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Climate Change’s Grip On The National Parks
By Kurt Repanshek

Water, the universal solvent, is eroding parts of the National Park System. It is slowly overcoming Cape Hatteras National Seashore and has done significant damage to Yellowstone and Death Valley national parks, as well as Mojave National Preserve and Vicksburg National Military Park. And with climate change, it is gaining strength.

All coastal units of the National Park System are at risk not just from rising sea levels, but more potent hurricanes. Inland, floodwaters are tearing apart park roads, unearthing remains of Civil War soldiers, burying areas in rubble, and washing down mountain slopes denuded of soil-holding vegetation by wildfires. But the lack of water also is impacting parks. That can be seen in the parks through which the water-starved Colorado River flows.

As much as underfunding, understaffing, backlogged maintenance, and outside factors are threatening and endangering the parks, climate change is raising the risk ratio for many, if not most, of them. The changing conditions impact glaciers, flora and fauna, infrastructure, and even visitation patterns.

“The Park Service has always been, ‘Keep things as natural as possible.’ But they’re also recognizing in a lot of their climate-change documents, their recent frameworks, that you you can’t, because things are happening way out of the historic range of natural variation. And trying to figure out what to do next sometimes just takes a little bit of time. But there’s not a lot of time left,” said Linda Mazzu, a former Bryce Canyon National Park superintendent who also worked as chief of natural and cultural resources and science at Yosemite National Park during her National Park Service career.

Time is running out, on glaciers in Glacier National Park, Yosemite, Grand Teton National Park, North Cascades National Park, Katmai National Park and Preserve and elsewhere. At Big Bend, the Park Service is trying to buy time with Oak Spring, which nourishes the human needs in the Chisos Basin but is plagued by leaky piping and insufficient storage. Due to the exhorbitant cost of finding a new water source and building a new pipeline (estimated at $70 million-$100 million), the Park Service is hoping that fixing the leaks and increasing storage from 500,000 gallons to 1 million gallons will extend the spring’s life 10-20 more years.

At both Lake Mead National Recreation Area and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area the drought of the past 23 years has left their reservoirs at their lowest levels seen since the dams that hold back the waters were built. That has prompted the Park Service to race to extend boat ramps where possible, but it also has raised the prospect that the hydro-electric plants in the two dams will shut down due to a lack of water flowing through their turbines.

Look north to Alaska and the warming climate is, essentially, melting the permafrost in places. At Denali National Park and Preserve, the weakened permafrost has led to a slow-motion landslide at Polychrome Pass that pulled down a section of the 92-mile Denali Park Road. Now the Interior Department is spending tens of millions of dollars to see a 400-foot-long bridge built to span the troublesome area.

At Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve in the Land of the Midnight Sun the warming climate is expected to reroute a river, shifting its outlet to the Gulf of Alaska by more than 17 miles and, in the process, upsetting the local economy tied to commercial, subsistence, and sport fishing, as well as a rafting experience that draws clients from around the world.

Survey the entire park system and you can find climate-change impacts that are forcing park managers to both respond to immediate issues and plan to try to ward off future problems.

“I think any park has a potential for risks,” said Mary Foley, a member of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks who was the Park Service’s chief scientist from the Northeast Regional Office before retiring.

Politics And Climate

Politics can compound climate change impacts in the parks. That was evident during the Trump administration, when those two words — “climate change” — where not to be spoken or written down in reports.

“During the Obama administration, the construction funds were tightly controlled, and if you weren’t addressing projected climate change, like sea-level rise, they weren’t going to to fund your project,” Foley pointed out.

During the Trump administration, though, general management plans crafted by parks were “scrutinized and any mention of climate change was pulled out,” she said. “So you were strongly advised to avoid calling attention to yourself in that regard. … It was pretty quiet out there for a number of years. The previous administration forced you to deal with it and the next administration comes in and says, ‘No, no, no, we’re not going there anymore.'”

The Biden administration has returned the emphasis to addressing climate change, and parks are putting Great American Outdoor Act funding and increased infrastructure funding to work to build resiliency into their parks. At Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona, for example, the Park Service budgeted nearly $10 million to replace water wells that “collapsed in the past due to their age” and because of a need to have water sources that are “more resilient in the face of climate change and drought. Several of the park’s water mains date to the original development period of the park (1960s) and are prone to frequent failure.”

While staff from the Park Service’s Climate Change Response Program did not respond in time for this article, the agency’s budget documents underscore its concerns about climate-change impacts on the parks.

Overall, the Park Service’s FY22 budget request called for a “$208.5 million increase to address the climate change crises, increase NPS conservation efforts, and support climate science.” Additionally, the agency sought $2 million “to establish a permanent NPS Incident Management Team that will plan for and respond to emergencies including natural disasters and wildland fire, which have increased in pace due to the effects of climate change…”

In justifying its FY23 budget request for $7 million for “Emergency and Unscheduled Projects,” the agency pointed out that, “(C)limate change increases the severity and frequency of many weather-related events, necessitating additional resources to ensure that NPS operations recover quickly after facilities and resources are damaged or destroyed during these events.”

Park staff throughout the park system are not waiting for the impacts of climate change to arrive. There is ongoing work to reduce carbon emissions, conduct inventories to see what natural and cultural resources are at risk from climate-change impacts, and factor in potential climate-change impacts when evaluating projects. That last point is key in Park Service discussions on how to move the Gardiner-to-Mammoth Hot Springs road out of the Gardner River canyon to an area not susceptible to a flooding river or rockfalls.

“Yellowstone hasn’t flooded that much, so I think it’s an example of, even if we think climate change impacts aren’t going to happen in certain areas, they’re very possible,” Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly told the Traveler earlier this year. “And so it’s more of a matter of when, not if. It’s important that we incorporate that into all of our thinking as we as we move forward into the second century.”

Preparing for climate change reportedly is one of Park Service Director Chuck Sams’ key priorities (Sams was unavailable to discuss those priorities), and a team has been assembled to examine how coastal parks can cope with the matter.

“As part of the National Park Service’s overall response to climate change, an effort is underway to improve the consistency, availability, and organization of information to inform investment decisions in coastal parks,” Dave Hallec, superintendent of National Parks of Eartern North Carolina, said in an email. “Sea level rise, coupled with an increased frequency of damaging flooding events and storms, is presenting new challenges for park managers as they maintain buildings and infrastructure central to a park’s story or important for park operations and visitor access.

“This interdisciplinary effort will result in a structured decision-support tool to help park and program managers evaluate the risks posed by coastal hazards when considering investments in coastal assets like lighthouses, historic buildings, visitor centers, park housing, roadways, and utility systems,” he added. “Tool development is being co-led by superintendents of coastal parks and supported by decision-support scientists from the United States Geological Survey.”

Hallec is in a key position to work on the response effort. As sea-level rise increases and hurricanes become more potent, the barrier island on which Cape Hatteras National Seashore sits is being slowly moved about by the Atlantic. Houses that once stood some 200 feet from the shoreline and outside the seashore’s boundaries now are being pulled down into the ocean and are considered inside the national seashore as measured by the high tide mark.

What the coming years will bring to Cape Hatteras remains to play out, but Rob Young isn’t optimistic.

“Cape Hatteras National Seashore, as we see it today, probably won’t be there, we won’t be using it the same way, 30 years from now,” said Professor Young, director of Western Carolina University’s Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines. “We won’t be able to keep the road [Highway 12] where it is. It’ll be too costly to maintain every piece of infrastructure and to maintain visitor use and access in the same way that we do today. But we know we have models for where the barrier islands are allowed to move and people still use them in a lighter fashion. Cape Lookout [National Seashore] is sort of like that and Cumberland Island, Georgia, and the Mississippi gulf barrier islands. I think Cape Hatteras someday is going to have to transition to a different kind of visitor use.

“I think one thing that’s really nice to point out is that, in my opinion, the National Park Service is really on the forefront of taking coastal adaptation seriously and trying to not waste money by imagining that they are going to keep everything in place forever. And that’s up and down the” Eastern Seaboard, he said.

From Snow To Rain To Drought

Unfortunately, not all climate-related issues can be solved by relocating infrastructure. At Yosemite, for example, the warming climate has left the park with just one glacier, the Maclure Glacier, and it is waning. When John Muir explored Yosemite, there were four active glaciers. Those glaciers played a significant role in nourishing the park’s flora and fauna and life beyond the park boundaries.

Glacial runoff differs from snowmelt in one important way: it continues through late summer and fall after the snow disappears, sustaining life in high-elevation ecosystems that would otherwise be dry. During spring, the trickle of glacial meltwater barely registers in the thundering, snowmelt-fed Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River. However, by September and October in dry years, that same steady glacial runoff can make up 90% of the river’s smaller flow. This reliable water source shapes ecosystems and human recreation in Lyell Canyon, Tuolumne Meadows, and the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River. — National Park Service.

“There’s one glacier left, and then changes in the snowpack in that area. Could have huge implications,” said Mazzu, also a member of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks. “It’s just the changes in precip itself. The fact that there’s more rain vs. snow, I mean, the precipitation’s still coming but it’s not coming in a way that might benefit habitats like it used to. Ecologically, there’s a lot of changes when it comes to the change of snow to rain.”

Similar losses can be seen at Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, where Middle Teton Glacier is visibly retreating on a daily basis.

While the long-running drought in the Colorado River basin has severely impacted parks along the grand river’s path, the warming climate poses a threat to iconic trees that have given their names to parks elsewhere in the West.

“I think Joshua Tree is the one they’re concerned about, the persistence of Joshua Tree. The parks will always be there, the vegetation communities will always be there, but will there always be the substantial amount of Joshua trees?” wonders Mazzu. “That’s probably a good example. That’s the park’s namesake. Sequoia is the same thing. … I do worry about Sequoia, but they are doing a lot of good work right now with the resilience of those trees.”

Mike Murray, chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, worked in Sequoia during his active days with the Park Service and fears for the big trees’ future.

“Out of control wildfires, extended drought, giant sequoias dying in unprecedented numbers, at least in terms of history, human knowledge,” said Murray. “Giant sequoia trees are adapted to live in a narrow elevation range on the west slope of the Sierra Nevada. There’s enough snowfall and snowpack to provide the moisture they need, and they’re extremely well adapted to wildfire. They have this really, really thick bark. At the base it’s often a foot thick. And it doesn’t burn, normally. But these super-hot fires and drought conditions are impacting the survival of the species.”

Also at risk from the changing precipitation patterns are wildlife.

“In the high elevation parks where the snowpack is changing you’re going to see a lot of changes,” Mazzu said, “and we’re already seeing them where some alpine species are just going to run out of room because it’s too hot or there’s not enough snow. I think that’s a conundrum with wolverine, not just in parks; where to find enough snowpack for the denning that’s required. I know in Yosemite and Sequoia the breeding lakes for the Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frogs, the meadows, the breeding meadows for the Yosemite toad, as things get warmer and there’s less water, they’re going to lose their habitat. So that’s going to be something to contend with, for sure.”

Impacts to one species could spur a cascading series of impacts. For example, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service just listed the whitebark pine as a threatened species. Among the species that rely on that tree for food through its calorie-rich pine nut are Clark’s nutcrackers, red squirrels, and even grizzly bears.

“It’s kind of a synchronous association,” said Mazzu. “I was looking at Yosemite’s page and they list one of the greatest threats in Yosemite is this kind of loss of synchronicity between life cycles. Of plants and animals because, you know, things are getting warmer, there’s less water, plants are flowering differently, that changes the pollinator patterns, and eventually influences the whole food chain.”

The climate challenges go on and on and on, from sea level rise and wildfires to the loss of glaciers and their meltwater and on to invasive species threatening to take over landscapes.

Invasives “are going to kill off so many species so quickly that we’re just not getting out in front of it,” said Kristen Brengel, the senior vice president for government affairs at the National Parks Conservation Association. “Certainly, Congress isn’t funding invasives very well. Some of these problems are really not being addressed very well through the budgets of the Park Service and the other agencies. Something dramatic has to happen.”

“… [T]he Park Service budget is not where it needs to be to address all these existential and other crises that they’re having,” she added. “It’s just sad at this point that we’re not able to really address the climate issue in particular in a really aggressive way with the Park Service. We’re going to be able to potentially do it in some places, but not everywhere.”