One of the highlights of the past year on television was Ken Burns’ masterful history of American conservation in his PBS series “The National Parks – America’s Best Idea.” As Burns eloquently demonstrated, preservation is at the heart of our conservation ethic. And not, of course, preservation merely for a year or a decade or a century. No, preservation is to be “for future generations,” “for posterity,” – that is, forever.
The words “climate change” were not uttered in the entire 12-hour length of “The National Parks.” But climate change now looms over every national park and dominates the thinking of every practicing conservationist. What do we fear and regret the most about climate change? It is more than the threatened extinction of species, like the polar bear, that are exquisitely adapted to a vanishing way of life. It is more than the possibility that entire ecosystems, such as coral reefs, may be doomed. It is more, even, than the terrifying prospect of fires and floods and drowning coastlines.
It is the end of forever.
Conservationists are well aware that the forces of development never rest, and that preservation requires continual defense – whether the unsuccessful defense of Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley, drowned behind a dam, or the so-far successful defense of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil drilling. What keeps us going is the belief that if we do our job, the land will take care of itself, and remain whole, healthy, and in equilibrium. Protected, it will sustain itself forever.
The most moving moments in Burns’ film showed how the love of nature is passed from one generation to the next in the awe-inspiring surroundings of our national parks. We have always looked forward with confidence to bringing our grandchildren to Yellowstone, to Yosemite, or to the Everglades. We knew that we would be able to share with them the same splendors that filled us with wonder when our parents brought us, all those years ago. As it was, so shall it be.
That vision of the future, and the very paradigm of preservation, is now dead, although most people don’t know it yet. It has been killed by climate change. As the climate changes, life must move, and the boundaries of parks, designed as protective walls, may become traps.
Two examples will illustrate how climate change is already affecting our national parks and their wildlife.
In Yellowstone National Park, global warming threatens a tree species that is a crucial resource for grizzly bears. This is the whitebark pine, a high-elevation species whose nuts, rich in fat, are critical to the winter survival and successful reproduction of the park’s grizzlies. In recent years, Yellowstone’s whitebark pines have suffered massive mortality – up to 70% in some areas – due to an introduced disease, pine blister rust, and to the depredations of the mountain pine beetle. This pest was formerly restricted to elevations below the whitebark pine’s subalpine habitat, but has been able to move higher as winter minimum temperatures have risen. In years with poor crops of pine seeds, grizzlies wander to lower elevations in search of food, often crossing out of the park, where they are at greatly increased risk of mortality. Last fall, a federal judge returned the grizzly bears of eastern Wyoming, Montana, and Wyoming to the endangered species list, reversing a 2007 Fish and Wildlife Service decision. One of the reasons for the judge’s ruling was that the impacts of global warming on whitebark pines had not been adequately considered in the delisting decision.
Perhaps no national park is more threatened by climate change than the Everglades. Sixty percent of the park is less than three feet above sea level. EPA researchers estimate that the sea in south Florida will rise 20 inches above 1990 levels by 2100, and 30 inches by 2150. Already, salt water infiltration into nesting habitat of American crocodiles has decreased the breeding success of that endangered species. By the end of the century, Everglades National Park may be little more than an extension of Florida Bay.
The National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, and other federal land management agencies are all moving to a crisis footing in attempting to respond to climate change. These efforts, while essential, will be able to accomplish only so much. Unless the root causes of climate change are addressed by national and international restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions, the magnificent legacy of America’s protected natural areas - “America’s Best Idea” - will be lost. For our generation, the question is: will we be the ones to preside over the end of forever?