This is What The Future of National Parks Looks Like In the Face of Climate Change

The Second Century Will Be A Lot Different Than the First

"The Yosemite, the Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon are national properties in which every citizen has a vested interest."
— Stephen Mather in 1920

August 24, 2016

Nearly a century later, the words of Stephen Mather, the first director of the National Park Service, still ring true. The big three parks — as well as the 412 (actually make that 413 as of Wednesday!) other National Park Service sites — are something all Americans are vested in.

Maybe it’s because those park sites are home to cherished memories — a favorite fly fishing trip, hiking a mountain trail or a picnic under a canopy of ancient trees. Maybe it’s because of a summer job or that Junior Ranger badge still in a box under your bed. Or maybe it’s just the lure of some future adventure.

Whatever the reason, we have a huge stake in the present and future health of national parks because ultimately, these cherished places are a reflection of who we are as individuals, and as a nation.

In this, the 100th year of the National Park Service, there’s a lot to laud about the agency’s accomplishments and the role of parks in our cultural consciousness. Since Mather’s report, the number of annual visitors has risen to 300 million from 1 million and there are 377 more parks, monuments and other sites under the agency’s domain than there when it was born on August 25, 1916.

But after Thursday’s official celebration has passed, there will still be an incredible array of challenges ahead for this disparate collection of national treasures to remain viable in the 21st century.

There’s no bigger task than dealing with climate change. Well, tasks actually. There’s no single solution to combatting climate change in national parks (aside from cutting fossil fuels, of course) and many of the remedies being pursued or discussed have never before been tried on such a large scale.

“In order for us to cope with climate change, we have to change the way we think about conservation, protecting nature and national parks,” said Jon Christensen, an environmental historian at UCLA.

Section 2.

Learning to Let Go

The sea encroaching on Bering Land Bridge National Preserve. Archaeological sites there and across Alaska are being washed away as sea level rise and protective sea ice disappears. Credit: National Park Service Alaska Region

The cold reality of global warming is that some parks could be irreparably damaged. Mix in limited funding and it’s clear that while the National Park Service is mandated to protect parks, wildlife and the scenery therein, it’s ultimately going to have to let some things go.

Of course, that’s anathema to their mission. But then humans have never been good at letting go. We hold onto and fight for the things we care about. The forces of climate change, however, mean we won’t be able to hold onto everything. More severe storms, rising seas, disappearing mountain snowpack — and the water it supplies — and extreme heat are all conspiring to make some of the places we live uninhabitable.

The National Park Service is confronting this wholly new reality and preparing for what it means to say goodbye.

The glaciers in Glacier National Park are the most stark example of where climate change has handed down a death sentence. Researchers are chronicling the last days of ice with photos and measurements so we’ll have a record of what we’ve lost.

The glaciers are just one casualty of climate change. Across the entire parks system, there are animals, plants and pieces of history that will disappear forever. For many of those species, there is little or no recourse. For cultural artifacts, recording them is a process that has been perfected over decades in museums and archaeological sites around the country.

“We can’t hold back oceans — but we do have techniques for documenting and reporting and capturing what is most important about a place,” Marcy Rockman, a cultural resources specialist with the National Park Service, said.

Having the techniques is one thing. Having enough people on the ground to use them is another. And right now, parks are losing a race against climate change and time as rising oceans and more severe storms cut away at coastal sites in parks from Alaska to Washington to Florida.

“Archaeological sites, when they’re gone, they’re gone. We’re about to lose a huge part of human history,” Rockman said. “Humans centuries into the future will never be able to consult that; they’ll never be able to know.”

For all the loss, there are also some gains. Disappearing snowfields and ice patches have yielded archaeological finds that would never have seen the light of day without a push from global warming. Unlike glaciers, which shift and grind and destroy most potential artifacts, stagnant snowfields and ice patches preserve them nearly perfectly. In recent years, tools, baskets, clothes and other artifacts up to 10,000 years old have emerged from the ice in Yellowstone, Glacier, Rocky Mountain and a number of parks in Alaska.

There’s a catch with all these things coming out of the ice, though. You have to find them shortly after the ice melts or they’ll quickly rot away once exposed to the air. Researchers have been racing to do this, but it’s an uphill battle with the landscapes changing so rapidly.

“If we can do triage while this is happening, it will diminish the harm but not offset it,” said Pei-Lin Yu, a researcher at Boise State who has worked with tribes and parks on ice patch projects in the West. “We go back and forth from wringing our hands and saying ‘oh my god, this is an incredible discovery.’”

What makes those discoveries so incredible is they provide a connection to humanity’s deep history and serve as a reminder of how many thousands of years of natural processes our addiction to fossil fuel is rewriting. Aside from cultural artifacts, bones, seeds and wood have also been found, revealing what the past was like before ice overtook the land and what we may face in the future as it again disappears.

Section 3.

Assisted Migration

A caribou in Denali National Park. Assisted migration could be one way to help wildlife cope with climate change. Credit: Denali National Park

Every park is going to experience a dramatic shift in its climate in the coming decades. Badlands, located in South Dakota, will have summers more like southern Nevada while Isle Royale in Michigan will feel more like New Mexico. That will have a host of impacts — on species, infrastructure and visitors — making it clear that climate change could change the very essence of conservation.

For wildlife, that may mean they need our help. Temperatures could rise too fast for some animals to adapt, and if we want to have them around in the future, parks will have to lend a helping hand.

In some cases, that may mean moving species from one area to another. The concept has a name — assisted migration — and it’s among the most controversial ideas in conservation. That’s because it puts scientists in the role of Noah, deciding who gets to hop on the ark.

There are open questions among researchers about how proactive we should be about moving certain species, where we should move them, and what might happen when we put plants or animals in places they haven’t been before. Then there are the deeper questions about why we would choose to help some species but not others, and whether today’s solutions will end up being tomorrow's problems due to unforeseen consequences.

Despite the risks, the National Park Service is testing the waters with some pilot projects that could lay the groundwork for future, larger projects, and not just within park boundaries.

One of the most notable involves bull trout in Montana’s Glacier National Park. Competing pressures of warmer streams and non-native fish that thrive in them have endangered the bull trout’s future.

Chris Downs, a biologist at Glacier who has spearheaded this assisted migration project, put it more succinctly: “Things have not been going particularly well for them recently.”

That’s forced the park to make a choice about the future of bull trout in at least one stream. They’ve chosen to bring them to higher elevations in hopes of keeping a healthy population of fish in the park. Natural barriers further downstream have helped keep interlopers out. So far it looks like it’s working, but Downs said it will take a few years before they can truly call it a success.

“The broader context on this is Glacier National Park seems like a big place at 1 million acres, but in and of itself, it’s not large enough to ensure these species survive climate change,” Downs said.

While the current project lives within the confines of the park, as the climate continues to warm, it could become something that spreads across the region and covers other plants and animals.

The park is working with the Forest Service and partners at Parks Canada to ensure not just bull trout but other species have avenues to survive in a warming world. While no projects have involved trucking species across state or international borders, that level of cooperation may be needed in the future. The National Park Service and the lands it manages will no doubt be at the center of that patchwork quilt of federal, state and local efforts.

“The Park Service is part of the backbone of core habitats that are necessary for sustaining wildlife and biodiversity,” said Bruce Stein, the National Wildlife Federation’s associate vice president of conservation science and climate adaptation. “It’s not the only core habitat, but because of the level of protection, the Park Service is really one of the only agencies with a charge for resource protection. Park Service lands and waters have a special role in the conservation tapestry.”

Section 4.

The Parks of Our Future

Joshua Tree National Park at night. Its namesake trees are being threatened by rising temperatures. Credit: Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park faces a similar problem to Glacier National Park. Its iconic trees, which can live 150 years or more, are expected to eventually disappear from the landscape as temperatures become too warm for them to exist in the park’s boundaries. A 5.4°F (3°C) rise in temperatures — and the world is projected to warm up to 11°F (6°C) degrees by 2100 — would make 90 percent of Joshua Tree National Park uninhabitable for the trees after which the park is named.

“We're not seeing adaptation other than the disappearance of trees from lower elevations,” said David Smith, the superintendent of the park. “We cannot sustain this because there's really nowhere else for the Joshua trees to go. We peak out at 5,700 feet inside this park. When it gets too hot for Joshua trees to exist in those island ecosystems in the park, there will be no more Joshua trees in the park.”

Joshua Tree superintendent David Smith explains how the park could lose its namesake species.

Unlike glaciers, Joshua trees have a future if their seeds can make it to higher, cooler (at least for the desert) ground and take root. That raises the question of what the park’s jurisdiction is to protect the trees beyond its boundaries and if Joshua Tree National Park v2.0 is a possibility.

That would be a radical new vision for parks. It would rewrite the paradigm of protecting land for its historical value and replace it (or at least add to it) with planning for its future worth.

At the park level, that means allocating time and research into where Joshua trees might end up colonizing as the climate warms or expediting their move through assisted migration. And for a new Joshua Tree National Park to become a reality, Congress would have to literally buy into it by appropriating the funds for the agency to buy any new land. That’s not that uncommon, but of course Congress would figuratively have to buy into the idea that a future refuge is a valuable addition to the national park system.

Despite the obstacles, resource managers are still weighing the idea of this new form of conservation.

“Some of that park’s thinking is increasing its expansion into neighboring federal land,” said Gregor Schuurman, an ecologist with the National Park Service. “Park expansion is a whole other topic of legal and legislative issues, but we’re comfortable working across borders with partners as climate change calls on us to do more.”

That type of thinking extends to the top of the National Park Service as well.

“One of my scientists asked me 10 years ago whether I was willing to put a sprinkler system on the giant sequoias. I countered with, ‘tell me where the next place is that giant sequoias will grow and maybe we should plant some,’” director Jonathan Jarvis told Climate Central. “Those trees are thousands of years old, so where do we plant giant sequoias now so that thousands of years from now, there are still giant sequoias?”

In other words, you won’t see signs for “future home of Joshua Tree” popping up north of the current park in the near term, but it’s not that far-fetched that the agency will pitch the idea at some point to Congress and the American people (and the world since this would be a global first).

Section 5.

It Comes Down to Money

The Golden Gate Bridge rises above the fog of San Francisco Bay. New funding will be needed to keep this and other national treasures insulated from the impacts of climate change. Credit: Frank Schulenberg/flickr

Wu-Tang Clan had it right. Cash rules everything around me, and the National Park Service is no exception. In a Congressional environment where the phrase “climate change” is likely to kill any funding requests, the agency hasn’t exactly asked the government to open its checkbook for climate work. Even though it has roughly $12 billion in deferred infrastructure costs, in its last budget request the National Park Service asked for only $16.4 million to be earmarked specifically for climate work.

To get around the age-old problem of money, there are numerous projects that aren’t necessarily climate adaptation line items in the agency’s budget but are absolutely that in spirit. And that might be more of a radical idea than just compartmentalizing climate change as its own thing. It touches everything and folding it into other projects normalizes the need to confront the new, abnormal forces shaping our world.

The Elwha River project in Washington’s Olympic National Park is a prime example. It tore down two olds dams to restore the river’s ecosystem, allowing salmon to migrate up river again. It was hailed as an environmental success.

“The Elwha River restoration, is that a climate change project?” asked Will Shafroth, the president of the National Park Foundation, which is the agency’s nonprofit champion. “I don’t know, but it’s making that river system more resilient.”

Park rangers working on a revegetation at the former Lake Mills reservoir as Glines Canyon Dam, one of two former dams on the Elwha River, is removed. Credit: Olympic National Park

Specifically, it’s providing crucial habitat upstream for fish that would otherwise find the water getting too warm at lower elevations.

“We opened up 40-some miles of a river system for species that need that cold water,” said Louise Johnson, head of natural resources at Olympic. “There’s so much obvious potential (with this project) for managing resources for resiliency and a changing climate.”

Private money is also helping fund some of park system’s adaptation work and scientific needs. Acadia National Park and the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Schoodic Institute, a research center linked to the park, recently announced a program dedicated to funding researchers to conduct park-specific projects aimed at the second century of stewardship.

Their results will also be used to educate the public about changes taking place. After a pilot phase, the project could spread to other parks across the country, matching scientists’ expertise with park needs to answer pressing management questions.

Better understanding the impacts of climate change might help justify asking for additional funding, but it doesn’t guarantee future dollars from Congress. Other solutions, such as possibly selling naming rights in parks (Rosie the Riveter National Historic Park brought to you by American Doll, anyone?) have been met with hostility and derision by many. That leaves it an open question of where funding will ultimately come from to address the myriad demands in the years ahead.

In coastal parks alone, there’s an estimated $40 billion in infrastructure within 3 feet of current sea level. Already, seas have risen roughly a foot around the coastlines of the U.S. since the the start of the 20th century, and sea levels are projected to rise by another 3 feet by 2100 (though the rise could be much higher if Antarctica goes into meltdown). While some of the parks will have to be let go by the National Park Service, there’s clearly a lot at stake.

Section 6.

A New Face of Conservation

Highlining at Taft Point in Yosemite National Park. In order to stay relevant in the coming century, the National Park Service will have to find ways to connect with more than its traditional user base. Credit: Jeff P/flickr

National parks belong to every American. Nick Kristof of the New York Times recently wrote that they’re “arguably our most democratic space” in the country.

Despite being a great equalizer, park visitors do not represent 21st century demography in the U.S. Nearly 80 percent of national park visitors are white and they tend to skew older as well.

Climate change is a here and now thing, and it’s only going to become more pressing in the coming decades. If parks are to stay resilient, relevant and fully funded — both by the government and individuals — they’re going to need a new wave of supporters.

“Forty-five percent of millennials are not white,” Shafroth said. “We have a responsibility to introduce and engage the next generation of citizens to these great places and the stories that they tell, whether it’s history or culture or trying to adapt to climate change or a place that’s amazingly fun for recreation. Otherwise we won’t have the support we need in 10, 15, 20, 30 years from now as that generation takes over our country and leads the way.”

That may mean being able to tell more inclusive stories about these places. But in some cases it may also mean literally bringing more parks closer to people. With nearly 80 percent of the country living in and around cities, the National Park Service has put a renewed effort into creating urban area parks that won’t require a roadtrip to visit.

They recently set aside San Gabriel Mountains National Monument just outside of Los Angeles is as a first step. The agency has a long way to go, though, if it wants to reach the next generation of conservationists. More than 80 percent of low-income communities and communities of color who live in the West live in areas with less access to natural spaces than the state average according to a new Center for American Progress report.

“The National Park Service can use the stories of the beautiful places we care about, that love of place and country, to move people to realize they can do something about climate change,” Christensen said. “That also means strengthening those connections back to where people live, which brings us back to urban parks.”

The painted hills of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. Credit: Druh/flickr

One thing that’s clear is we may have to give up the notion that parks are natural places. In reality, they never were; parks have always been affected by how humans choose to manage them and our own definitions of what “natural” is.

Manmade climate change is just the final nail in the coffin for the idea of parks as purely natural landscapes. But that doesn’t make them any less spectacular or less worth saving. If anything, they’re more important to save.

Parks serve as a reminder of the things we value and what makes us human. And if managed properly, they can set an example of how we can live with and even thrive in the face of climate change in the future.

“Climate change is really the worst threat parks have ever faced,” said Mark Wenzler, senior vice president of conservation at the National Parks Conservation Association. “We deal with threats to parks every day, everything from inadequate funding, to maybe wildlife issues, wildfire, destruction of resources. But almost all of that is temporary and can be repaired. The thing that's different about climate change is it's forever.”

The thing about climate change being forever is that we have no choice but to cope with it. It’s a problem that will be woven into not just parks, but our daily lives for centuries to come.

National parks are proving grounds for how serious we’re taking the challenge. They represent our shared values and if those aren’t worth saving, then really what is?

“If we do succeed — and I think and hope we will get to carbon neutrality in this century — national parks will play an important role in that,” Christensen said. “We’ll come out with a deeper, stronger, more complicated sense of what it means for people to care for and protect nature and the diversity of our society.”