Climate Change is No Walk in the National Parks
Climate change is drastically altering how the National Park Service fundamentally operates – generating large amounts of complexity and questions
What if Glacier National Park no longer has glaciers?
What if Joshua Tree National Park no longer has Joshua Trees?
These are some of the questions the National Parks Service (NPS) now has to ask itself in response to climate change. Climate change is the biggest challenge NPS has faced and is fundamentally altering how it manages the U.S. National Parks . According to the director of NPS, “[climate change] is going to upset the paradigm upon which we’ve been managing for 100 years.”  Increased temperatures caused by climate change is not only directly impacting parks’ wildlife and terrain, but also increasing variability across park operations, resulting in the need for NPS to develop new competencies and operational strategies.
Rising temperatures impact each park differently, and, therefore, require individual consideration on the impact and management of climate change. For example, some parks with colder climates are faced with snow melting earlier in the season. This not only causes environmental issues, such as decreased water supply for plants and animals, but also operational and economic changes, like decreased winter sports seasons . Some parks in warmer climates are facing different challenges, such as an increasing number of wildfires . These issues impact the visitor experience and when people choose to visit the parks, lengthening the visitation season and increasing the volume of visitors in some parks while doing the reverse in others . In response, NPS needs to accommodate variability in visitor behavior and develop services to attract visitors in the off seasons and to other open parks.
Climate change is also altering the core competencies required of NPS. Staff now needs the scientific knowledge to be able to collect, analyze, and interpret relevant data, and then make important managerial decisions related to the data . This creates a talent gap that needs to be filled by hiring staff with the required scientific knowledge or providing their current employees with training and development. NPS also needs to invest in and provide the required resources and analytic and decision-support technologies necessary for scientific analysis and interpretation . Staff then needs to be able to use their findings to make decisions that have not been made previously in NPS history and determine where and how to focus limited resources . For example, should NPS assist in the migration of the thousands-of-years-old, 300-foot Sequoia trees in Sequoia National Park, and if so how? Finally, staff needs to be able to identify and create key partnerships. While previously the NPS could rely on the parks’ own existing resources, due to climate change, parks are now no longer able to be self-sustaining ecosystems . To address this, it is important for NPS to collaborate and develop research and resource partnerships with academic institutions and federal agencies.
NPS, is responding to climate change in four ways :
- Using science to help parks manage climate change
- Adapting to an uncertain future
- Mitigating or reducing their carbon footprint
- Communicating to the public and employees about climate change
To manage climate change, NPS has begun to increase scientific knowledge and plans to continue to develop knowledge through collaborations with other agencies and institutions and through monitoring and studying the effects of climate change on its parks’ resources. As discoveries are made, they will be applied to support NPS’s adapting, mitigating, and communicating efforts in both the short-term and longer-term .
To adapt to an uncertain future, NPS is utilizing scenario planning to analyze potential outcomes and develop corresponding responses. The goal of scenario planning is to implement strategies in both the short-term and longer-term that will increase the resiliency of parks in response to climate change .
To mitigate national parks’ carbon footprint, NPS has partnered with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to conduct “Climate Friendly Parks” workshops to evaluate and reduce energy usage and is focused on investing in alternatives and services that have reduced emissions (e.g., energy efficient light bulbs, electric transportation) .
To communicate to the public and employees the effects of climate change and create a call to action, NPS has developed external communications – such as research summaries and monthly newsletter and webinars – and internal communications – such as staff trainings. Visitors to the parks can also witness firsthand the visible impact of climate change .
Going forward, NPS should also conduct scientific studies focused on proving the existence of climate change in order to disconnect it from political debate. Then, they should push harder for regulations that mitigate climate change and for funding to respond to climate change. Additionally, NPS should identify opportunities to increase revenue through either additional services or partnerships in order to have more resources to address climate change issues.
Looking to the future, should the National Parks Service focus resources on mitigating climate change or adapting to it?
 Climate Central, “‘It’s About Engaging the Next Generation’ A Q&A with National Park Service director Jonathan Jarvis,” http://reports.climatecentral.org/nps/director/, accessed November 2017.
 Brady Dennis, “Climate change is going to drive a lot of change in the national parks,” The Washington Post, May 18, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2016/05/18/national-park-service-director-climate-change-among-the-biggest-challenges-ahead/?utm_term=.6e1d81e27080, accessed November 2017.
 NPS, “Climate Change in National Parks,” https://www.nps.gov/piro/learn/nature/upload/ClimateChangeInNationalParks.pdf, accessed November 2017.
 Nicholas Fisichelli, Gregor Schuurman, William Monahan, Pamela Ziesler, “Protected Area Tourism in a Changing Climate: Will Visitation at US National Parks Warm Up or Overheat?” Public Library of Science 10(6): e0128226, June 17, 2015, http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0128226, accessed November 2017.
 Nicholas Fisichelli, William Monahan, “Climate Exposure of US National Parks in a New Era of Change” Public Library of Science 9(7): e101302, July 2, 2014, http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0101302, accessed November 2017.
 NPS, “Revisting Leopold: Resource Stewardship in the National Parks. A Report of the National Park System Advisory Board Science Committee,” https://www.nps.gov/calltoaction/PDF/LeopoldReport_2012.pdf, accessed November 2017.
 Ker Than, “How Climate Change Will Transform the National Parks’ Iconic Animals and Plants,” Smithsonian, August 8, 2016, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/how-climate-change-transforming-national-parks-iconic-animals-and-plants-180960046/, accessed November 2017.
 Elspeth Dehnert, “Climate Change Threatens U.S. National Parks,” Scientific American, July 3, 2014, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/climate-change-threatens-u-s-national-parks/, accessed November 2017.
 NPS, “Climate Change Response Program,” https://www.nps.gov/orgs/ccrp/index.htm, accessed November 2017.
 NPS, “Climate Change. Science,” https://www.nps.gov/subjects/climatechange/science.htm, accessed November 2017.
 NPS, “Climate Change. Adaptation,” https://www.nps.gov/subjects/climatechange/adaptation.htm, accessed November 2017.
 NPS, “Climate Change. Communication,” https://www.nps.gov/subjects/climatechange/communication.htm, accessed November 2017.
Student comments on Climate Change is No Walk in the National Parks
Emily, this is a really interesting write-up. You do a great job capturing how significant and existential the threat of climate change is to NPS, and the lack of obvious solutions to address the vulnerability of our National Parks.
In response to your question – I think that, unfortunately, adaptation rather than mitigation is the role of NPS in confronting climate change. To the extent that the damage of climate change is not already done, it will be propelled forward by industrial emissions that drastically outweigh NPS’s contribution to the overall problem. That’s not to say that NPS shouldn’t take whatever cost-effective solutions exist to reducing the carbon footprint of the parks – things like electric shuttle buses in Zion National Park during peak season, for instance – but the leadership of NPS should be clear-eyed about the need to urgently adapt and manage scenarios around the impacts of climate change on the National Parks.
I think the point you make on the need to communicate and educate the public on climate change is absolutely essential, and should be considered hand-in-hand with the mandate to adapt and preserve the parks in the face of a changing environment. The scale and grandeur of the parks, when taken in within the context of climate change and shifting environmental realities, is as powerful a tool as I can think of to convey the urgency of action on climate change to the general public.
As a fellow patron of the National Parks in the U.S., I also find this article quite interesting. I’m glad that solutions are being thought through, as this is clearly the largest long-term challenge I see facing the NPS.
I would agree with Danny that the NPS must focus on adapting to climate change rather than mitigating it. Primarily, I say this because the NPS has very limited resources – funding challenges will likely continue through the next decade, and even with increased funding the parks will be challenged to conduct their fundamental operations. I think that the NPS would be best served by looking at the impact in each park and seeing how they could best preserve the fundamental character of the park (through preservation work) or adapt as needed (providing drainage for melting glaciers, etc.). Finally, another solution they might look at would be increasing prices in the most threatened parks to help defray the costs associated.
Given that the landscapes of the national parks were created over billions of years through geologic processes (and temperature changes) I find it somewhat ironic to want to maintain parks at a pseudo-fixed state we are accustomed to. The earth is constantly changing, just at a very slow rate. Hence, in response to your question, I think that the NPS should focus on adapting to change.
There is an odd balance here between protecting the environment and allowing access to visitors. While I think it is good to mitigate the carbon footprint, it is potentially worse for the environment for people to visit the parks rather than stay at home (e.g., fuel use to travel, trash and resources from camping, etc.). Could virtual reality allow people to access parks with the aforementioned problems?
Also, NPS is part of the federal government and should be aligned with the rest of the federal government regarding managing and communicating climate change. Why should NPS prove climate change? Scientific studies cost tax payer dollars and there are other agencies better suited to efficiently using this money (e.g., USGS and NASA ).
Emily, I really appreciated your article, especially your memeing of the mountain range picture and emboldening of text, both of which I thought added great depth and nuance to your presentation.
I think it is important to drill down the purpose of the NPS when considering how it can best adjust to climate change. If you consider the NPS to be a tourism company, climate change is effectively shifting its product mix by changing environments in its current geographies. To adjust to this, the NPs would need to move around its supply of new tourist locations to perhaps include more norther regions to replace those that are undergoing warming and no longer provide snowy experiences.
If the purpose of the NPS is to protect and demonstrate natural beauty in the United States, then I think there is little the NPS should do to change their operational structure. The landscapes of the US will be the landscapes of the US, even if their climates shift. In this sense, I think NPS should reflect the current state of the US environment, and if that environment is degrading then the park system should reflect that. To your point on education and communication – there would be no clearer demonstration of the dangers of climate change than to show visitors the starkness of climate change’s erosion of the quality of parks.
I agree with Emily and the previous comments that the priority for the NPS is to use the parks as a way to educate the public about climate change. Specifically, they should use their partners’ resources in research to provide better educational materials at the parks’ visitor centers.
The NPS is not only the parks but a public-facing brand that has a significant meaning to many Americans, such as myself, who have fond memories at the National Parks. In the past, the NPS has collaborated with top universities to hold workshops and on climate change. NPS can use its brand to further advocate for climate change at educational institutions and conferences, which further promotes the urgency of climate change to the scientific and academic community and help fund more research on solutions to combatting climate change.
Another consideration is focusing on research to help inform or persuade policymakers. A few months ago, I met with the CEO of REI, an outdoor recreational equipment retailer, who said some of the biggest impact REI has made on influencing policy to promote the outdoors and raise awareness on climate change has been presenting research on how much of the local economies near National Parks rely on outdoor recreation and tourism. NPS surely has a lot of information and research to share to push for and raise awareness on how economically valuable the National Parks are and how much climate change may hurt the local or state economy.
Great write up Emily. I believe that the National Parks Service should focus on mitigating climate change. One way they can look to help mitigate climate change is to form partnerships. They should look to form public-private partnership with companies that are focused on mitigating climate change. For example, partnering with a company like Starbucks will not only help NPS raise the necessary funds needed to tackle climate change, but it will also call attention to some of the negative changes that are occurring due to climate change at some of the National Parks.
On the other hand, I believe that choosing to adapt to climate change is the same as doing nothing. As you mentioned in your write-up, climate change is already affecting plants and animals, so doing nothing will further accelerate those negative trends we are seeing. So, by taking concrete steps such as to lower the global carbon footprint on the National Mall, NPS will not only generate financial savings ($1MM generated last year), but they will also ensure that parks will be around for generations to come (https://www.nps.gov/articles/sustainability-in-action-reducing-the-national-malls-carbon-footprint.htm).
Climate change has a magnified impact on NPS compared to for profit businesses because: 1) National Parks are usually natural, vast swathes of land where human cultivation is almost always impractical, and climate change affects the parks in a very direct way: the feedback loop is very short. 2) Being no-for-profit, NPS does not have the resources which other businesses are able to muster in responding to the effects of climate change. NPS therefore has to think outside of the box in formulating its own response:
I think that the NPS has no other choice but to focus on both adaptation and mitigation as it looks forward in its response to the threat of climate change. To add to some of the other suggestions provided above, I think the NPS should proactively engage with the scientific community and work together on scientific ways to limit and slow the pace of climate change in its parks. NPS should also play its small part in the global cause against climate change by reducing its own carbon footprint, using its leverage with the public to communicate good values that protect the planet and partnering with organizations in the private and public sector to invest in conservation and reforestation in areas that have been rampaged to ease the pressure on the environment.