State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


A Moon Holiday to Get Away From It All

Shahid Naeem

Professor of Ecology, Department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology

Director, Earth Institute Center for Environmental Sustainability

I feel sorry for my friend, and many, many others like him, what with this newly proposed Moon Park being considered by Congress.

My friend has one of those Passport to Your National Parks that he wants to get stamped at every park. This summer he was overjoyed to get his park passport stamped at the Arctic Interagency Visitor Center near Coldfoot, Alaska, our northern-most national park – Gates of the Arctic. That’s 4,500 miles from his home. But that’s nothing compared to the 240,000 miles he will have to travel to get a stamp for the Moon Park if we decide to create one.

A national park on the moon? Preposterous? Not if the Apollo Lunar Landing Legacy Act, put forward by Congresswomen Donna Reed (D-Maryland) and Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) passes. We could very well be on our way to having a national park on the Moon protecting sites of historical value – where men first set foot on the moon.

If the bill passes, there will be some major challenges for establishing the park. For starters, we don’t actually have sovereignty over the moon, so one wonders how we could open a national park. In fact, according to the 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty, to which we are a party, “outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.”

101 parties agreed to this treaty, including smaller nations like Burkina Faso, Madagascar and Afghanistan, as well as larger ones with ambitious past and current claims. Spain, famous for their 1513 claim of sovereignty over the entire Pacific Ocean by Vasco Núñez de Balboa, nevertheless is party to the Outer Space Treaty, as is Russia, a nation currently claiming sovereignty from its Arctic shores all the way to the North Pole. In 2007 it used a submersible outfitted with a mechanical claw to plant a titanium Russian flag 14,000 feet below the surface on the Arctic seabed.

Not everyone is deterred by United Nations treaties and their prohibitions, however. Dennis Hope, for example, feels that an individual can own the moon even if a nation cannot. He wrote to the United Nations about this possibility and receiving no response as confirmation that he could claim and sell lunar land, he has sold 611 million acres of lunar real estate to investors. That’s more land than all the land in all our National Parks combined! If the Lunar Legacy Bill passes, we may have to negotiate with Mr. Hope.

Moon Park vs National Park
Moon Park versus National Parks. (Photo credits, upper left, NASA; all others, US National Park Service).

It won’t cost us much, fortunately. The Moon currently goes for about $37.50 for Sea of Tranquility acreage (site of the first moon landing by Apollo 11), but there are bargain lots at $18.95 in the Sea of Vapors. While some of these lots will have commanding views of Crater Manilius, I imagine it’s cheaper because the neighborhood is expected to be rough and the schools marginal.

I live in Manhattan, where a 3.4-acre parcel of land, with a great downtown location, sold for $345,000,000 in 2000. Farmland is cheaper – in the United States, farmland averaged $2,500 per acre in 2012. The cheapest acreage by state, so far as I can gather, is about $500 an acre in Wyoming and Oklahoma, which if you don’t mind snowstorms and tornadoes, is a steal. A vacation home on the moon, however, if you don’t mind year-round cycles of 13 days of darkness at -243o F followed by 13 days of sun at 225o F, would be a bargain, since a three-acre plot of the best land is only about $120.

Perhaps Reps. Reed and Johnson don’t have much land left in their home states for additional national parks. But Maryland has set aside only 73,388 acres in the National Park system, and Texas has set aside only 1,245,085 acres. These numbers may sound big, but they’re tiny compared to what the nation as a whole has set aside. Nationwide, there are 84 million acres in national parks, which comes to about 3.6 percent of the country’s land protected for its historic and natural value. While 3.6 percent is not a lot, Maryland and Texas are well below this national benchmark. Maryland and Texas has each set aside less than 1 percent of their acreage as national parks. As a matter of pride, if nothing else, they might want to start a campaign to exceed the national average for state-acreage devoted to national parks before looking to the Moon.

Maybe in these days of challenging budgets, we can’t afford to spend any more in building new parks or investing more in the National Park Service. But the U.S. budget for the National Park Service is a paltry $3 billion per year. I say “paltry” because with more than 400 places totaling 84 million acres that have more than 275 million visitors per year, that’s a lot to manage on such a tiny budget. And the National Park Service does a great job, with a visitor satisfaction rate of well over 90 percent — there’s a lot of value for every dollar we invest in parks. And it’s what the people want – there is near universal support by the public for our national parks at a time when our nation is divided on many other issues. This is one popular government-run program that everyone wants to fund. A 2012 survey by Hart Research Associates on attitudes about national parks found that 95 percent of participants felt that the federal government should protect our parks and greater than three-quarters felt that a candidate for public office who prioritizes national parks in their platform is likely to be a good steward of our resources, protect our heritage, and care about the environment – the percentages were just about equal whether the respondents were Democrats, Republicans or independents.

Another way to look at the $3 billion budget for national parks is to consider that the budget for NASA is $16 billion. Don’t get me wrong – NASA does terrific stuff, and at only 0.5 percent of U.S. government spending, it’s a great investment in very cool and often inspirational science. NASA not only studies the cosmos and heavens, but studies Earth as well, including climate change and the origins of life. Go NASA! The point of the comparison is that spending is out of kilter with what people value and want. Parks should get $16 billion, too.

So why not propose a bill to double the number of acres that are protected in the U.S. here on Earth and set a new world standard before launching a campaign for a park on the Moon? The USDA, in 2002, estimated that we have roughly 242 million acres in parks, recreation areas and wilderness reserves. That’s not a lot for a nation of 2.3 billion acres – that’s about 10 percent. The World Protected Area Database suggests that 12.2 percent of Earth is protected in one way or another, so we are below the global standard. This is a place where we can easily take the lead.

We could start with a modest goal of just doubling the number of acres in the national park system. Considering that we have 586 million acres used for livestock grazing, 651 million acres of forests we use for timber and more livestock grazing, 442 million acres we use for crops of which 80 percent of our corn is used to feed livestock, it feels like we allocate more land to serve cows, pigs and chickens than to people. I suppose we do eat the cows, pigs and chickens, so the land allocated to them is really for us. Still, why not double national parks from 84 to 168 million acres and reduce some of these other uses? If we just stopped livestock grazing in forests, for example, that would allow for 134 million acres degraded forests to be restored so they could serve as national parks. That’s much more than the 84 million we’d need to meet our target.

We can start this new campaign calling it The Biosphere Legacy Act, by funding each state to achieve a national standard for setting aside areas for national parks. Some states already exceed the standard. More than half of our public lands that serve as parks, recreation areas, or wildlife reserves are in Alaska, and the Pacific and Mountain regions harbor most of the other areas – other states, however, like Maryland and Texas, will need more funding to establish more parks.

Parks, of course, are not just for holidays – they are important to the environmental security of our nation, helping to moderate climate change, improve air quality, serve as watersheds, act as repositories of our nation’s biodiversity, reduce the spread of diseases, provide pollinators for crops and gardens, and much more. And even though one cannot usually see all these things parks provide, they are pretty spectacular places to visit, with their stunning landscapes and vistas and rich plant and animal diversity. They are sites for great holidays to get away from it all. Maybe after we double the budget for our national parks and then double the land we allocate to them, we can get started on a Moon Park and one day go there for a holiday to get away from it all.

Indigo bush Saguaro National Park (credit NPS)
Indigo bush Saguaro National Park (credit NPS)
NPS red-spotted purple butterfly
A Red-Spotted Purple butterfly displays its iridescent wings. NPS photo by Sally King.
NPS lizard
Little blue whiptail in White Sands National Monument (Credit NPS).
Bobcat (Lynx rufus)
Bobcat, Big Cypress National Preserve (Credit NPS)
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