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What Climate Change Means For America's National Parks

A crowd gathers near the summit of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park. (Robert F. Bukaty/AP Photo)
A crowd gathers near the summit of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park. (Robert F. Bukaty/AP Photo)

Conserving America’s most precious public lands. It’s the founding duty of the National Park Service. But what does conservation mean with accelerating climate change?

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Patty Glick, senior scientist in climate adaptation at the National Wildlife Federation. One of the lead authors of the National Park Service report Planning for a Changing Climate.

John Clayton, author and historian. Author of “Natural Rivals: John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, and the Creation of America’s Public Lands.” (@JohnClaytonMT)

Abe Miller-Rushing, science coordinator at Acadia National Park.

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Christy Brigham, head of resource management and science for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.

Interview Highlights

On how climate change affects the National Park Service

Patty Glick: “National parks across the country no doubt faced some very difficult but important decisions about how to tackle the challenges posed by climate change. It’s a reality that a lot of people are coming to grips with. Just to share a little bit of background, over the last decade, we at the National Wildlife Federation have been working with a coalition of federal resource management agencies, including the National Park Service, basically to help them figure out how to cope with the impacts of climate change in their work. It’s a practice known as climate adaptation. And in the context of natural resource management, we often refer to it as climate-smart conservation.

“But we’ve also been working with agencies individually to help customize the guidance for their unique needs. And the National Park Service has actually recognized and been concerned about the effects of climate change for a long time. In fact, the agency made the decision to move the historic lighthouse at North Carolina’s Cape Hatteras National Seashore more than 20 years ago because it was vulnerable to sea level rise and erosion. But in recent years, the concern has definitely grown as parks [have] experienced worsening wildfires, and hurricanes and other extreme events, in addition to some of the ongoing changes.

“And that realization that climate change is having a significant impact on park resources and assets has really compelled the agency, I think, to find ways to reduce the risk to just about all of its work. And so the planning for a change in climate guidance that we helped develop is intended to help parks navigate the considerable climate-related challenges that they face across their whole range of activities, from citing visitor centers and other infrastructure, and protecting wildlife to ensuring cultural and historic resources still are meaningful.”

On how the National Park Service has historically defined preservation

John Clayton: “One of the interesting things about the period, especially from the 1890s to the 1910s, was that we had different values related to the environment. And we set aside lands for different purposes to meet those different values. The parks were set aside for preservation to preserve these places untouched, the glory of nature. Meanwhile, the national forests were set aside under a philosophy of conservation, let’s conserve some of these resources for the future. Let’s not cut down all of our trees today so that we will have some timber available tomorrow. Conservation implies management. We’re going to choose which trees to cut, which valleys to dam. Preservation implies that we can leave nature alone, that humans are separate from nature and perhaps even worse than nature. And nature will be able to figure these things out on its own. And so I think what we’re seeing here is a crisis in which … nature may not be able to figure out climate change.”

The National Park Service, now due to climate change, has to move away from a pure preservation mission and to one of more active management. What is the reckoning that’s going on here?

Patty Glick: “One thing we do need to acknowledge is that conservation goals are values based. And the Park Service is going to need to figure out not just what’s achievable in terms of its adaptation strategies, but also what’s acceptable. But that said, America’s conservation vision as a whole has evolved over time. You know, we went from this essential idea of protecting pristine landscapes and to managing lands and waters for hunting and fishing, to this broader goal, to protecting biodiversity. And I think climate adaptation is a continuation of that evolution, including within the Park Service.

“I think it represents an era of conservation in which we need to embrace decision-making under uncertainty. And accept the need for innovation and experimentation. For example, some parks are considering strategies to actually direct change. You know, there’s an approach called managed relocation, which essentially takes species that may no longer persist in their current or historical range because of a change in climate and actually move them to new areas. Hopefully so that they will remain there. And it’s somewhat controversial. The parks are definitely looking at the risks of any potential downsides. But for some people, it means the only hope of avoiding extinction.”

On what preservation activist John Muir would ask us to do to protect national parks

John Clayton: “It’s difficult to know what Muir would say today because he lived in a different era as the controversy over his racial views should remind us. And of course, he said many different things. Like any great prophet, he can be interpreted in multiple ways. But I think what Muir really wanted at the core was for us to acknowledge and celebrate that some places are special. And some places have these great spiritual values beyond the monetary values that we often assign to them. So to the extent that we can try to manage these places for those spiritual values, I think he would approve.”

From The Reading List

New York Times: “What to Save? Climate Change Forces Brutal Choices at National Parks.” — “For more than a century, the core mission of the National Park Service has been preserving the natural heritage of the United States. But now, as the planet warms, transforming ecosystems, the agency is conceding that its traditional goal of absolute conservation is no longer viable in many cases.”

Los Angeles Times: “Last year’s Castle fire killed at least 10% of world’s giant sequoias, study says” — “At least one-tenth of the world’s mature giant sequoia trees were destroyed by a single California wildfire that tore through the southern Sierra Nevada last year, according to a draft report prepared by scientists with the National Park Service.”

Jackson Hole Radio: “Biden proposes 3.5 billion for parks budget” — “The Biden-Harris administration today submitted to Congress the President’s Budget for fiscal year 2022.”

Who.What.Why: “Forests Ablaze, Glaciers Melting: Climate Change Threatens US Parks” — “In 2020, the number of visitors to America’s 423 national parks fell 28 percent from the previous year, but with President Biden’s pledge to make COVID-19 vaccines widely available by May 1, Americans are likely to be dusting off their suitcases. Those who visit the parks may find a changed landscape.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.