Climate Change, Animals, And U.S. National Parks
The U.S. National Park System encompasses 84 million acres of land, including many historic sites, monuments, memorials, recreation areas, and preserves. One of the most significant threats the system currently faces is climate change. This paper, published in ScienceDirect, assesses National Parks Service (NPS) initiatives for climate change and offers advice on how they can be improved.
The paper was written in response to an NPS newsletter that encouraged open dialogue about planning for climate change, and is based on the author’s own experiences working with the NPS. It also looks at reviews of both scientific papers focused on habitat corridors and National Park System documents from the Obama Administration that deal with climate change, including policy statements, strategy plans, memos, and website content.
The author first discusses the on-going controversy over the concept of natural regulation, as scientists and policy makers debate whether the term means letting nature regulate itself or intervening to maintain status quo. He notes that regardless of the definition, many researchers have concluded that non-intervention “will not suffice as a management guideline for protected areas,” particularly in regards to threats from climate change. In line with this reasoning, the author describes the flux paradigm, a new way of thinking that emerged in the 1990’s. The paradigm holds that ecosystems do not always return to a stable condition, natural occurrences are common, and humans are an inherent part of ecosystems.
A subsequent section of the paper investigates whether NPS policies acknowledge the need to prepare for the inevitable effects of climate change. The author explains that the official NPS “Management Policies” document contains only a passing reference to climate change, stating that “accelerated climate change may significantly alter park ecosystems,” and nothing more.
The author examines recent NPS climate strategies that focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions of NPS facilities, educating park visitors on climate change, and running climate change webinars. Additionally, they have increasingly begun to promote land use planning, which involves the creation of habitat corridors that enable plans and animals to move to new areas in response to climate change. The Climate Change Action Plan of 2012 called for “a comprehensive bold vision that sees beyond the current system of lands to identify and connect key features and processes through additional protection measures that include refuges, corridors and buffer zones.”
The author explains that there are technical and political issues associated with corridor implementation. He reviews different methods of creating corridors and notes that many of them are largely untested and will likely be hampered by both high levels of habitat fragmentation and a lack of available undeveloped land available in the United States. As a result, he calls for planning beyond the level of individual corridors and habitats that involves entire regions. He warns that such planning will likely “not be warmly accepted by some special interest groups and even by many private landowners” but maintains that cooperation from private land owners will be essential, as parks may need to make use of private land.
In conclusion, the author is both hopeful and cautious regarding NPS policies on climate change. He quotes current NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis in saying that the NPS must move beyond the “management goal of preserving ‘vignettes of primitive America,’” to “manage continuous change toward an unknown future.” However, he notes that while such thinking is “a quantum leap compared to earlier MPS management goals,” the agency is currently not adequately emphasizing land use planning, and scientists are not currently providing a strong basis for corridor and landscape permeability planning. He ends by stating that “without region-wide landscape planning that can facilitate park biota movement, including through some essential intermixed private lands, the biotic resources in our national parks have a very uncertain long-term future.”
For advocates, the paper offers a good overview of historic and current NPS management policies and strategies regarding climate change. It also provides a thoughtful argument for the need for more land use planning initiatives. Just as importantly, the paper identifies land use planning and corridor creation as an area in need of further research.