How the National Park Service Is Planning for Climate Change

Five years ago, just after archaeologist Marcy Rockman joined the National Park Service’s new climate change response program, the GOP-controlled Congress slashed its budget by 70 percent. Republicans were determined to squash President Barack Obama’s climate agenda, and many federal officials were deeply discouraged. So Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis convened his top staff and climate team. Rockman says he pounded his fist on a table and bellowed: “Say the ‘c’ word!” It was a clear battle cry, she adds: “Jarvis was so forceful in saying, ‘We are doing this!’ ”

With only $2.8 million and a tiny staff, the program began a major research blitz, studying climate change impacts on national parks from Acadia in Maine to American Samoa in the Pacific. Meanwhile, Jarvis convened a panel of independent scientists, who, in 2012, produced a report titled Revisiting Leopold. They urged the agency to jettison its decades-old mandate to preserve each park as a “vignette of primitive America.”

Rather, parks should steward America’s treasures through the continuous and unpredictable changes to come. Managers should “act immediately, boldly and decisively” to prepare for volatile conditions, including severe wet seasons and deep droughts, and unite with nearby public lands to address landscape-wide challenges, such as creating corridors for wildlife seeking new habitat. A permanent policy reflecting the panel’s thinking is due out later this year.

“That’s a huge paradigm shift; it’s driven by recognition that climate change is making the former strategy impossible,” says University of Arizona professor Jonathan Overpeck. “The shift in climatic extremes will affect just about anything in a park, other than the solid rock. The Park Service is taking climate science and climate change seriously, which is really important if we’re going to manage these precious resources into the future.”

“We’ve never been through climate change before. It is extremely difficult to figure out what to do to adapt to something we have never experienced as a species before.”

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