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To heal the soul of America, start with our national parks

President-elect Joe Biden’s choice for secretary of the interior is a New Mexican, Rep. Debra Haaland. Whoever takes over the Interior Department will have an opportunity to reinvigorate a beloved institution, the National Park Service.

It’s been a tough four years for the NPS. Interior Department leadership prioritized corporate oil and mining interests over protecting park ecology; undercut NPS efforts to address climate change; and delayed needed park maintenance projects. The outgoing administration tried to politicize the agency from its first moments in office and never got around to installing a permanent NPS director.

As he reminded us in his victory speech, Biden ran to “restore the soul of America,” a goal that has special resonance for the NPS, which is charged with preserving and interpreting our natural and cultural heritage. Here are some ways building up the NPS will help the next secretary of the interior fulfill the Biden team’s priorities.

The science of climate change should drive park management decisions, ecosystem partnerships and community education.

The limited physical development in national parks and their historic data make them ideal laboratories for the impacts of climate change. The NPS Climate Change Response Program integrates scientific data and expertise for park and ecosystem management, but it has been a target for Interior Department leadership hostile to the fact that human activity is increasing rapid climate change. Programs that use the experience in parks to explain how human activity is changing our climate — and what can be done about it — should be broadened.

Intense wildfires are one of the prices of decades of neglectful climate and land management policies. While NPS firefighters are critical to the short-term response on the ground, NPS scientists and interpreters also have an important role in teaching the public about the relationship between climate change and devastating wildfires.

By interpreting the history of all Americans, the NPS can contribute to a constructive conversation about race and politics.

The NPS is experienced at reminding Americans of our shared heritage, as well as the legacy of division we strive to overcome. The president-elect’s team should draw inspiration and practical ideas not only from the touchstones of the struggle for equality but also from lesser-known stories. National park sites tell the stories of enslaved people in the American South and Caribbean, the forced removal of Native Americans from their ancestral homes, and the shameful internment of Japanese Americans in desert camps. These places represent the failures we have overcome on the path to America’s present and bright future. By partnering with school systems and technology partners, the NPS can bring people into these stories virtually, even if they can’t travel to the sites themselves.

NPS programs can support economic development in rural and urban areas.

The outgoing Congress and administration have one significant conservation accomplishment — passage of The Great American Outdoors Act. If administered wisely, it will provide an opportunity to address the huge backlog of NPS infrastructure needs and expand the park system.

Interior Department leadership can strengthen both the country’s parks and our national economy by reinvigorating NPS conservation assistance and youth programs as part of the administration’s infrastructure and jobs proposals. The secretary of the interior also should limit oil and gas lease sales on the doorsteps of our national parks, where they place the integrity of the parks at risk.

Our leaders can find inspiration in national parks.

Visitors from the United States and abroad find insights into our national character when they explore Aztec Ruins, hike in the Great Smoky Mountains or stroll around the MLK Memorial. In the past, presidents and vice presidents brought their families to national parks, too. They are great places to bolster the spirit, gather strength, learn and have fun. If you want to heal the soul of a nation, that’s a great place to start.

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