Q: The national parks are famous for their reluctance to interfere with natural processes – especially in parks that are also designated as Wilderness Areas, such as Mount Rainier.
Do you see that hands-off approach changing because of climate change? How about more active intervention, such as constructing new wetlands or physically moving species to new locations?
A: The National Park Service policy regarding natural resources stems from a report written in the 1960s called the Leopold Report, which called on the Park Service to manage for natural processes but also create the appearance of “primitive America.”
While we have adapted many of our policies to accommodate change, climate change presents new challenges. I do see our policies changing, as we are in the process of developing new policies under a recent report called Revisiting Leopold (available on the web at nps.gov).
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I do not think we are ready to make major changes like constructing new habitats or assisted migration.
Q: At Mount Rainier, science research programs are chronically short of money. Scientists say they can’t do the research they need to establish baseline data for glacial melting and plants and animals.
Unless things change, they won’t be able to do the monitoring needed to document changes related to global warming. Are you doing anything to change that?
A: Mount Rainier has a long history of glacier monitoring and was the recipient of significant funding for the long-term monitoring of natural resources as a part of the Natural Resource Challenge.
That said, the entire budget of the Park Service has been in real decline for years, and that has affected all programs: research, maintenance, interpretation, search and rescue, law enforcement and more. We have a strong budget request before Congress for our centennial, but it is up to Congress to provide the funds.
Q: Geologists say climate change is melting Mount Rainier’s glaciers at an unprecedented rate and that flooding and debris flows are likely to get worse as warming intensifies. Every park entrance road is at risk, and repairs already have cost millions.
How can the park keep up with repairs and continue to provide public access?
A: Mount Rainier National Park suffers from the same issue of most of our big mountain parks: the access roads were built up the river valleys, because that was the path of least resistance.
Now we are seeing some of these roads are not sustainable, like the Carbon River Road, now a trail. We will continue to provide access where we can and when that becomes cost prohibitive, we will take the range of alternatives to the public. We are committed to providing access, but perhaps not in the same location or way we have experienced in the past.
Q: If global warming were happening naturally and not caused by humans, how would that change the Park Service’s reaction?
A: Climate change is clearly human caused; it is happening now. We can see the impacts and we need to step up to the facts and take actions. The Park Service uses the best science to determine our approaches, and we are addressing the impacts as we can.
Q: How do threats related to climate change at Mount Rainier compare with those at other parks?
A: Mount Rainier is not being hit any harder than any other park. Impacts are all over the national parks.
New species are appearing in parks, driven there by climate change; snow pack in Glacier and the Sierras are at record lows. Lake Mead is as low as it was when it was being filled. Fires in our Sierra parks are burning a month longer and hotter, and the forests are not returning in the same mix of species.
Our coastal parks are seeing high-intensity storms – Hurricane Sandy, for example.
Q: You have a natural resources background, and your home park is Mount Rainier. Recently, four program managers in the park’s Natural and Cultural Resources Division were offered buy-outs, and the program’s budget was cut by 28 percent.
How do you reconcile this with the extraordinary challenges to natural resources from climate change?
A: While I was the superintendent there from 1999 to 2002, I have been gone for 12 years. I have no direct knowledge of the local buyout program and no comment on the local decisions.
Q: Some people say climate change poses such overwhelming threats to the parks that the whole idea of what parks are for needs overhauling. You’ve talked about a “new vision” for the parks. What is it?
A: Our national parks offer “natural solutions” to climate change and need to be recognized as such.
They serve as refuges for species under stress from other factors that compound the effects of climate change; biological reservoirs for repopulating areas impacted from climate change; sources of inspiration for action to address the climate; sites of public education regarding climate change; and anchors for landscape connectivity.
They also can be laboratories for adaptation strategies, when applied with a precautionary principle.