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The National Parks and Climate Change: The Canary in the Coal Mine

5 years ago
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If you want to see glaciers in Glacier National Park, you had better hurry. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that within 20 years, the park will be empty of glaciers. As temperatures rise and politicians debate how to respond to climate change, the national parks already seem to be feeling the effects.

At hearings in April, Jonathan Jarvis, the Obama administration's nominee as director of the National Park Service, called the national parks "the proverbial canary in the coal mine." He noted that the parks are both largely undisturbed and closely monitored, so the effects of the changing ecosystem can be more easily documented.

Recent changes at the parks are hardly encouraging. Rocky Mountain National Park is battling an unprecedented infestation of bark beetles that threatens large swaths of trees; Joshua Tree National Park is counting fewer and fewer of its namesake trees; and in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, ranger Adrianne Freeman notes that staffers have seen fewer days of snow as well as plant and animal migration to higher altitudes, where temperatures remain cool.

Like most national parks, Sequoia and Kings Canyon is taking steps to depend more on alternative energy sources and to reduce its carbon footprint. Still, a single park, particularly one like Sequoia and Kings Canyon that's close to a major city (Los Angeles), can't make much of a dent in climate change. "It falls to us to be the trendsetters," said Freeman, "but because of where we are it also falls to us to see the effects of others who are not following [these principles]."

Nationwide programs to stem carbon emissions could be on the way, with efforts to pass a cap-and-trade bill. But a bill only barely emerged from a fight in the House this summer and now faces an uphill climb in the Senate, where sponsors recently announced they would delay introducing a measure, possibly until next year, while they try to line up votes and solidify the details.

Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who chairs the House subcommittee on national parks, emphasized the importance of passing a cap-and-trade bill in an interview with Politics Daily. He said the measure is "not as strong as it should be; we gave up too much early on. But, absent this bill we do nothing on what is potentially the social and economic issue of our time." For the national parks in particular, he called cap and trade "essential," adding that "the problem so far is that everyone has dealt with the issues of the parks in divided situations."

On Monday, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced plans for a more coordinated response to climate change. Due to "the unprecedented scope of climate change impacts," his department will work "to develop landscape-level strategies" on land that the department administers, currently more than one-fifth of the nation's acreage, by addressing migration patterns, droughts and the increase in wildfires.

Still, some parks are taking action on their own. Besides reducing their environmental impacts and tracking changes to the environment, they are looking at ways to help species adapt to the changes the parks are experiencing.

Jack Potter, who heads science and resources management for Glacier National Park, notes that staffers are already looking at how they can use adaptive management, responding to a changing climate by altering their own strategies. "We're trying to understand better what types of vulnerabilities are out there, and doing research on specific species to see what we can do to help them survive," said Potter, citing recent efforts to preserve native trout populations, as the melting glaciers throw off the delicate balance of the park's lakes and streams.

David Graber, the National Park Service's chief scientist for the Pacific Northwest, notes that discussions of adaptive management are a significant break with past park strategies. "In the professional, scientific community there are very few doubters about climate change," said Graber. "In the National Park Service, the push-back is going to be philosophical. We're talking about going in and doing ecological engineering. That's a real change from the previous idea [for the national parks] of do-not-disturb."
Filed Under: Environment, Energy
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