In a Changing State: What is Next For National Parks?

Arch at Yellowstone National Park with the well-known saying. Photo courtesy of Madeline Hirshan

Arch at Yellowstone National Park with the well-known saying. Photo courtesy of Madeline Hirshan

There is so much uncertainty in the future facing national parks as a result of global warming. If preserved areas such as national parks are at risk to dramatic transformation due to climate change, what can that mean for unprotected areas? Previous posts have described the current situation, the history, and the wildlife at risk in various national parks in the United States. In a conversation with National Park Service Ecologist Tom Rodhouse, who was one of the researchers on the “Pikas in Peril” project, he said, that it is a “time of great change and soul searching.” Tom continued to state that, “climate is highly dynamic.” He explained the significance between a highly dynamic, ever-changing climate in combination with national parks which are considered “static” entities.

Efforts have been taken by the National Park Service to cope with and mitigate pressing climate issues. The National Park Service had developed a “Climate Change Action Plan” for the years 2012 to 2014. In this document, the Park Service lays out the major issues pertaining to a changing climate, prioritizes the most pressing issues, and comes up with responses and mitigation strategies. The plan calls for an interdisciplinary approach to climate change along with two methods of coping with climate change including, “adaptation” and “mitigation.” National parks serve many purposes and in light of climate change, they serve as models for other areas, establishing methods and ideas as a foundation.

The Plan also comments on a very important notion. It states, “In many cases these areas, especially wilderness areas, offer the best baselines from which to understand the complex ways in which climate change affects natural and cultural systems.” It is almost as if national parks have a duty to pave the way for efforts to mitigate climate change and understand its potential impacts. The parks will be continuously monitoring conditions within the parks and observing any changes that may be occurring. Parks will also try to minimize its carbon footprint by conserving energy and water. A set of priorities have been formulated for focus on the most pressing issues. An important aspect of the climate change mitigation strategies is the partnerships. Even the national parks themselves team together to share information and attain a more well -rounded approach to the issue. Tom also discussed the collaboration that exists within his “Pikas in Peril Project” which was discussed in an earlier post. Eight national parks are currently working together on this project. As stated in the Climate Change Action Plan, species vulnerability assessments need to be conducted to determine which species are at risk. Tom is nearing the end of his project on pikas and explains that the, “[Pika] is a model system for mountain systems and ecosystems in general.” He continues, “[Pikas] are indicators/ harbingers of things to come.” Although the impact of pikas on their ecosystem may not be extreme, “they are a good system to study.”

The National Parks Conservation Association has published a “Climate Change & National Park Wildlife Survival Guide for a Warming World” and lists five actions that should be taken to protect wildlife from the detrimental effects of climate change. These actions include the need to limit the contributions to climate change such as by burning less fossil fuels and reduce the existing damage, and allowing animals to move freely by encouraging connective habitats.

The fact that there is established literature on the topic of national parks responses to climate change indicates its potential threats to the environments that have been preserved for all of these years. National parks have such a large fan base of people who are interested in their future, the Earth, and nature in general. With such a widespread influence, 270 million annual visitors, national parks have the ability to reach a large number of people and really make a difference. Tom alluded to the fact that the, “100th anniversary [of the National Park Service] in 2016” means a great deal. A question will arise to understand “what does it mean to have a National Park System?” National parks are the home to so many species of wildlife and, as previously mentioned, these species can range from the small rabbit-like pika, the grizzly bear, and the aquatic harbor seal. There is still uncertainty facing these species in their susceptibility due to changes resulting from global warming. However, there is also so much that can be done to attempt to mitigate the influence of climate change.

The changes impacting the national parks are not located in isolated systems; they affect the foundation of the ecosystems and the wildlife that inhabit them. This certainly is a time “where we see the value of parks and protected areas.”  As Tom nicely put it, “what happens inside the boundaries is changing before our very eyes.” Continuous research will attempt to gain more knowledge on the consequences of climate change and what it means for national parks. As the slogan was stated as part of the Yellowstone National Park Act of 1872, national parks serve “as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” Only the future will tell what climate change will bring to the table, but hopefully national parks will continue to provide great experiences to its visitors and protection for wildlife that inhabit it for generations to come.

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