How the Park Service is planning for climate change

The agency is forging ahead despite meager help from Congress.


Researchers in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico work to identify how best to protect cultural resources during fuel treatments that are increasingly part of forest management for the National Park Service and other agencies. Here, video and infrared cameras set up on tripods record the progression of fire during a prescribed burn.
U.S. Forest Service

Five years ago, just after archaeologist Marcy Rockman joined the National Park Service’s new climate change response program, the GOP-controlled Congress slashed its budget by 70 percent. Republicans were determined to squash President Barack Obama’s climate agenda, and many federal officials were deeply discouraged. So Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis convened his top staff and climate team. Rockman says he pounded his fist on a table and bellowed: “Say the ‘c’ word!” It was a clear battle cry, she adds:  “Jarvis was so forceful in saying, ‘We are doing this!’ ”

With only $2.8 million and a tiny staff, the program began a major research blitz, studying climate change impacts on national parks from Acadia in Maine to American Samoa in the Pacific. Meanwhile, Jarvis convened a panel of independent scientists, who, in 2012 produced a report titled Revisiting Leopold. They urged the agency to jettison its decades-old mandate to preserve each park as a “vignette of primitive America.” Rather, parks should steward America’s treasures through the continuous and unpredictable changes to come. Managers should “act immediately, boldly and decisively” to prepare for volatile conditions, including severe wet seasons and deep droughts, and unite with nearby public lands to address landscape-wide challenges, such as creating corridors for wildlife seeking new habitat. A permanent policy reflecting the panel’s thinking is due out later this year.

“That’s a huge paradigm shift; it’s driven by recognition that climate change is making the former strategy impossible,” says University of Arizona professor Jonathan Overpeck. “The shift in climatic extremes will affect just about anything in a park, other than the solid rock. The Park Service is taking climate science and climate change seriously, which is really important if we’re going to manage these precious resources into the future.”

Many changes are already evident. Yosemite’s Lyell Glacier, which covered 1.2 square kilometers when John Muir first studied in 1872, was down to 0.27 square kilometers. At this rate, park geologist Greg Stock warns, it will vanish completely within 10 years. Glacier National Park’s much larger glaciers have shrunk tremendously, too. Scientists project other dire consequences for Western parks if humans fail to kick the fossil fuels habit: rampant wildfires, rivers too hot for native trout, mountaintops too warm for snow-dependent mammals like snowshoe hare and Canada lynx.

The parks are working to slash their own emissions. The visitors’ center at California’s Pinnacles National Park, for instance, was built with renewable power and runs on electricity from solar panels. Passenger vehicles are no longer welcome in Zion during the summer. And parks are educating the public about climate change.

Following a burn, researchers uncover test artifacts, such as this potsherd, and check for damage.
U.S. Forest Service

But they’ve been slower to adapt management practices. There are good reasons, says Tom Olliff, division chief of landscape conservation and climate change for the Intermountain West Region. Science takes time, as does crafting good policy. And managers are rightfully conservative, says Olliff, because their mission is to leave these magnificent landscapes “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

Still, some parks are charging ahead. At Golden Gate National Recreation Area, several beach restoration projects are in the works due to erosion caused partly by sea-level rise. At Stinson Beach, the park recently removed its old sewage treatment system on the beach and installed a new one high in the bluffs. For the last three springs, Utah’s Timpanogos Cave National Monument has attached pheromone packets to 100 Douglas firs along a steep paved trail to the cave, hoping to help them avoid joining a West-wide bark beetle outbreak exacerbated by climate change.

With the program’s budget still stuck at $2.8 million, Rockman finds it hard to do the job she was hired to do: assessing cultural treasures’ vulnerability to climate change. Most available funding goes to protect historic coastal buildings from sea-level rise and storm surge; a 2015 analysis of 40 coastal parks determined that buildings worth $40 billion are at high risk over the next century. But Rockman worries that the West’s archaeological and historic treasures have as-yet-unidentified weaknesses. She wonders if climate change is responsible for crumbling adobe structures at some Southwestern parks. After major deluges uncommon around Tucson, cracks opened up underneath windows at Tumacácori Mission. And following another intense rain, an adobe wall collapsed at New Mexico’s Fort Union, the region’s largest 19th century fort. “If we don’t catch those in time, those resources are just as gone as if they’d been taken away by a storm surge,” she says.

Anne Carlson, climate adaptation specialist for The Wilderness Society, says the agency has accomplished much in a short time with little money. That it hasn’t done more reflects the scale and nature of the challenge, she adds. “We’ve never been through climate change before. It is extremely difficult to figure out what to do to adapt to something we have never experienced as a species before.”

Correspondent Elizabeth Shogren writes from Washington, D.C.  

This is part of a special report on the state of the national parks.

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