Impact of Climate Change on Colorado National Parks
STATEMENT OF DR. HERBERT C. FROST,
NATURAL RESOURCE STEWARDSHIP AND SCIENCE,
NATIONAL PARK SERVICE, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR,
BEFORE THE SENATE SUBCOMMITTEE
ON NATIONAL PARKS,
ON THE IMPACTS OF CLIMATE CHANGE ON NATIONAL PARKS IN COLORADO
AND RELATED MANAGEMENT ACTIVITES.
AUGUST 24, 2009
Mr. Chairman and members of the subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to present testimony on the role of the Department of the Interior (DOI) and the National Park Service (NPS) in addressing climate change impacts on National Parks in
Secretary Salazar has prioritized the issue of climate change within the Department of the Interior.He is in the process of designing a climate change strategy to integrate the work of each Bureau to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change in the pursuit of each Bureau's mission – this includes the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Reclamation, and Minerals Management Service.In 2008 the Department of Interior had a multi-agency taskforce that put forth a number of recommendations relating to climate change adaptation and mitigation activities.The Department works closely on many levels with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) in addition to other federal agencies in coordinating activities relating to climate change.
An integration of science, adaptive management tools, and other resources across the Federal Government is essential to the DOI's mission to address climate change across all federal lands, wildlife, and cultural and natural resources (including mitigation, adaptation, and communication/engagement strategies) and to the NPS' mission to do the same.We are pleased that you chose
Climate change is potentially the most far-reaching and consequential challenge to our mission than any previously encountered in the entire history of the NPS.In setting aside
This concept of "retention in their natural condition" became the cornerstone of our National Park System when Congress passed the National Park Service Organic Act, which states that the mission of the NPS is:
...to promote and regulate the use of the...national parks...which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.
Climate change challenges the very foundation of the National Park System and our ability to leave
DOI and the NPS are rising to this challenge, and today my testimony will focus on four major areas.First, our observations of the effects and potential future changes related to climate change in national park units. Second, the actions and programs we have underway to prepare for the current and anticipated changes from climate change.Third, some of the actions the NPS plans to undertake in the coming years. And fourth, some other considerations related to climate change.
The Effects of Climate Change in National Park Units
Parks are already experiencing some dramatic impacts that may be resulting from climate change.Warming temperatures may be accelerating melting of mountain glaciers in national parks such as Glacier and North Cascades while perennial snowfields throughout
Fire frequency and intensity may also be related to climate change.NPS data indicates that fire ignitions are occurring both earlier and later in the season now and the average duration of time that a wildfire burns has increased from less than 10 days to more than a month.Fires in some places may be increasing in frequency and intensity, threatening native plant communities and contributing to the spread of invasive exotic species (Westerling et al. 2006).Wildland fire frequency and intensity can have a significant impact on cultural resources, as hotter fires and our efforts to fight them directly damage buried archeological sites.
Ongoing climate changes are expected to include modified patterns of precipitation and runoff, and changes in hydrologic regimes and the availability of water to park ecosystems.Recent literature on climate change suggests:increased precipitation, streamflow, and runoff in the Northwestern and Eastern United States will increase flood risks; warming temperatures will reduce mountain snowpack, and cause earlier spring snowmelt runoff across the Western United States and
Coastal parks are extremely vulnerable to climate change.The NPS manages 74 coastal units encompassing more than 5,100 miles of coast and three million acres of submerged resources including beaches, wetlands, estuaries, coral reefs, and kelp forests.These parks attract more than 75 million visitors every year, and generate over $2.5 billion in economic benefits to local communities.TheU.S. Climate Change Science Program Synthesis and Assessment Product on Coastal Sensitivity to Sea Level Rise (2009) states:
Critical coastal ecosystems such as wetlands, estuaries, and coral reefs are particularly vulnerable to climate change. Such ecosystems are among the most biologically productive environments in the world.
These coastal ecosystems are significant habitats for the production and health of recreationally and commercially valuable fish and shellfish, they provide important environmental services, and offer beautiful landscapes for marine recreation and wildlife watching.A major finding of the
Shorelines and park boundaries will change as sea level rises resulting in a net loss where parks cannot migrate inland.At
While some impacts from climate change are already measurable, the long-range effects of climate disruption on park natural and cultural resources, infrastructure, and visitor experience are just beginning to be understood.The policy implications for protecting species in a rapidly changing climate are complex and without precedent.
Cultural resources will also be significantly affected by climate change, primarily due to increased erosion from rising seas and more intense storm (and hurricane) surge.Rising sea levels are already damaging archeological sites, historic structures, and cultural landscapes such as
The 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) created 10 Alaskan parks and expanded parklands by 43 million acres.It also recognized the critical importance of access to subsistence resources found in parks, including fish, game, and plants, to both Native and non-Native residents of rural Alaska, and directly linked this access to their continued physical, economic, social, traditional, and cultural existence. While the threats that climate change poses to salmon, caribou, and seals may be viewed as threats to natural resources, they also clearly challenge our ability to provide appropriate subsistence opportunities to local rural residents around our units in
Many questions exist regarding how physical processes, species populations, and ecosystems will respond to a changing climate. The science of predicting the complexities of these interactions over relatively long periods of time is highly uncertain, yet the NPS is committed to working with our sister agencies within the Department to understand and monitor the effects of climate change on park resources and ecosystems.The focus of the climate change discussion has largely shifted from the evidence to what we can do about it. As stewards of our nation's natural and cultural heritage, we have an obligation to act now.
The Effects of Climate Change at Rocky
Twenty years ago cheatgrass, one of the west's most noxious weeds, occurred only below 8,000 feet.It is now found at elevations in
Ungulates are also responding to changes in their environment.This year the park embarked on a plan to manage elk and vegetation.The plan was needed because with the absence of predators and loss of historical migration routes elk have been overbrowsing in their park winter range.Elk winter range includes riparian areas that historically were centers of biodiversity and beaver constructed water storage.Restoring wetlands to full health is crucial to helping many species adapt to changing conditions because healthy ecosystems are generally more resilient to change.Scientists studying climate change and public lands repeatedly note the importance of minimizing other ecological stressors, such as overbrowsing and air pollution (Julius 2008).
Published evidence indicates that recent warming may have resulted in a pulse of nitrate appearing in a watershed monitored within the park.This nitrogen release is believed to be a sign that old ice, perhaps thousands of years old, is melting from between the rocks in alpine watersheds exposing weathering products previously covered by ice (Baron 2009).To date, rock glacier ice has helped buffer streams during drought periods.With climate warming hydrologists expect that this ice will melt completely and late season stream flows will be greatly diminished (Baron 2009).
Our trees are also rapidly changing.U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) biologists used long-term records from late successional land to document significant trends in earlier tree death without the compensating growth of young seedlings.Although work continues to more definitively tie tree death to climate change, foresters are very concerned about these findings because North American forests are generally shown in climate models as carbon sinks.Tree death, whatever the cause, results in carbon release.The widespread pattern of tree death, including death due to insect attacks and fire, means that models may need to be adjusted to reflect another net source of greenhouse gas (van Mantgem 2009).
Pikas, or rock rabbits, delight park visitors every year but are especially sensitive to warming.Because of their warm coats, they are unable to tolerate temperatures above 78 degrees Fahrenheit for even an hour.Last year seven known historic locations for pika in the park were checked and pikas were still present in five locations but missing in two, the lowest (and warmest) sites.Although investigations continue, this preliminary data suggests pikas are being affected (Peterson 2009).As climate warming proceeds, alpine environments will likely become smaller and more fragmented, making it harder for true alpine species, such as pika, to migrate or connect with others of their kind.
The park has recently qualified for DOI-NPS energy audit funding to identify priority energy efficiency and renewable energy projects.With the approved funding, the audit will be conducted by a utility company, audit contractor, or through the University National Park Energy Partnership Program.The park is working to partner with
An aggressive in-park program and funds provided under the American Reinvestment Recovery Act (ARRA) are changing the park's fleet.In the past three years the park has purchased 10 hybrid vehicles.GSA ARRA funds will be used to replace up to 57 of the park's 141 low efficiency park vehicles with higher efficiency vehicles. The park's shuttle system was expanded in 2005 and again in 2008 to add/connect the Town of Estes Park to the park's hiker shuttle and the Alpine Visitor Center tour.
A partnership with
The Effects of Climate Change at
Over the past two decades,
Due in part to the deforestation caused by wildfires, Mesa Verde has experienced two waves of establishment and proliferation of invasive non-native weeds (Floyd et al 2006). Biologists have identified some highly aggressive colonizers such as thistles, knapweeds, pepperweed, cheatgrass, and other species.The large amount of park acreage impacted by the recent wildfires provided these species with the perfect opportunity to spread throughout the park.Invasive weeds can alter an area by, among other things, disrupting the natural food web, promoting soil erosion, and interfering with natural plant succession.Rapid deforestation promptly followed by non-native weed infestation can quickly convert rare native forests into an impaired landscape.These impacts have also affected such federally-listed species as the Mexican spotted owl and its habitat (Johnson et al 2008).
The park has made some important efforts to slow down the spread of invasive weeds.Direct control of weeds with mechanical, chemical, and biological control tactics have been applied in some areas in some years. Several larger areas burned in recent wildfires have been treated by aerially seeding with native grasses to quickly reestablish competitive native species. This has been proven to be very cost effective if done promptly after wildfires.But, in the long-term, the park's forests may not fully recover if the extreme heat and dry conditions become the new normal.
The Effects of Climate Change at
Current Climate Change Actions and Programs
To effectively respond to the challenges of climate change, the DOI is undertaking a collective and coordinated strategy that builds upon and expands existing partnerships such as those between NPS, other bureaus, parks, regions, and national program offices.Building the capacity to respond to climate change will involve identifying, linking, prioritizing, and implementing a range of short and long-term activities.The complex and cross-cutting nature of this issue will require an unprecedented level of cooperation across the DOI Bureaus, other federal and state agencies, the entire NPS, and our partner organizations.
Because climate change has been identified as one of highest priorities for the NPS, many actions and activities have already been undertaken at parks and within regions.The NPS is now in the process of developing a strategic framework for action that will detail short and long-term actions in three major areas: mitigation, adaptation, and communication.The NPS has hired a Climate Change Coordinator and created six working groups – Legal & Policy; Planning; Science; Resource Stewardship; Greenhouse Gas Emission & Sustainable Operations, and Communication.We will use the information from these groups to develop a strategic framework for action that will address park, regional, and national-level needs and concerns.
Over the past three years, the NPS has hosted or participated in a series of regional and interagency workshops to explore climate change impacts and coping strategies.In conjunction with the Environmental Protection Agency in 2003, the NPS initiated the Climate Friendly Parks Program to promote sustainable operations in parks and create climate action plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; almost 60 parks, including Rocky Mountain National Park, now participate.The NPS also requires Environmental Management System Plans that help parks track and reduce their environmental impacts and set targets for sustainable park operations.The NPS adopted an Ocean Park Stewardship Action Plan in 2006 to guide actions to reduce ocean-related climate change impacts.Finally, NPS formed a service-wide Climate Change Response Steering Committee to foster communications, provide recommendations, and serve as an advisory body to NPS leadership.
Successful approaches to mitigating climate change impacts require the very best science, not only in physical and biological disciplines, but also in social, and cultural sciences.Since 1999, the Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Units (CESU) Network has provided the NPS with a mechanism to collaborate with leading research institutions, including universities, NGO's and State and federal partners to provide the necessary science for sustainable adaptive management of NPS resources.Since 1999, 17 CESUs have been established covering all regions of the country, with a total of 250 partners including 13 federal agencies.The program has been highly successful in funding cutting edge collaborative research and providing technical assistance and capacity building to the NPS, as well as State and local agencies and other federal partners.
Looking to the Future—Mitigation, Adaptation, Communication
While efforts to date are significant, much work lies ahead.The NPS must position itself to respond to the effects of climate change on park resources and to prescribe management actions that are suitable for parks.Building an effective response to the threats posed by climate change will require action in three interrelated areas: mitigation, adaptation, and communication.These efforts will necessarily involve strong intra- and interagency cooperation and leadership.We need to build on the collective knowledge that is available to create new solutions for protecting resources and resource values.
Mitigation—Leading by Example
Our collective carbon footprint must be understood to be managed responsibly.In the area of mitigation, the NPS is leading by example in reducing our carbon footprint and promoting sustainable operational practices.The Climate Friendly Parks Program and the Energy SmartPARKS Program are two of the key ways that NPS is mitigating GHGs through these areas of emphasis:
Emissions Inventories:Parks quantify and track their emissions and identify specific areas where reductions can be most readily achieved. An online tool – the Climate Leadership in Parks (CLIP) Tool created in 2005, allows parks a new and simplified way to do this assessment and to guide them through the process.
Climate Action Planning: Parks use the CLIP tool to identify carbon reduction goals and actions to follow through on these goals.Sixty parks are now in the process of completing these plans.
Energy Conservation: Significant portions of GHG emissions in parks come from transportation, building energy consumption, and waste management.Mitigation solutions include sustainable design and construction, adaptive "green" reuse of historic structures, use of high-mileage and alternative-fuel vehicles, solid waste reduction, and alternative transportation systems that integrate all modes of travel within a park, including land and water-based vehicles.
Renewable Energy: An increasing number of parks are generating and using clean renewable energy such as photovoltaic systems and geothermal heat exchange. The Energy SmartPARKS program is a partnership with the Department of Energy that is focusing on generating renewable energy and showcasing sustainable energy practices in parks. Currently, NPS-wide, 3.8% of energy in parks comes from renewable sources.
Regions are also moving forward with their own climate change initiatives.For example, the Pacific West Region (PWR) of the NPS has a very ambitious Climate Change Leadership Initiative that promotes Climate Friendly Parks.The overall objective is to support Executive Order 13423, Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management, by setting GHG targets.The 58 parks in the region have set a target of carbon neutral for park operations by 2016 and now generate over 4% of their energy from renewable sources.
The NPS has made carbon management, energy conservation, and renewable energy a major focus for our future.Accordingly, we have set a goal to significantly exceed the federal requirements for reducing total energy use in NPS operations and having some of our energy come from renewables by 2016, the 100th year anniversary of the establishment of the National Park System.Additionally, the NPS has set a goal of having all parks identify their carbon footprint and have climate action plans in place before 2016.
Safeguarding and Protecting Park Resources—Adaptation Planning
While mitigating the cause of climate change is essential, scientific evidence demonstrates that even if we stopped emitting greenhouse gases today, our past actions have already committed the planet to some degree of change.Because of processes in the atmosphere and oceans, it will take carbon dioxide and temperature on the order of centuries to stabilize once GHG emissions are under control.Other responses, such as sea level rise, can take millennia. We have to start planning for adaptation options now – while we simultaneously work to stabilize emissions.
For adaptation planning and implementation, our highest priority is to support ecosystem integrity and the resilience of species and communities to respond to changing conditions.As climate change causes shifts in weather, we will see changes in water availability, fire, and community structure and composition.Park vegetation and wildlife will need to adapt to these new regimes or have the ability to migrate. By building resilience and reducing other ecosystem stressors, the NPS will help to reduce the extent of some of the most deleterious impacts on park resources from climate change.For example, the NPS needs to be aggressive in its actions to prevent the intrusion of invasive species, eradicate where feasible, and control the spread when prevention and eradication efforts fail.The NPS also will undertake measures to restore natural ecosystems, making them healthier and more resilient to the effects of climate change.Examples include our on-going efforts to restore major ecosystems such as the
A critical component for adaptation planning and implementation involves building our science information and ecosystem monitoring capacity for sound decision-making by park managers.National park units represent a wide range of ecosystems scattered across the nation, embracing a broad spectrum of diverse and natural environments of
The combination of these sources of information, long-term legacy monitoring data, and new inventories has provided timely examples of the possible effects of climate change now visible in parks.The NPS Inventorying and Monitoring (I&M) Program's primary goal is to collect, organize, and make available natural resource data.This program includes 32 networks serving more than 270 parks.The Vital Signs Program, which is part of the I&M Program, is strategically positioned to help parks acquire the information they need to make informed decisions and to employ adaptive management so that we can be flexible in the face of change.In addition, NPS has also been funding baseline documentation, including condition assessments of its cultural resources and ethnographic studies that include data on natural resources utilized and monitored by native groups.This data provides critical information for evaluating the potential and real impacts of climate change on cultural resources.Information from these programs also informs state policymakers and assists scientists in looking at regional and national trends.
Planning for climate change presents a major challenge for park superintendents, their staff, and NPS programs.Resource management decisions must be based on future expectations.However, in an era of climate change, the future will be characterized by highly consequential and unprecedented changes that cannot be predicted with as much accuracy and precision as we would like.Consequently, the NPS is utilizing a scenario planning approach that uses the best available science to explore a range of plausible "multiple working futures" and consider appropriate actions within them.Adaptation also involves rethinking infrastructure and preparing people for those changes that are inevitable.To respond to climate change, park infrastructure may need to be adapted to better perform or maintain functionality.This also includes rethinking park planning issues such as zoning and the design or location of buildings and roads.Scenario planning is being specifically designed to help managers identify policies and actions that will be most effective across a range of potential futures and to promote tactical adaptation responses that are compatible with the NPS mission.
The NPS has made scenario and adaptation planning a major goal for the next ten years to ensure parks are prepared for building resilience into ecosystems and ensuring future visitor facilities are sited in appropriate locations.
Parks Serve as Models of Sustainability and Places to Communicate Climate Change Information
There is a great need at this time for messages that communicate the complexities of climate change and the actions that can be taken.With 275 million visitors annually, the parks can serve as models of sustainability and platforms to effectively communicate information about climate change.Parks can thus be the catalyst for visitors to do their part for climate friendly parks.The NPS's interpretive and education programs strive to connect people to the parks, with opportunities for all visitors to form their own intellectual, emotional, and physical connections to the meanings and values found in the parks' stories.Effective interpretive and educational programs encourage the development of a personal stewardship ethic and broaden public support for preserving and protecting park resources so that they may be enjoyed by present and future generations.The public has come to expect high-quality and up-to-date resource information when they visit parks.
The NPS is ideally positioned to raise awareness on climate change and provide information about solutions that are being implemented across the NPS and the Department.A number of efforts are underway to tell the story about climate change and impacts to national parks.These efforts include a monthly web-based seminar series featuring climate change experts on science, communication, and management topics and interpretive training using a decision-tree for developing knowledge around aspects of climate change.The information will be used to frame interpretive programs and answer visitor questions.The NPS has developed a "Climate Change, Wildlife and Wildlands Toolkit" (in conjunction with other federal agencies) to be used by interpreters in parks, zoos, aquariums, and science centers and by outdoor and classroom educators across the country.In addition, summaries of climate change knowledge for specific bioregions – a series of 11 bioregional documents – are being created in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that summarize the current state of knowledge about climate change and impacts to protected areas, with a focus on national parks and refuges.
Looking forward, the NPS has a goal of every park having climate change information available through brochures, wayside exhibits, interpretive programs and handouts, and park websites.The Climate Friendly Parks Program has encouraged this and currently, there are many examples such as Point Reyes National Seashore,
The NPS may also utilize the national preservation programs, such as Preservation Assistance and the
In the future, collaboration with gateway communities, private partners and state, local and federal agencies will be a key element to successful mitigation, adaptation, and communication measures.Much of our carbon footprint results from visitor services and movement in and around parks.Thus, our ability to mitigate GHGs is uniquely tied to our gateway communities and the transportation decisions we make.The NPS will need to complement natural mechanisms that mitigate and adapt to climate change through strategic approaches including: ensuring wildlife and stream corridors are established to enable wildlife to migrate if necessary; promoting and protecting healthy reefs, mangroves and coastal wetlands that can minimize damage to coastal communities; and protecting and restoring forests that can reduce soil erosion and mudslides brought on by changing weather patterns and catastrophic events.
At present, the Vital Signs Monitoring Program is well-established as a key source and supplier of reliable, organized, and retrievable information about parks.Climate change monitoring efforts by other DOI bureaus, such as the USGS, will also be a valuable tool in understanding climate change effects on NPS landscapes.By building on the successful network approach of these programs, the NPS will likely gain additional capability to collect, analyze, and report data on the condition of key natural and cultural resources in parks and how they are changing or may change as a result of climate change.
Coastal and riverine parks are extremely vulnerable to climate change impacts, especially sea level rise and storm surges, and these are high priority areas for developing and implementing adaptation actions.For example, shallow estuaries are significant for the long-term production and health of many commercial species of fish, including salmon and steelhead trout.The survival of these natural resources are also critical to maintaining viable cultures that depend on them such as the salmon and shellfish critical to Northwest tribes and the reefs that support Pacific Island cultures.These important habitats could dramatically change as sea level continues to rise.The impacts of rising sea level also reach surprisingly far inland.The Hudson River, for example, is tidal more than 100 miles inland, at
Our national park units are environmental baselines to track change, and they stand as some of the last vestiges where ecological components function naturally.National parks also serve as core essential habitats as well as critical habitats for source populations of species. To succeed in its mission in the face of climate change, the DOI and NPS must lead by example in minimizing our carbon footprint and promoting sustainable operational practices.We must take responsibility for understanding how climate change will impact the national parks and take appropriate steps to protect these national treasures.An unprecedented level of collaboration and cooperation with other agencies and partners is required to ensure that scientific information is collected in order to better protect resources, and effectively expand the teaching of the benefits and necessity of natural and cultural resource conservation across the nation and the world.
Thank you for the opportunity to present this testimony.I will be pleased to answer any questions you and other members of the subcommittee might have.
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