Creating Energy-Efficient National Parks

The First Lady speaks out about a new program called SmartPARKS.

Dec. 4, 2008— -- With the Obama transition dominating headlines it is easy to forget there is still a first family living in the White House.

While President Bush's schedule may be just as full of "good-bye" meetings as President-elect Obama's is full of Cabinet selections, that hasn't stopped one White House resident from continuing to fight for one of her passions -- the National Park Service.

First lady Laura Bush counts the country's National Park system among her many priorities.

She serves as the honorary chair of the National Park Foundation and has repeatedly fought to raise the park system's profile and support efforts at park conservation.

Even her theme for the White House Christmas decorations last year was inspired by the national parks. Now, a year later, as she prepares for life outside the White House, Bush is getting the word out that the parks are coming together to strive for a new goal: energy efficiency.

Watch the story Saturday on Planet Green's "Focus Earth."

"All the big, natural landscapes, the fabulous Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier -- they have always tried … to protect and conserve their landscapes," Bush said. "But now they are working together to see what they can do to make sure [all the parks] are really energy efficient."

The SmarkPARKS Program

In an interview with ABC's Bob Woodruff to air Saturday on Planet Green's "Focus Earth With Bob Woodruff," she remembered falling in love with America's national parks at the age of 8, when her Girl Scout troop traveled to Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico.

Since then she says she has "hiked for years in the national parks with women that I grew up with in Midland and we've hiked in all the big Western parks from Denali in Alaska to Yellowstone, Glacier, Yosemite and then this year we hiked on the east coast in Acadia National Park in Maine."

Yellowstone, the first national park, was created by President Grant in 1872. He signed a law that "dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people."

In 1916 the National Park Service was created when President Wilson signed the National Park Act. Now, more than 135 years after the first national park was established the National Park Service, the Department of Energy and the Department of the Interior are joining forces to make all the parks in the system more energy efficient with a new program called SmartPARKS.

Among the program's goals are "deploy[ing] renewable and efficient energy technologies throughout the national park system, teach[ing] park visitors about the benefits of renewable energy and energy efficiency, reduc[ing] overall energy consumption and reducing carbon emissions in all aspects of park operations."

Making the White House 'Green'

Bush has seen to it that her home for the last eight years, which is itself part of a National Park, joins in the effort.

"It's not part of the SmartPARKS program but I think it's a good example of what parks can do," she said. "We've started relighting the White House, the exterior lighting that of course comes on every night. … We're now using LED lights … and we expect to save about 50 percent or maybe more than 50 percent in both energy cost and in wattage."

But it's not just the exterior lighting that the first lady has sought to change. Wherever possible, throughout the White House, less energy-efficient incandescent bulbs have been replaced with their compact fluorescents cousins.

It may seem odd to see an antique lamp in the Blue Room with the now ubiquitous curly energy-efficient bulb but Bush notes the importance not just for the White House but for all homes.

"I think it's really important for people to do what they can and it might just be small, it might just be punching off your strip on your computer every night, turning off your electricity on your strip and that really will save money too," she said.

The importance of such conservation was brought into stark relief for the first lady when she traveled to the remote and largely uninhabited islands of Hawaii.

"These little albatross babies sat on their nests and waited for their mother and dad to come home and feed them," she said.

But "one really sad thing," Bush said," is that those parent albatrosses would go out and skim the ocean for squid… but instead they would swallow plastic," she said. "And there were cigarette lighters and bottle caps and toothbrushes and all the plastic that we use and throw away all the time. That's one of the reasons we really need to pay attention to what we use and how we recycle it and try to limit our use of all of these things."

Cheap Fuel Stymies Conservation Efforts

So why has it taken the American people so long to jump on the conservationist bandwagon? She thinks it may have something to do with, among other things, cheap fuel.

"One of the reasons we had such a strong economy was because we've had cheap fuel forever since World War II but when you think of petroleum as being a limited, finite product that we'll eventually run out of it's amazing that it was so cheap," Bush said.

"It's always been cheap for us here in the United States. The price went up and of course people worried about global warming, many people started thinking about it, about all the issues surrounding energy."

Bush and the SmartPARKS program hope that making the parks more efficient will lead to a national groundswell of individuals taking accountability for their energy consumption.