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America's national parks face challenges

Shifting climates and needed upkeep are issues facing America’s treasured spots.

(Page 2 of 3)



While chronic underfunding of the NPS has caused an estimated $8 billion to $9 billion backlog of sorely needed maintenance in the parks, for many that threat has been overshadowed by a greater concern: climate change.

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“How people are changing the climate is the greatest threat the parks have ever faced,” says Stephen Saunders, president of the Rocky Mountain Climate Change Organization and a former deputy assistant secretary of the Department of the Interior, which oversees the NPS. Low-lying park properties, such as Dry Tortugas off Key West, Fla., and Ellis Island in New York Harbor, could disappear underwater later this century as sea levels rise an expected 2.5 to 4 feet. Large areas of the Everglades and Big Cypress National Preserve in south Florida could be inundated as well, he says.

As climate zones shift northward, “Joshua Tree National Park may lose all of its Joshua trees,” Mr. Saunders says. “Saguaro National Park may lose all of its saguaro [cactus].” Glacier National Park is expected to no longer have any glaciers by 2030, possibly sooner. Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone parks may lose their vast tracts of lodgepole and whitebark pines to mountain pine beetles, which could survive at higher latitudes and elevations.

“The parks aren’t going to continue to provide these wonderful refuges for Americans, places where we can learn about our natural systems and wildlife if we don’t act in significant ways to protect them from climate-change impacts,” adds Mark Wenzler, a clean-air expert at the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), a nonprofit park advocacy group. “We’re at this kind of crossroads. What are we going to do?”

Even ocean acidification, another effect of ever-higher CO2 levels in the atmosphere, has become an issue for the parks. While snorkeling in the Virgin Islands National Park last winter, “I was amazed at some of the reefs that were just dead basically,” says Kurt Repanshek, founder and editor in chief of the online magazine National Parks Traveler.