National Parks and Climate Change
President Roosevelt and John Muir at Yosemite National Park in 1903. Photo: Library of Congress.
My friend Maeve is obsessed with Teddy Roosevelt. In the first grade, her mom hired a Teddy Roosevelt impersonator to visit her school. After his speech, he offered to walk the kids to gym class, to which Maeve responded, “No Teddy, you can’t! You have asthma!”
My friend, Maeve, and her BFF Teddy.
I don’t blame Maeve for being obsessed with Teddy. He had a phenomenal mustache, memory, and Manhattan swagger. Even by today’s standard, what’s not to like? More impressive than anything, however, was his progressive take on our natural world. Nearly 80 years before the first Earth Day, he wrote:
“We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.”
Like the legacies of many others, Teddy’s reputation wasn’t the squeakiest of clean. There’s evidence that suggests that while he was the progressive we all know and love who helped foster environmental progress, he certainly had racist tendencies and viewed other people around the world as distinctly inferior to Americans. His attitudes on race can be traced back to the mainstream culture of manifest destiny, which defended the idea that American settlers, primarily white, had the right and duty to expand their territory at the expense of the original Native settlers. This time in history is incredibly ugly, and while we’re focusing on the good today, we’ll dive into this complicated history another time.
When he became president, Roosevelt created the United States Forest Service (USFS) and established 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, 4 national game reserves, 5 national parks, and 18 national monuments. Throughout his presidency, Teddy implemented governmental protections for approximately 230 million acres of public land. He also spearheaded the idea that the government has a critical role to play in protecting America’s natural heritage. Today, national parks continue to not only provide phenomenal opportunities for people to see the beauty of America, but they’re also crucial to our battle against climate change.
Much of the National Park Service’s work is around adaptation as opposed to mitigation because of the large-scale changes they expect to see in the parks from climate change. In fact, national parks are warming at twice the rate of the rest of the country and, in the Great Smoky Mountains, for example, average summer visibility has decreased up to 80% in the past 70 years. The National Parks Service has a Climate Change Response Program (CCRP), which advances efforts to address the effects of climate change across the breadth of the National Park System. Many parks are projected to experience loss of ice, snowpack and water due to increased temperatures and increased evaporation... this means that the water essential to the proliferation of wildlife may be lost. The results? Many wildlife communities may become endangered or lost from both increased air and water temperatures and an influx of invasive species due to shifting climates. This forces species like brown trout to migrate towards warmer weather that’s not their “natural habitat.”
After all, what’s Joshua Tree without the Joshua trees, or Glacier National Park without the glaciers?
The U.S. government controls some 640 million acres nationwide, and the National Park Service manages 13% of this land area, including 84 million acres across all 50 states. (Other major landholders include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (89 million acres), Bureau of Land Management (248 million acres) and U.S. National Forests (193 million acres).
Let’s focus on the National Park Service’s (NPS) efforts here first by looking at their two main goals: 1) to preserve natural and cultural resources “unimpaired,” and 2) to do so “for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.” Through these goals, they’re helping fight climate change in a variety of ways:
First, NPS efforts result in significant carbon sequestration benefits. Let’s take a quick pause for a Biology 101 refresher: because of photosynthesis, plants draw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to grow. The carbon they absorb gets sequestered into their biomass, thus helping to mitigate climate change. This mitigation has an economic value commensurate with reduced damages from climate change, and many organizations capitalize on these economic benefits in ecosystem services. Simply, if you can calculate the damage from cutting a tree and the cost this would have on the government, you can likewise calculate the benefit from not cutting that tree and preserving the carbon. NPS has not calculated the carbon sequestration benefits from its efforts across the 84 million acres it manages, but we can imagine it’s pretty high.
Second, national parks contain forested areas that protect waterways and help stabilize the surrounding land. This can prevent landslides, avalanches and erosion. These areas also reduce floods by keeping natural river basins intact and preserving wetlands.
Finally, let’s not underestimate the power of education. An estimated 331 million people visited the National Parks in 2017, which is more than the entire population of the United States. When we visit these parks, we notice the pollinators on the native flowers, the wildlife roaming freely, and it sets us up to be environmental stewards. In a 2006 study on the effects of national park visitation on environmental awareness, those who visited national parks scored an average of 9% higher on environmental awareness than those who had no visitation history. Whether subconscious or conscious, the impact of visiting these vast lands forces visitors to think about the resources they’re using and how to live most efficiently.
Climate Change is solved by both mitigation and adaptation, and the National Park Service does quite a bit of both. When you’re fully vaccinated and plan to visit these parks, be sure to appreciate the endless benefits that these parks serve, and also Teddy’s mustache.