State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

, ,

New Guidance Gives National Parks Tools to Make Tough Decisions on Climate Change

The climate crisis is changing Earth’s landscapes, and the pristine wilderness of our national parks is no exception. In late April, the National Park Service’s Climate Change Response Program released new guidance that aims to help park planners and managers incorporate climate change into all their decision-making.

“The goal is to ensure that parks are thinking about climate change in all the planning that they are already doing,” explained Wylie Carr, a climate change planning specialist with the National Park Service, in an interview with GlacierHub.

The 85-page document took a team of scientists from the National Park Service and the National Wildlife Federation nearly five years to finish. Jeff Mow, the superintendent of Glacier National Park, explained that the Trump administration made working on documents like this difficult. “Planning for climate change was off the table,” he said. “It is going to take us a little while to recover from that.”

A waterfall in the foreground with a lake and craggy mountains in the background.
Glacier National Park in Montana has been feeling the impacts of climate change for years. Source: Trey Ratcliff

The report, “Planning for a Changing Climate,” advises park planners to embrace a scenario-based approach, rather than developing park plans and policy for only one forecasted climate situation. “This report encourages park managers to use climate change projections to try and see what the future might look like, but also to recognize that there is inherent uncertainty,” said Carr. “We are really encouraging parks to plan for multiple climate scenarios and develop strategies that are going to be resilient across multiple different futures that might play out.”

Many parks are already feeling the consequences of climate change. In Alaska, Denali National Park is experiencing increased landslide risk due to melting permafrost. In Georgia, a historic lighthouse at Fort Pulaski National Monument is being reinforced to save it from sea level rise. Rising temperatures in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park are endangering rare plant species. National Park Service scientists anticipate problems like these to increase across the country in the coming years. “We are already seeing the impacts of climate change all the way from parks in Alaska down to parks in the Caribbean,” said Carr. “All of our parks are being affected by climate change.”

A crew clad in bright orange work gear uses machines to lift rocks next to an old looking lighthouse.
Crews work to stabilize Cockspur Lighthouse in the Fort Pulaski National Monument. Source: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

The report seeks to deconstruct a linear view of climate change. It suggests that park managers view climate change as a “threat multiplier.” In addition to bringing up new issues for parks, climate change will also exacerbate and intensify issues that already exist. In Glacier National Park, Jeff Mow has been witnessing the increased wildfire threat for years.

“Wildfires have really cleaned our clock. We found ourselves responding to wildfires in very acute ways — completely delaying the summers, completely derailing a lot of the plans that we have we had,” he said in an interview with GlacierHub. “No pun intended, but it took a lot of oxygen out of the room in terms of our availability to do other things. Over the past six or seven years, the behavior of wildfires has been really different.”

A sun sets behind mountains and the sky is bright orange, with clouds of smoke visible across the skyline.
The Thompson Fire burned 17,000 acres in Glacier National Park in 2015. Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture

As the climate crisis progresses, there are going to be difficult decisions to be made. The National Park Service is well aware that it won’t be possible to preserve everything. They have developed a tool to assist the parks through the process of deciding what to save. The Resist-Accept-Direct framework aims to provide parks with a “set of distinct management options that decision makers can consider when responding to ecosystems facing the potential for rapid, irreversible ecological change.”

In some cases, parks may be able to combat changes. In others, however, parks are going to have to acquiesce to the will of climate change. Wildfires are raging, storms are becoming more severe, and sea levels are rising. Coastal park managers may have to accept that parts of their land will soon be underwater or otherwise irrevocably altered. Sometimes, the possibility will exist to “direct” the change. “Maybe we know that the climate in a particular area is no longer going to be suitable for a particular kind of plant,” explained Carr. “So, maybe we start to plant new species that are going to be more adaptive to that environment.”

In Montana, retreating glaciers in Glacier National Park have increased stream temperatures to a point that native bull trout can no longer thrive in the areas they have traditionally inhabited. In order to direct change, park staff have been moving the bull trout up to cooler alpine lakes that are free of invasive species. “Moving bull trout to alpine lake settings that currently don’t have native fish species is an adaptation strategy that is very directive and requires significant resources to implement,” said Mow.

America’s national parks are an emblem of the wilderness that has defined the country for generations. In order to keep national parks spectacular for generations to come, society is going to have to adjust to a paradigm shift in the way national parks are run. “The park service was established to preserve and protect natural and cultural resources for the American people. Oftentimes we look to the past to try and preserve what has existed and continue that forward,” said Carr. “This guidance is saying that the past is no longer a reliable guide for what the future will look like.”

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

Notify of

1 Comment
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
2 years ago

I think the scenario-based approach will be great for individual park management and planning. The range of parks and their destinations make a dingle approach untenable. Thanks for the great information!