view of the channel islands from shore

The waters surrounding the Channel Islands are now protected by Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: NPS

Learning from the Past to Protect the Future

Ensuring the continued safekeeping of our Earth's special places

by Elizabeth Weinberg

a surfer holds a surfboard covered in oil
A California surfer holds a surfboard covered in oil. Much of the oil from the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill washed up on the Southern California coastline.

It started with an oil spill

Take a moment and picture your most treasured ocean place. A salty tang wafts in on the sea breeze, carrying with it the cacophony of seabirds and the sound of rolling waves. Sun-warmed sand or cool, damp rocks buoy your feet while small waves drift against your bare toes. Perhaps in the distance, a whale breaches or a shearwater swoops and dives into the waves.

Now imagine oil creeping in between your toes, or trash piling up along the shore next to you. Would it still be your most treasured ocean place? What would you do to protect it?

National marine sanctuaries were set aside to keep this future from becoming a reality. Just like our national parks, sanctuaries work to ensure that our most special ocean and Great Lakes waters will remain healthy and vibrant for future generations. But it hasn't always been this way: a long history of conservation brought us to where national marine sanctuaries are today.

The conservation movement in the United States began in the early 19th century, as westward expansion and the industrial revolution brought forth contradicting images to the American public. On the one hand, photographs and paintings of places like El Capitan, Old Faithful and the Grand Canyon invoked a new appreciation for nature, while on the other hand, documentation of the impacts of widespread industrialization showed the public the dark future that could befall these special places.

In 1872, a century before the passage of the National Marine Sanctuaries Act President Ulysses S. Grant designated the first nationally protected land area, Yellowstone National Park — an action that "signaled a new way the world would view its land and, eventually, its seas," the National Parks Advisory Board noted in 2001. Throughout the early 20th century the United States signaled again and again its commitment to protecting the nation's special terrestrial areas. Through legislation like the Antiquities Act and the National Park Service Organic Act, authority was given to both the President and Congress to set aside national monuments and parks to ensure the future of the most magnificent places across the U.S.

National parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite and conservationists like President Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir paved the way for environmental protection in the United States. Images: NPS

Still, it wasn't until the middle of the last century that the ocean itself began to be seen as uniquely in need of protection. In 1960, Florida designated John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the first marine protected area in the United States declared independent of a land-based component. Some of the waters protected by this park are now protected by Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Then, in 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson's Science Advisory Committee called for a system of marine preserves, prompting the first marine sanctuary bills to be introduced in the House of Representatives — but these early bills stalled out. It would take more than that to create change for the ocean.

But then on January 28, 1969, Union Oil's drilling rig Platform "A" experienced a well blowout, sending bubbles of black oil and gas into the ocean off the coast of Santa Barbara, California. It was, at the time, the worst oil spill in United States history: an estimated 3 million gallons of oil spilled into the ocean, killing thousands of birds, fish and marine mammals, and provoking an enormous public outcry.

fishing rods in a rack
box of flys for fishing
Aerial photos show Union Oil's Platform "A" surrounded by oil on February 14, 1969. Left photo: University of California Santa Barbara Map and Image Library; right photo: USGS

The spill — and similar incidents throughout the 1960s — prompted citizens to band together and look for ways to protect the coastline. Many people now "consider it to be the birth of the modern environmental movement," explains Chris Mobley, superintendent of Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, which now protects waters not far from where the spill occurred. For many, the spill marked a new era: one in which Americans were beginning to recognize the damage our actions have done to the ocean and the urgent need to protect these special places.

Out of that public outcry came environmental legislation like the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, which in 1972 created the basis for the 13 national marine sanctuaries and two marine national monuments that now make up your National Marine Sanctuary System. Today, this system protects more than 170,000 square miles of marine and Great Lakes waters from Washington state to the Florida Keys, and from Lake Huron to American Samoa.

Protecting our marine environment, however, requires collaboration: the health of the marine environment cannot exist independently of the health of terrestrial ecosystems. This year, the National Park Service celebrates its centennial, marking a hundred years of devotion to environmental conservation — and it is more important than ever that agencies like NOAA and the National Park Service devote themselves to working together to make sure that our marine environments remain healthy for future generations.

Everglades National Park shares a border with Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: © Nagel Photography
Everglades National Park shares a border with Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: © Nagel Photography

From the top of the watershed to the bottom of the ocean

Five national marine sanctuaries — Olympic Coast, Greater Farallones, Channel Islands, Florida Keys and American Samoa — have boundaries adjacent to or overlapping national park boundaries, and these protected places work closely together. And other sanctuaries, like Cordell Bank and Stellwagen Bank, collaborate with nearby national seashores and other protected lands and waters. National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis points out that "coastal parks have more than 11,000 miles of shoreline and 2.5 million acres of ocean and Great Lakes," creating a multitude of opportunities for parks and sanctuaries to work together. Collaborations between parks and national marine sanctuaries, he adds, "play a major role in connecting the public to these special places and expanding our understanding of our ocean heritage."

birds eye view of Dry Tortugas National Park
Dry Tortugas National Park is surrounded by Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: National Archives

Bill Douros, West Coast Regional Director for NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, points out that partnerships between national marine sanctuaries and national parks help protect entire environments "from the top of the watershed down through the national park and into the national marine sanctuary."

"Because our boundaries are adjacent or overlapping, many of the species that we share an interest in, or habitats that we share an interest in, don't recognize boundaries," adds Sarah Allen, Ocean and Coastal Resources Program Coordinator for the National Park Service's Pacific West Region. "So [national parks] have a greater network of protection by collaborating with other land or water management agencies. By having this network, we're much more powerful in protecting those resources."

Through science and monitoring initiatives alike, our national marine sanctuaries and national parks collaborate in order to protect natural and cultural marine resources. Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary partners with Everglades National Park, with which it shares a boundary, to monitor seagrass beds and water quality. The sanctuary also shares a boundary with Biscayne National Park, with which it monitors water quality, the spread of invasive lionfish, and impacts on the coral reef. By working together, the sanctuary and Dry Tortugas National Park — which the sanctuary surrounds — protect the largest no-take area in the continental United States, the Tortugas Ecological Reserve, which is home to more than 400 species of reef fish. And other sanctuaries have similar monitoring and resource protection partnerships: Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary and National Park work together on the park's 30-year-long kelp forest monitoring program, while National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa and National Park of American Samoa collaborate on crown-of-thorns starfish removal and research efforts at Swains Island and Rose Atoll.

Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Clinton Bauder/BAUE
Cape Cod National Seashore. Photo: NPS
National Park and National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa. Photo: NPS

Even when parks and sanctuaries aren't working directly together in the field, their initiatives are frequently mutually beneficial, explains Allen. Two citizen science monitoring programs within Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, ACCESS and Beach Watch, "have been tremendous benefits to the parks in real tangible ways." Both of these programs collect crucial species data along the beaches of the Point Reyes National Seashore, enabling the sanctuary and seashore to establish a baseline for oil spill damage assessments. Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary and National Park also collaborate on their volunteer Naturalist Corps, which trains volunteers to interpret park and sanctuary resources at visitor centers and on vessels that transit to and from the park over sanctuary waters. In 2011, the White House named this program the Take Pride in America Outstanding Federal Volunteer Program.

National parks and national marine sanctuaries are crossroads of critical scientific monitoring and resource protection — but they are also the places where many members of the public come face-to-face with the beauty and grandeur of America's natural places. Sanctuary and park outreach initiatives help educate the public about the importance of protecting these amazing ecosystems. Joint initiatives like Every Kid in a Park, which aims to help every fourth grader in the nation experience our public lands and waters, help "educate our future decisionmakers and stewards about how to protect the environment," says Maria Brown, Superintendent of Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. Collaborative education and outreach efforts, like those conducted by National Marine Sanctuary and National Park of American Samoa in schools and communities, can help communities in and around these special places understand how they are connected to their maritime landscape.

Because parks are primarily land-based, too, they provide sanctuaries with a crucial connection to visitors. "Most people can't get on the water or don't have access to the water," says Allen, so having shared visitors centers can help sanctuaries reach visitors. Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary, for example, is entirely offshore, but through exhibits in the Point Reyes National Seashore visitor center, the sanctuary is able to reach a wide, diverse audience. Similarly, Stellwagen Bank reaches onshore visitors to Cape Cod National Seashore through art exhibits at the Salt Pond Visitor Center and interpretive signage located within the seashore's Province Lands Visitor Center, from which visitors can view sanctuary waters.

point reyes lighthouse
Point Reyes National Seashore; historic image of Point Reyes Lighthouse; Photos: Matt McIntosh/NOAA; USCG;

Protecting the future together

The environments that national marine sanctuaries and national parks protect are constantly changing, and this is especially true in the face of climate change. Carol Bernthal, Superintendent of Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, says that one question for national marine sanctuaries now is "What does it mean to be a marine protected area in the face of these large changes that are occurring?"

Together, Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary and Olympic National Park are facing major shifts as a result of climate change, Bernthal explains. "Glaciers are the heart of the whole Olympic Peninsula, the water pump of the whole system," but the glaciers within the national park are shrinking. One south-facing glacier, Anderson Glacier, receded 90 percent between 1927 and 2009. And the waters off the coast of the Olympic Peninsula are particularly vulnerable to ocean acidification, such that sanctuary and park researchers "already are seeing changes from the base of the food chain all the way up." But because the sanctuary and park protect the environment from the deep sea, to the intertidal zone, to the top of the Olympic mountains, they are ideally positioned to serve as "sentinel sites" for understanding and responding to climate change.

Citizens like Polly Dyer (leading hikers), working in concert with local indigenous peoples like the Makah Tribe, recognized the importance of protecting marine habitats off the Olympic Peninsula. Photo: Bob and Ira Spring

Other sanctuaries are also collaborating with national parks on climate issues, like Greater Farallones, which works with Point Reyes National Seashore and Golden Gate National Recreation Area to assess climate vulnerability and determine focus areas for climate study and mitigation.

Hundreds of millions of people visit national parks and national marine sanctuaries each year, and science conducted in these protected areas also has an enormous impact. That means "sanctuaries and parks can really play a tremendous role together in defining, articulating, describing, and bringing the issue of climate to the minds of the American people," says Matt Brookhart, Acting Deputy Director of NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.

For more than four decades, sanctuaries and parks have been working together to help the American public better understand and appreciate our most amazing and important cultural and natural resources. We must learn from our past to protect our future: in the next 100 years and beyond, climate change and other ecosystem shifts will continue to impact these special places. Together, sanctuaries and parks are ready to meet those challenges to ensure a better future for us all.

scenic view of olymic coast

Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary and Olympic National Park share a boundary along 62 miles of coastline. Photo: Seattle Aquarium