earth. He decided to take his kids, then 7 and 9, to ten national parks over the course of a year to show them places that will never be the same again during their lifetimes. The book is a well-woven story of parenthood, sense of place, personal responsibility, and climate change.

I think there was a hint in the gift. Denise would like to visit these places too, and our son is just getting to the age where trips have meaning for him. He and Denise have been section-hiking the Horse-Shoe Trail which connects Valley Forge National Historic Park and the Appalachian Trail, about 140 miles, and passes right by Crow’s Nest Preserve, our home. It’s an adventure of patience, covering one or two miles each trip so far (not including the return to the car). He’s five, and while game for the adventure, it is accomplished at his pace.

But like many of the hikers Lanza and his wife Penny encounter, I am surprised by how adventuresome are his kids (and their parents). They’re camping in grizzly country, kayaking in the frigid waters of Glacier Bay, hiking long days, and seeing alligators close by their canoes. Kudos to all of them.

Our National Parks here serve as an indicator of ecosystem health. These are supposed to be our most protected treasures, and yet we are losing parts of them that we wouldn’t have chosen to give up.

In an altered climate, the glaciers of Glacier National Park are disappearing. The climate for Joshua trees in Joshua Tree National Park is moving north faster than the tree, whose seed is spread by rodents, can move with it. Precipitation will still fall in the Sierras, but not as snow to be held in the mountains and released in spring and summer when the plants below are ready to receive it, but run off as rain in the winter when they’re dormant. The snowpack won’t sustain the waterfalls of Yosemite and they’ll go dry earlier in the season. Hiking through the Grand Canyon will become more difficult because there won’t be enough streams still seasonably flowing to hike to each day to refill your canteens, and you cannot possibly carry all your water with you.

Lanza notes that what his kids observe is not the same as what he sees. They’re captivated by a goat that appears on a mountain pass, by floating their bark ships down a rushing stream, by a dolphin swimming around their canoe. He’s focused on ice that is now exposed to the air for the first time in thousands of years and places that may be underwater when his kids are grown.

The parks, one biologist notes, will still be beautiful, just in a different way. But another notes that civilizations have risen and fallen on slight changes in climate.

It’s a heavy but worthwhile read, laced with great stories of the kids’ adventures—ones that they will remember forever.

Posted by Daniel Barringer on January 8, 2014.