U.S. Geological Survey ecologist Dan Fagre is standing behind an interpretive sign that says “Going, going, gone,” as he describes how Glacier National Park’s glaciers have been wasting away over the past century. Each year, when he visits them, Fagre finds newly exposed rock that was once buried under ice. His research predicts that the park will lose most of its large “charismatic geological phenomena”—its iconic glaciers—by 2020.
Those glaciers made it into the Congressional Record last month, when Rhode Island climate hawk Senator Sheldon Whitehouse addressed the Senate about legislation he recently introduced with Montana Senator Max Baucus, to jumpstart climate adaptation on federal lands. (Baucus was the only Senate Democrat to vote against the failed 2009 climate bill, and he recently issued his own climate change directive for Montana that promoted Keystone XL, while also stating the risks warming poses to his state’s natural heritage).
The Safeguarding America’s Future and the Environment (SAFE) Act aims to make climate adaptation planning a requirement of all federal natural resources agencies. It would also establish a National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center within the USGS, to focus efforts on helping public land and natural resources stand up to climate change. Depending on how it’s implemented, it has the potential to reshape how we think about conservation, shifting from strategies that focus on restoring the past, and preserving the present, to those that prepare for the future.
In Glacier, Fagre, who didn’t speak about the act, posed the type of question that agencies need to confront: “What will happen when a glacier is no longer at the head of the basin?”
Without a glacier spilling out meltwater, the cold-adapted ecosystem would suffer, Fagre said -- from stream macroinvertebrates to the bull trout and west slope cutthroat trout that attract anglers to Montana.
Some agency officials are already thinking about preparing for the altered ecosystems of the future, as detailed in a recent Government Accountability Office report on what the U.S. Forest Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, and National Park Service are doing to adapt to climate change.
Of the five agencies that appear in the GAO report, only the BLM (the nation’s largest land manager) is lacking some kind of strategic climate change adaptation plan, though it is working on one.
In 2007, park officials told the GAO they were not addressing climate change because they had not received specific guidance or funding. But now the park is monitoring climate sensitive species like pikas, and alpine plants, and working on plans that include climate change adaptation. Park officials told the GAO that if they had more funding, they would prioritize issues such as spruce budworm infesting forests. The insect’s infestation cycle has lengthened from 3 years to 7- to 15-years, as a result of warming climates, and managers worry that the bugs are increasing the park’s fire susceptibility.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has also begun to recognize that as ecosystems respond to climate change, today’s desirable habitat may not be the same as tomorrow’s. According to the GAO, the service is considering setting aside land that may not be ideal habitat today, but could be in the future. The agency is also looking at planting fire-resistant species when restoring devastated landscapes.
Senator Whitehouse told the Westerly Sun newspaper that, “the principle of the SAFE Act is you need to look ahead….I like to think that the faster you’re driving, the better your headlights need to be.”
Sarah Jane Keller is the editorial fellow at High Country News.
Photo of Dan Fagre in Glacier National Park, taken by the writer during a fellowship with the Institutes for Journalism and Natural Resources.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that the spruce budworm's “infestation cycle has lengthened from 3 years to 5- to 15-years.” The correct value is 7- to 15-years.