Can U.S. National Parks Truly Go Carbon-Free? The Answer Lies in Lake Superior

The ambitious five-park plan serves as a climate-fighting call to action.

A kayak balanced on some rocks on the side of a lake

Isle Royale National Park, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Keweenaw National Historic Park, Grand Portage National Monument, and Apostle Islands National Lakeshore will be zero emissions by 2027.


Lake Superior is a world unto itself. Holding 10 percent of the planet’s fresh water, it’s one of the largest lakes on the planet: A drive around its circumference would be the equivalent of going from New York City to Oklahoma City—but the lake’s 1,300-mile road trip offers dense forests, quiet beaches, sea caves, and ancient lava flows. The waters, usually, are insanely blue. This Great Lake is one of the cleanest, clearest lakes on Earth.

That’s all under threat. Lake Superior is now the fastest-warming lake in the world, explains Tom Irvine, executive director for the National Parks of Lake Superior Foundation (NPLSF). Climate change is throwing its entire ecosystem off-kilter: Epic storms, record snowfall, and toxic algae blooms are becoming increasingly common, while lake ice—which helps regulate temperatures and precipitation—is becoming increasingly rare. Then there’s the human concern, adds Irvine, a fifth-generation Lake Superiorite. “Lighthouses, marinas, fisheries, all the cultural resources that exist on the lake are under immediate duress. It’s imperative something be done.”

That’s where the National Parks of Lake Superior Foundation decided to step in. During January 2023, the group—in conjunction with public and private agencies, nonprofits, and the Band of Lake Superior Chippewa—announced its aggressive plan: All five Lake Superior parks will reduce their carbon emissions to zero within four years. The five parks are Michigan’s Isle Royale National Park, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, and Keweenaw National Historical Park; Minnesota’s Grand Portage National Monument; and Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, all decarbonized by 2027.

Keeping the north cold—and quiet

According to Irvine, the ambitious project started with a straightforward goal: to eliminate the diesel generators at Isle Royale National Park, a remote island chain in Lake Superior that runs entirely off the grid. Generators currently hum away at Rock Harbor and Windigo—the park’s main visitor hubs—and at park headquarters on Mott Island, powering all facilities. Park staff and campers have long bemoaned the dependence on fossil fuels and the early-morning and late-night soundtrack. “This is the most remote wilderness area within the continental United States,” Irvine argues. “[Running] diesel generators is incongruous with what the experience is and should be.”

The project’s goals grew when Askov Finlayson, a Minneapolis-based outerwear brand with the tagline “Keep the North Cold,” offered to fund a five-park, carbon-free feasibility study. They asked: What might it take to improve the energy efficiency of all Lake Superior’s park facilities and develop a fossil fuel-free energy supply system across each unit? The study found that an investment of $10.4 million would cut emissions by 93 percent; for $15.3 million, emissions would hit zero. When funding was procured via National Park Service budgeting, that 100% commitment was made: Going entirely carbon free, Lake Superior parks will eliminate some 32,000 tons of carbon-equivalent emissions over the next 25 years. In perspective, that’s the equivalent of 35,405,095 pounds of coal not burned, or 79,430,578 gasoline-powered miles not driven.

Park staff are starting with tasks familiar to the average homeowner, like making energy-efficient upgrades to light bulbs, windows, insulation, and appliances. Moving forward, large solar arrays and battery energy storage systems (BESS) will power off-grid systems; 130-plus buildings will be retrofitted with energy-efficient heat pumps designed to work in cold climates; EV charging stations will be installed across all parks; and park staff will fully transition to electric vehicles and boats, given technological advances.

Public education is also “a big part of this overall project,” adds Irvine. Park guests will find reader boards, ranger talks, and opportunities across all five park units to learn more about the bold undertaking—and the need for change in their own lives.

A blueprint for us all

Lake Superior parks are hardly alone in dealing with the challenges of climate change.

The National Park Service established the Climate Change Response Program (CCRP) in 2010; in 2012, that initiative birthed the Green Parks Plan. Along with net-zero waste and net-zero water use, obtaining net-zero energy for all NPS facilities and operations is one of the plan’s five strategic goals.

The parks around Lake Superior were the first to sign on that dotted line. “Most every park has some sort of [climate] initiative in the works,” says Irvine. “We’re just running ahead.” So far, 140 parks (of 424), from Antietam National Battlefield to Zion National Park, have developed official Climate Action Plans. These include measuring emissions, exploring green energy options, and reducing waste and water use.

“They have a blueprint now,” says Irvine, to reduce emissions and to eliminate them. He adds an important note: If Isle Royale, one of the hardest-to-reach wilderness areas in the Lower 48, can cut emissions by 100 percent, others have no excuse not to follow suit. He’s referring not just to the National Park Service—but to the American public.

“Three million people travel to these parks each year,” says Irvine. “Wouldn’t it be great if their carbon footprint were dramatically reduced, too?” Encountering robust climate initiatives, park visitors could find more than just viewpoint inspiration—they could find the motivation to do more to protect their vulnerable planet. “All of the work we’re doing in the parks, all of it,” emphasizes Irvine, “can also be done in the home.”

Jacqueline Kehoe is an award-winning freelance writer, editor, and photographer. Her work has appeared in Travel + Leisure, National Geographic, Lonely Planet, Sierra, Backpacker, Thrillist, Midwest Living, and elsewhere.
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