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Can national parks be saved from global warming?

August 5, 2009 |  5:12 pm


The federal government must take decisive action to avoid "a potentially catastrophic loss of animal and plant life," in the national parks, according to a new report that details the effect of global warming on the country's most treasured public lands.

The 53-page report from the National Parks Conservation Assn., a Washington-based advocacy group, contains a litany of concerns related to climate change in the parks, from the bleaching of coral reefs in Florida to the disappearance of high-altitude ponds that nurture yellow-legged frogs in California. 

The group, which has offices in California and 16 other states, called on the National Park Service to come up with a detailed plan and funding to adapt to temperature-related ecosystem changes.

"Right now, no national plan exists to manage wildlife throughout their habitat, which often is a patchwork of lands managed by multiple federal agencies, states, tribes, municipalities and private landholders," wrote Tom C. Kiernan, president of the group.

A major climate bill passed by the House in June would allocate more than $500 million a year to natural resources adaptation under a proposed carbon-trading program. The Senate is drafting a companion bill, but the outcome of the legislation remains uncertain.

The survey by the conservation group reinforces recent testimony by President Obama's nominee for Park Service director, Jon Jarvis. "Climate change challenges the very foundation of the national park system and our ability to leave America's natural and cultural heritage unimpaired for future generations," Jarvis told a House subcommittee.

He suggested that "national park units can serve as the proverbial canary in the coal mine, a place where we can monitor and document ecosystem change without many of the stressors that are found on other public lands."

The report recommends adaptation strategies including the creation of wildlife corridors stretching from one park to another so that species can move unencumbered into cooler areas. It also urges more effective limiting of environmental hazards.

"Air and water pollution, development of adjacent wild lands, logging and mining and other forces are  harming national park wildlife now, and adding climate change to the mix could be disastrous," it said.

Pesticides from nearby farms and the spread of nonnative trout have decimated populations of yellow-legged frogs in Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks. With global warming, a rapid melting of high Sierra snowpacks could eliminate many shallow ponds and streams that the amphibians need for survival, leaving them  "high and dry," it said. 

Salmon could disappear from Olympic, North Cascades and Mt. Rainier national parks, the report suggests. And grizzly bears, birds, fish and other species in Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain national parks could decline as bark beetles, drought and other climate-induced conditions increase.

The report suggests that park officials work with private landowners around Arches, Canyonlands and Capitol Reef national parks to create pathways for bighorn sheep, as precipitation and vegetation patterns change because of global warming.

Likewise, wildlife managers in Alaska's parks such as the Noatak and Bering Land Bridge national preserves, the Kobuk Valley National Park, and Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve will need to ensure a clear path for caribou herds as climate change renders traditional calving grounds and winter feeding areas unsuitable, the report said.

But adaptation to a changing climate may not be enough. Unless humans limit their emissions of greenhouse gases, the report concludes, some wildlife species "will not be able to endure much more change and could disappear from national parks and even go extinct if climate change is unchecked."

The impetus for federal adaptation plans comes as states such as California, which released a comprehensive plan this week, and cities such as New York and New Orleans are beginning to come to grips with expected climate effects such as rising sea levels and water shortages.

-- Margot Roosevelt

Illustration: Sleeping under lakes lidded with several feet of ice and snow, the 2-to-3-inch-long yellow-legged frog, or Rana muscosa, of the High Sierra was once abundant in the Sierra Nevada and in mountain ranges circling the Los Angeles Basin. Now, few survive in Southern California and in remote areas of Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia national parks. Credit: Dugald Stermer / For The Times