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US national parks endangered by climate change

By / October 2, 2009

The Merced River in the winter at Yosemite National Park in California. Mammals in the park are moving to high elevations because of warmer and drier conditions.

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On Thursday, two environmental groups pointed to 25 jewels of the National Park System as examples of how climate change poses an immediate threat to America’s recreational, historical, and scenic gems.

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In a report titled “National Parks in Peril,” the Natural Resources Defense Council (NDRC) and the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization say that some national parks may simply disappear in part or whole (due to sea level rise) if the emissions of greenhouse gases are not reduced significantly in future years.

Already, glaciers are expected to disappear from Glacier National Park within 15 years. Saguaro National Park may lose its saguaro cactuses. Grizzly bears may lose one of their most important food sources. The list of dangers prompted by climate change goes on and on.

“Global warming is threatening our parks now,” says Theo Spencer, senior advocate for the Climate Center at the NDRC. “This is not [just] a future threat.”

“We have to protect our special places,” Mr. Spencer added.

The parks are experiencing a rare moment in the national spotlight, largely thanks to the television series “National Parks: America’s Best Idea” now airing on PBS, the work of award-winning documentary filmmaker Ken Burns. The report’s sponsors said in a telephone press conference that they had not intentionally planned for their report to be issued at the same time as the PBS series was being broadcast.

Other events have also focused attention on the needs of the parks. The Second Century Commission just released its report on the future of the parks. That report anticipates the centennial of the National Park Service (NPS) in 2016.

And the US Senate also recently confirmed the appointment of a new director of the NPS, Jon Jarvis.

Kurt Repanshek at the National Parks Traveler webzine quotes an e-mail from Mr. Jarvis to NPS employees outlining his priorities. Climate change is only mentioned once, in reference to making park service operations more sustainable.

“The Park Service has to decide if it’s serious about this,” said Stephen Saunders, president of the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization and the report’s principal author.

“What we choose to do will make an enormous difference as we go forward,” Mr. Saunders said. He urged Americans to “put pressure on legislators” to address this issue.

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