U.S. National Parks Vulnerable as Planet Heats Up


DENVER, Colorado, October 2, 2009 (ENS) – “Climate disruption is the greatest threat ever to America’s national parks,” warns Stephen Saunders, president of the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization and principal author of a new report released Thursday that identifies the 25 U.S. national parks, lakeshores, seashores and monuments most at risk of global warming.

Severe impacts of climate change include loss of snow and water, the report states. Another impact of the warming climate is too much water as rising seas flood coastal parks and extreme storms bring torrential rains. Parks also stand to lose plants and animals as their preferred habitats disappear.

The report, “National Parks in Peril,” by Rocky Mountain Climate Organization and Natural Resources Defense Council, follows the introduction of clean energy and climate legislation in the U.S. Senate earlier this week. The House of Representatives passed its climate bill in June.

“As a country, we need to ensure that our parks have a future that is as promising as their past,” said Theo Spencer, senior advocate for the Climate Center at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Clean energy legislation is now moving in Congress that would help preserve our national treasures, while creating more jobs, economic growth and national security.”

Among its 32 recommendations, the report suggests that Congress, the Administration, and the Nation Park Service set aside new national parks and expand existing parks to preserve representative examples of America’s best natural and cultural resources for future generations.

Other remedies outlined in the report include enacting comprehensive clean energy legislation, including reducing emissions of the major greenhouse gas carbon dioxide by at least 20 percent below current levels by 2020.

The National Parks Service must prioritize this issue by enacting policies to mitigate the impacts of global warming and should have more funding for research and to reduce the effects of climate change, the report advises.

A new analysis of climate risk, published today by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, shows that even moderate carbon-reduction policies adopted now can substantially lower the risk of future climate change.

Quick, global emissions reductions would be required in order to provide a good chance of avoiding a temperature increase of more than 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial level, but without prompt action, the MIT scientists found, extreme changes could soon become “much more difficult, if not impossible, to control.”

There is little time to lose because the impacts of climate change are already visible across the National Park System, the new report finds.

Glaciers are melting in all national parks that have them, including Denali, Mount Rainier, and Yosemite national parks. All glaciers in Glacier National Park could be gone in 12 or 13 years, the authors warn.

The report details how warming temperatures are disrupting mountain forests, tundra, meadows, and wildflowers; desert ecosystems; and coastal plant communities.

Pine beetles have devastated forests in Rocky Mountain National Park (Photo by workrelease)

In Rocky Mountain National Park, for example, rising temperatures have caused an explosion of mountain pine beetles, which are killing large lodgepole pine trees. “People are surprised and sometimes even angry to see so many trees dying,” says Kyle Patterson, the park’s public information officer. Bark beetles have infected 50,000 acres, about 19 percent of the park.

Desert plants are also affected. In Saguaro National Park, saguaro cactus could disapper, and in Joshua Tree National Park, Joshua trees could be eliminated, the report warns.

Some wildlife species may go completely extinct and some local wildlife populations in particular parks may vanish or decline.

The most vulnerable species, according to the report, are grizzly bears in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, Florida panthers, lynx, pikas, mountain and desert bighorn sheep, white-tailed ptarmigan, sooty terns, sea turtles, amphibians, trout, salmon, corals, and butterflies.

Bill Wade, chair of the executive council of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees and former superintendent of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, said, “National parks are often referred to as the canaries in the mine shafts when it comes to climate change. By their very characteristics and locations, impacts and effects of climate change are noticed in national parks first and are a forewarning about what will happen elsewhere. That’s why this report is particularly important.”

Of the 391 sites managed by the National Park Service, “National Parks in Peril,” names 25 as being the most at risk of climate change, without ranking them in order of risk. They are:

  • 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 and Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument
  • Yellowstone National Park
  • Yosemite National Park
  • Zion National Park

Rocky Mountain Climate Organization’s Saunders testified on August 24, 2009, at a field hearing of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on National Parks on climate change and parks. He recommended that the National Park Service be given the statutory flexibility to use entrance and recreation fees to address climate change in parks – both for reducing emissions and for adapting to changes, so long as those actions are coupled with visitor education about the projects and their purposes.

Now, said Saunders, fees can only be used for construction and maintenance projects that are highly visible to visitors.

Click here to read the full report, “National Parks in Peril.”

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2009. All rights reserved.

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