National Parks in the Jaws of Climate Change

by Stephen Nash, author of Grand Canyon for Sale: Public Lands versus Private Interests in the Era of Climate Change

Along the trails of the inner Grand Canyon, it’s probably well over a hundred degrees today. And by coincidence, today’s the day that someone leaked a draft report by scientists from 13 federal agencies. “Evidence for a changing climate abounds, from the top of the atmosphere to the depths of the oceans,” the report says.

National parks shifting south as the climate heats up.

It’s always been hot in the Canyon in summer. A string of 100-degree days is common, and climate scientists aren’t telling us that today’s heat is necessarily caused by global warming. They are saying, instead, that the odds o f severe heat are greater now, and accelerating. Their projections signal an urgent threat to all our tens of millions of acres of national parks, national forests, wildlife refuges and public lands.

As I learned from scientists during research for my book Grand Canyon For Sale: Public Lands versus Private Interests in the Era of Climate Change, the damage is underway. The threat spans different species, elevations, and latitudes. In the Canyon region, climate-related die-offs in strands of aspen, Ponderosa pine, piñon pine, and juniper have already been seen.

“There’s a difference between ‘alarmist’ and ‘alarm,’ right?” David Breshears asks. He’s the lead scientist at the University of Arizona’s Terrestrial Ecology Lab. “One is saying there’s a problem when there isn’t. But in some cases you have a big problem and you need to pull an alarm.” Breshears is aware that the scale of destruction, and its urgency, are not easy to fathom. “All the evidence coming in is that it is going to be much worse than we’ve expected,” he said.

“Hopefully, that’s a motivation for action,” he said. “This is large-scale dramatic change—a very large proportion of trees in a landscape you loved have suddenly died. And that causes a whole cascade of other changes.”

With and without the climate factor, the national park system’s trend lines for wild species hardly reassure. Populations of the exquisite native birds at Everglades National Park have fallen by an estimated 93 percent even since the 1930s, when the park was established. At Sequoia National Park the namesake giant trees are threatened by future drought and heat. At current rates of melting, the glaciers at Glacier National Park will be gone within twenty years. The glaciers at Denali National Park and throughout the central Alaska Range are “thinning and retreating rapidly,” according to the Park Service.

At Great Smoky Mountains, our most-visited national park, one in six mammal species may be gone within the next few decades because of climate change, and the losses continue on after that. Fifty-four plant and animal species are already on the threatened/endangered list at Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, which can afford programs to try to help only five of them. Many more will join the list.

The trend is nearly as grim at many of the other parks. A full 96 per-cent of National Park Service land and 84 percent of park units are in areas where warming was already underway during the twentieth century. Without connections to our larger publicly owned landscape, the lifeboat system that we established for wildlife when we initiated the park system a hundred years ago begins to sink. In a stable climate, we have been able to defend protected areas to a degree, as natural landscapes with closed boundaries. An unstable, shifting climate is now forcing those boundaries open.

Stephen Nash is the author of two award-winning books on science and the environment, and his reporting has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington PostBioScienceArchaeology, and the New Republic. He is Visiting Senior Research Scholar at the University of Richmond.

The Future of our National Parks System


The current political administration in the United States has raised into question the future of our public lands. Given the continued discussion over the ownership of national parks and monuments, the below excerpt from Grand Canyon for Sale: Public Lands versus Private Interests in the Era of Climate Change, is both timely and informative.

This faint old path isn’t on the brochure map, but it leads to a fine perch just the same. Moving past the car choreography and selfie poses at the popular Desert View area near the eastern border of Grand Canyon National Park, I find my way on a late afternoon.

Crumbling pavers end in a trace that weaves through rabbitbrush and juniper and over to a suitable rock, right on the abyss. No glance out there yet. I don’t want to risk vertigo until I’m settled. Then, with a beer and a bag of salt peanuts, I can drift out over two billion years of geology, a hundred centuries of human striving, and a timeless void.

Anywhere you pause along the hundreds of miles of edge brings dizzying contrast. The infinitesimal meets the cosmic, as a cliff swallow careens against far-off rock and sky. The immediate—check your foot-ing on that limestone grit, there’s a long fall pending—opens abruptly onto silent eons of cycle and revision. Another contrast: under a longer gaze the wild and timeless look of this panorama bears the lasting marks of recent human activity. They are the destinations of this book.

As we head into its second century, few would disagree that we want the park system to fulfill its mandate to preserve nature. “The core element of the national parks is that they are in the perpetuity business,” as Gary Machlis, science adviser to the director of the Park Service, told me. “The irony is that our mission is to preserve things in perpetuity, and we do it on an annual budget and a four-year presidential cycle.” The natural systems of the parks, he said, represent an island of stability—as long as we protect them and plan well for their future.

The centenary of the Park Service has just passed, along with some well-deserved national self-congratulations. Perhaps this would be a discreet time to say that the parks’ natural systems are, in the estimation of many scientists, falling apart. In that view all public lands need long-term life support, beginning as soon as we can pull it together. We’re on a precipice, both politically and biologically.

Read more from the author in a recent article, ‘At Bears Ears in Utah, Heated Politics and Precious Ruins,’ on the New York Times website, or check out his website to learn more.