Protecting National Parks in Peril

The Rocky Mountain Climate Organization is leading the way in identifying how America’s national parks may be affected by a climate disrupted by human emissions of heat-trapping pollutants. This is part of our efforts to bring the consequences of climate change home to Americans. The way in which we are changing the climate is not just melting distant polar ice caps, it also is affecting many of the special places that we most love.

Much of our work to protect national parks is in the form of reports that we have researched and written, and released in partnership with the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. The first was a 2006 RMCO-NRDC report focused on national parks in the western United States, followed by a 2009 report addressing national parks across the nation. In those reports, we were the first to declare that climate change is the greatest threat ever to our national parks. (See below for a full list of our reports on national parks and climate change.)

The first measure of the impact our reports have had is that the National Park Service now agrees with our central conclusion. In his first congressional testimony since being confirmed as the new Director of the National Park Service — at a November 2009 Senate hearing on climate change impacts in national parks — Jonathan Jarvis began the substantive part of his testimony with this initial statement:

In October 2009, the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization and the Natural Resource Defense Council published a report entitled National Parks in Peril. The Threats of Climate Disruption. The report cited human disruption of climate as the “greatest threat ever to our national parks” and identified eleven types of risks our parks are facing. These risks include loss of ice and snow; loss of water; higher seas and stronger coastal storms; more downpours and flooding; loss of plant communities; loss of wildlife; loss of historical and cultural resources; intolerable heat; loss of fishing; and more air pollution. This report shows broad public concern over the impacts of climate change to parks.

The remainder of Director Jarvis’s testimony on climate-change impacts also showed clear signs of the influence of our report. For example, the parks he first identified in his testimony as having historical and cultural resources threatened by rising seas is the same list in chapter 7 of our 2009 report: Dry Tortugas National Park, the Jamestown site at Colonial National Historical Park, Ellis Island National Monument, and Statue of Liberty National Monument.

A year later, and more definitively, Director Jarvis wrote in the National Park Service’s new Climate Change Response Strategy, “I believe climate change is fundamentally the greatest threat to the integrity of our national parks that we have ever experienced.”

Clearly, we have already influenced how the National Park Service is thinking about and talking about the threats an altered climate poses to our national parks. This is important for many reasons — including that the NPS is the most visible and respected natural resource management agency in the world, and it is essential that the Service show the world how natural resources can be protected in the face of the challenges posed by climate change.

Of course, NPS action is more important than its words. In our October 2009 reort, we made 32 recommendations for steps to be taken by the Congress, the Administration, the National Park Service, and others to protect the national parks from the impacts of a changed climate. Those recommendations include:

  • New and expanded parks, to ensure the continued preservation of an adequate representation of America’s best natural and cultural resources in a changed future.
  • Preservation of migration corridors between national parks and other protected lands, and other forms of cooperation with adjacent land managers and owners, so wildlife and plant species have a chance to move and survive in altered conditions.
  • A major, new emphasis by the National Park Service on identifying, monitoring, and protecting natural and cultural resources threatened by a changing climate — including a restoration of the NPS’s internal scientific research capacity, which was stripped from the agency at the beginning of the Clinton administration.
  • Actions by the National Park Service to reduce its own emissions of heat-trapping gases and those from visitor activites, with environmental education displays to provide information to park visitors on those actions and their benefits.
  • New funding to enable the National Park Service to take the news actions that are needed — including new flexibility to use entrance and camping fees to address emissions and climate-change impacts in a particular park, as long as information is presented to visitors on how that money is being used and why. The NPS was given authority years ago to use visitor fees without congressional appropriation to address what was then considered the biggest threat to the national park system: a backlog of unmet maintenance needs. Now that climate change has been officially accepted as a bigger threat, the flexibility of the NPS on the use of visitor fees should be broadened.

Action on all these recommendations, and more, is important. The new NPS Climate Change Response Strategy is an excellent start — but it must be implemented. Officially recognizing climate disruption as the greatest threat to national parks is a necessary first step. But in most parks particular resources at risk have not even been identified. Action plans have not been prepared to protect those resources. Congressional funding and other support is needed to enable the actions that must be taken. For all these reasons, we are stepping up our efforts to promote (and defend) government actions to address what has now officially been recognized as the major threat ever faced by our national parks. One example: at Canaveral National Seashore in Florida, which as we have documented in a report faces inundation by a rising sea, the National Park Service is preparing a new management plan to guide park operations over the next 20 years — but is not addressing climate change. RMCO is pushing the Park Service to rectify this oversight.

Our efforts are also important to bring climate change home to Americans. Our national parks include places and natural and cultural resources that Americans know and love, and the threats to them illustrate to people how climate change directly affects their personal lives. And with 280 million visits a year, the national parks provide a unique opportunity to show the American people both what the risks of climate change are and how they can be effectively addressed, through actions to reduce heat-trapping gases and through actions to identify and ward off the risks. Our national parks offer a unique opportunity to help build a broad consensus for the society-wide efforts needed to ward off human disruption of the climate.

RMCO began working for action on our recommendations even before our October 2009 report containing them was released. In August 2009, Stephen Saunders, the RMCO president, testified before the U.S. Senate’s Subcommittee on National Parks at a hearing on climate-change impacts on national parks and National Park Service management policies. The RMCO testimony covered some of the same ground addressed in the then-forthcoming report. RMCO is now beginning a broader campaign of working to persuade the Congress, the Administration, and the National Park Service to take the actions recommended in our report.

The reports we have prepared on national parks and climate change, available on the following pages, include our overall report from October 2009, National Parks in Peril: The Threats of Climate Disruption. Reports focused on particular parks include ones on Glacier National Park, on Virginia’s special places, on California’s national parks, on Acadia National Park, on Great Lakes national parks, on Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, and on national seashores on the Atlantic Coast. In these reports, we have drawn heavily on peer-reviewed scientific literature, government publications, and extensive consultations with National Park Service staff and with government and university scientists who work in and know particular parks. In most of these reports, we also have included climate projections we have obtained for future temperature and precipitation changes that may occur in individual parks in this century. The reports have been covered by hundreds of news media outlets, including by 18 of the 25 largest newspapers in the country.

We need your support to be able to do this work. At stake are the resources and values that make our national parks the special places that Americans love. Focusing on the parks also is a way to help break the nation’s political deadlock on climate change. Please help us do this work, through a secure online donation through the “Donate” button at the top of this page.