National Public Lands Day brings all the conservation volunteers to the yard
National Public Lands Day is more than just visiting Utah’s national parks for free. Conservation groups say it's also an annual day of volunteering to help protect federal land.
It always falls on the fourth Saturday in September, which is Sept. 24 this year.
Public Lands Day was started in 1994 by the National Environmental Education Foundation, a nonprofit focused on providing education about the environment, in conjunction with the National Park Service.
“On this day, it's an opportunity for everyone to acknowledge the special things about public lands,” said Zion National Park spokesperson Jonathan Shafer. “Everyone knows that we're lovers of the environment. We want to be able to talk about great ways to appreciate and enjoy the special shared places.”
Public lands, including Utah’s “Mighty Five” national parks have experienced a peak in popularity in recent years, especially since the start of the pandemic. In 2021, Zion National Park had 5 million visitors.
With public lands becoming busier, the public's help with conservation is a must, said Holly Canada, the executive director of Conserve Southwest Utah.
“I think as more people get outside and learn to appreciate the natural resources around them, they seem to naturally want to find some way to give back,” Canada said.
Based in St. George, Conserve Southwest Utah will be putting cages up around native plants at the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area on Saturday, Sept. 24, along with volunteers for Utah Tech University and the Bureau of Land Management. Human-caused wildfires in 2020 burned native plants and animals and this will help protect newly replaced plants.
Doing things like picking up trash, following Leave No Trace principles and seeking out less busy areas to visit are a few of the ways Canada recommends celebrating Public Lands Day.
“People are encouraged to go outside, but they're more strongly encouraged to give back to their public lands during that day,” she said.
The National Parks Conservation Association also focuses on enhancing and protecting public lands. The group isn’t holding a 2022 event because their efforts are centered on staffing parks and making sure they have the resources to keep up conservation.
“While there are volunteer opportunities throughout the year, [National Public Lands Day is] one of the biggest volunteer public lands events in the country every given year,” said Southwest Region Associate Director Cory MacNaulty. “I think it's a really great way to raise awareness about the opportunities. But really what I think the parks and public lands need is ongoing assistance and support.”
One day of awareness, she said, is not enough to help the parks that struggle with resources.
MacNulty has been working to help provide resources such as timed entry systems and limitations on visitors during normal days of visitation. Arches National Park implemented a timed-entry system to help better manage crowds.