News Release: Global Warming Scorches Western National Parks

Report: Climate Disruption Threatens America’s Treasures

Denver (July 25, 2006) – Global warming is particularly threatening the health of Rocky Mountain and Mesa Verde national parks in Colorado and ten others across the West, according to a report released today by the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization (RMCO) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). In western national parks, pollution-driven changes in climate are likely to lead to extinctions of plant and animal species, losses of glaciers and snow-capped mountains in summer, closures of parks from wildfires, and fewer opportunities for beach-going, boating, fishing, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing.  

“A climate disrupted by heat-trapping pollution is the gravest threat our national parks have ever faced,” said Stephen Saunders, president of RMCO and one of the report’s principal authors. Saunders previously served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior over the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The report, “Losing Ground: Western National Parks Threatened by Climate Disruption,” identifies the vulnerability of national parks in the 11 western states if emissions of heat-trapping gases continue growing in a business-as-usual fashion. The report notes that public officials and others in the West and around the country are beginning to take action to ward off climate change, and that steps to slow, stop and eventually reverse global warming can protect national parks from the worst possible effects.

The report identifies 12 western national parks most at risk from climate change, including Rocky Mountain and Mesa Verde national parks in Colorado; Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico; Death Valley National Park in California; Glacier National Park in Montana; Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in Utah and Arizona; Golden Gate National Recreation Area in California; Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming; Mount Rainier National Park in Washington; North Cascades National Park in Washington; Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho; and Yosemite National Park in California.  

Rocky Mountain National Park was judged to be vulnerable because the effects in the park of a changed climate are likely to include:

  • A loss of snow-covered mountains.
  • A loss of some or all of the largest expanse of tundra in the lower 48 states, of mountain meadows, and of wildflowers, and changes in the park’s characteristic tree cover.
  • Local reductions or extinctions of wildlife species, with mountaintop species such as white-tailed ptarmigan and pikas most vulnerable.
  • Threats to the park’s 400 prehistoric and 600 historic sites from increased flooding, erosion, and wildfires.
  • Possible closures of the park to visitors from increased wildfires.
  • Overcrowding, as the high-elevation park becomes more popular for people escaping higher temperatures and more heat waves.
  • A loss of fishing, as reduced summer stream flows and warmer water temperatures may make park streams inhabitable for trout.
  • Fewer opportunities for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and other snow-dependent winter recreation.

With these eight separate risks, Rocky Mountain National park ties with Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks as having the most risk factors that land them on the most-endangered list.

Mesa Verde National Park was determined to be particularly endangered because of three risks: a possible climate-driven complete loss of forests in the park; increased threats to archaeological sites and artifacts from more flooding, erosion, and wildfires; and intolerable heat.

The report compiles information from scientific studies and from assessments by the National Park Service and U.S. Geological Survey on how a disrupted climate may affect the natural resources and wildlife, cultural resources, and opportunities for public enjoyment in

Some of the report’s park-specific findings include:

  • Global warming has contributed to a bark beetle infestation that is endangering Yellowstone’s whitebark pines, threatening to rob grizzly bears of a major food source.
  • Many plant and animal species may be eliminated from western parks, with mountaintop species the most vulnerable.
  • Glaciers are melting away in Glacier, Mount Rainier, North Cascades, Olympic, and Yosemite national parks, and mountains in national parks across the West could no longer be snow-capped in summer.
  • Joshua Tree National Park may well lose its namesake tree, and Saguaro National Park could lose saguaros.
  • Temperature increases may make already-hot parks like Death Valley National Park in California and Zion National Park in Utah too hot to be visited.
  • The most popular beaches in the San Francisco area, units of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, are in danger of being flooded by a rising sea level.
  • Warming has already contributed to a 6.5 times increase in areas burned by western wildfires, with further increases likely to lead to parks being closed and vacations being disrupted more often.

The report considers only the effects of climate disruption on national parks in the West, which may be particularly vulnerable. The western United States has already warmed at twice the rate experienced in the East over the past half century, and some climate models suggest future warming could be especially extreme in the Southwest. Last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last week showed that the first half of 2006 was the warmest on record. Also, the scarcity of water in the West makes the region’s ecosystems and wildlife vulnerable to changes in temperature, snowpack accumulation and snowmelt, and streamflows.

Bill Wade, the chair of the executive committee of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, said, “Our national parks have been less impacted by human activities than other lands in the American West. They, therefore, will serve as indicators of the changing health of our planet – a kind of ‘climate change canary in the coal mine.’ This validates the reason for their establishment and underscores their continued importance.”

“The good news is that we have the technology and know-how to reduce global warming pollution,” said Theo Spencer of NRDC. “State and local leaders are catching on that we need to save these parks and move towards a clean energy future. When will Washington hit the same trail?”

In the absence of federal legislation curbing the emissions that cause global warming, political leaders from the American West are taking action. California has led in adopting standards to reduce heat-trapping pollutants from new motor vehicles, and other states are adopting those standards. State governments in California, Washington, Oregon, Arizona, New Mexico, and Montana are implementing or developing comprehensive plans to reduce their contributions to global warming.

In addition to Saunders, the report’s other principal author is Tom Easley, RMCO’s director of programs.