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Op-Ed | To Protect National Parks, We Must Take Urgent Climate Action Now

By Mike Murray, Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks

National parks are among America’s most beloved institutions, yet they face a grave threat. Climate change is here, and we need to act quickly to protect our parks from its worst consequences.

As a career National Park Service employee, former park superintendent, and current chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks — an organization representing over 2,400 current or former National Park Service employees and volunteers — I can attest to the devastating effects climate change is having on parks across the nation. In one of the parks I oversaw, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, shoreline erosion exacerbated by more frequent and intense storms is washing beach-front homes into the surf. And we witnessed the impacts of unprecedented flooding last summer in Yellowstone National Park that wiped out major access roads and devastated local communities. Unfortunately, our national parks often serve as early indicators of the significant and growing impacts of climate change.

The warming temperatures and all-too-frequent natural disasters occurring across the National Park System and in our local communities should be a wakeup call for all Americans. We must act now to tackle the climate crisis and protect our treasured national parks and their biodiversity. Recent legislation like the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act are steps in the right direction. These two bills provide significant resources for our national parks and much needed federal investments to fight climate change. These investments alone are not enough, however. They must be coupled with additional laws and regulations that focus on reducing the largest sources of climate pollution. Accounting for roughly half of all U.S. emissions, these top climate polluters include light and medium-duty vehicles such as cars, SUVs and small trucks, heavy-duty vehicles like semi-trucks and buses, and coal and gas fired power plants.

Thankfully, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently proposed three separate rules to reduce climate-altering emissions from these sources. While these rules are far from perfect, they mark some of the most promising tools to cut pollution driving the climate crisis. With these proposed rules yet to be finalized we urge the administration to take notice of the climate disasters happening around us and use this opportunity to strengthen these regulations to achieve additional climate pollution reductions. More can and must be done to rapidly transition the vehicles we drive away from gasoline towards zero emitting electric vehicles. Similarly, we need to do even more to reduce fossil fuel emissions from the power plants that generate our electricity.

Studies show that America’s national parks are warming at twice the rate as the rest of the nation, and we have not yet come close to seeing the worst of effects of our changing climate. For instance, sensitive plant and animal species like the ancient and massive giant sequoias of the Sierra Nevada range and the whitebark pine tree of the Northern Rockies, which provide an essential seasonal food source for the grizzly bears of Yellowstone, are ill-equipped to adapt quickly enough to rapidly rising temperatures and are at risk of severe population decline. Sea level rise and increased tropical storm intensity also pose a serious risk to the long-term sustainability of historic coastal structures in parks such as the Civil War-era Fort Jefferson at Dry Tortugas National Park and the more than three centuries old fortress at Castillo de San Marcos National Monument. We could even see the loss of namesake park features like the glaciers of Glacier National Park, Joshua trees of Joshua Tree National Park, and saguaro cacti of Saguaro National Park.

This summer has demonstrated just how bad the climate crisis has already become, with heat waves enveloping much of the northern hemisphere and dangerous, toxic smoke from Canadian wildfires drifting down into communities across the Midwest and East Coast. This recent July fourth holiday saw more than barbeques and fireworks, it also saw average global temperatures breaking heat records for four straight days reaching levels we may have not seen in the last 100,000 years.

It pains me to imagine what our national parks will look like a century from now if we do not move quickly to cut pollution from the key sources that are driving the climate crisis. Our parks and the many future generations of people who hope to enjoy them are counting on us. History shows that federal rules can successfully remedy environmental catastrophes like acid rain and the hole in the ozone layer. Now is the time for bold action to clean up climate pollution from vehicles and power plants. Now is the time for this administration to secure a viable future for our beloved national parks and provide a livable climate for all of humanity.

Based in Maine, Mike Murray worked in various capacities for the National Park Service for 34 years. Murray now serves as the Chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks having been a member of their Executive Council since January 2014.