US national parks endangered by climate change

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.

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.

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.

The NPS is also suffering from a $9 billion to $11 billion backlog in needed maintenance on park infrastructure, such as roads, trails, bridges, and dams. That’s on top of an annual $800 million deficit for the routine operation of the parks.

Among the risks to US national parks outlined in the report are:
– A loss of ice and snow.
– A loss of water.
– Higher sea levels and stronger coastal storms.
– Downpours and flooding.
– Loss of plant life.
– Loss of wildlife.
– Loss of fish.
– Loss of historical and cultural treasures.

Among the report’s 32 recommendations:
– The US government must sign on to reduce greenhouse gases emissions by 20 percent by 2020 and by 80 percent by 2050.
– Congress should expand current national parks and create new ones.
– The NPS should create specific plans for how each park will address climate change.
– Parks should become “climate neutral” in regard to their own human-created greenhouse-gas emissions.
– Parks should educate visitors about the threat of climate change to the parks.
– Parks should be freed to use their entrance fees toward addressing climate change issues in the park.
– Parks should be allowed to conduct scientific research within their borders, a function that was transferred by Congress to the US Geological Survey in 1993.

The National Park System includes 391 parks and other properties managed by the NPS. The list of 25 national parks most in danger includes some of the most visited and well-known parks from coast to coast, including Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Zion in the West; Ellis Island in New York harbor and Acadia on Maine’s rocky seashore.

The complete list:
Acadia National Park
Assateague Island National Seashore
Bandelier National Monument
Biscayne National Park
Cape Hatteras National Seashore
Colonial National Historical Park
Denali National Park and Preserve
Dry Tortugas National Park
Ellis Island National Monument
Everglades National Park
Glacier National Park
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore
Joshua Tree National Park
Lake Mead National Recreation Area
Mesa Verde National Park
Mount Rainier National Park
Padre Island National Seashore
Rocky Mountain National Park
Saguaro National Park
Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Virgin Islands National Park/Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument
Yellowstone National Park
Yosemite National Park
Zion National Park.

Editor's note: Click here to read the recent Monitor article, "America's National Parks face challenges."

For more articles about the environment, see the Monitor’s main environment page, which offers information on many environment topics. Also, check out our Bright Green blog archive and our RSS feed.

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