October 7, 2009

As U.S. heats up, so does debate over the future of national parks

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In case you missed it, Ken Burn’s six part National Park series, which aired just about a week ago on PBS, chronicled both the glamorous and the deplorable history of America’s national parks system. But amidst the scenic shots and exhaustive memoir, Burns may have missed out on an underlying, sobering message: national parks — or “America’s Best Idea” as he hailed them — are in  deep trouble.

While we’ve known that the nation’s prized landscapes are struggling under dwindling federal budgets, a new report released by two environmental organizations reveals that the effects of climate change may pose the most harrowing challenge to the future of national parks to date.

The Rocky Mountain Climate Organization and The National Resources Defense Council banded together to identify the top 25 national parks most in peril due to human-related climate changes. The 64-page report looks at tangible measurements like receding ice, loss of water, erosion from wind and seas and declining biodiversity of plants and animals. But it also addresses the parks’ less calculable losses, such as declining visitor enjoyment due to intolerable heat and, adversely, overcrowding in cooler parks.

“National Parks in Peril,” details a number of climate-change related impacts to specific parks, including:

  • The threat to Yellowstone National Park’s grizzlies due to declining populations of higher elevation whitebark pine nuts — a result of invasive mountain pine beetles, which have moved north in recent years.
  • A similar beetle infestation that threatens old growth lodgepole pines in Rocky Mountain National Park.
  • A rapid increase in tree deaths of all species and ages in Yosemite National Park due to rising temperatures.

It even suggests that within next few decades we’ll lose the glaciers of Glacier National Park, the saguaros of Saguaro National Park, and Joshua trees of Joshua Tree National Park — if actions are not taken immediately.

The report appeals to the Obama administration, Congress and the National Park Service to take a closer look at climate-change related impacts on national parks, and offers 32 ways to protect the parks, including setting aside additional park land and radically reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Said Stephen Saunders, president of the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization and the report’s principal author:

Climate disruption is the greatest threat ever to our national parks. We could lose entire national parks for the first time… To preserve our parks, we need to reduce the heat-trapping gases that are threatening them, and begin managing the parks to protect resources at risk.

Good news for him and all of us: that may just be foreseeable. Climate change legislation made headway with fiercer calls for stringent carbon regulations, and Kim Murphy of the L.A. Times reported that 1,000 U.S. mayors have agreed to fight global warming on their own — signing a pact to meet Kyoto Protocol requirements for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Burn’s efforts did not go unnoticed. Julie Cart of the L.A. Times wrote that the PBS documentary has reawaken enthusiasm for national parks in viewers of the series, as well as park service workers who are preparing for the 100th anniversary.

In the meantime, if you have an interest in the future of America’s parks, you may want to check out National Parks Traveler’s independent blog, which provides continual coverage of issues related to their plight.

— Natasha Walker

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