Unnatural Preservation

In the age of global warming, public-land managers face a stark choice: They can let national parks and other wildlands lose their most cherished wildlife. Or they can become gardeners and zookeepers.

  • JOHN KASTNER

  • JOHN KASTNER

  • JOHN KASTNER

  • JOHN KASTNER

 

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According to a GAO report released this summer, however, the bureaucracies that manage public land throughout the United States were provided no guidance of any kind on how to deal with climate change, and park and other natural resource managers did not attempt to deal with the problem on their own.

Since 2001, of course, these federal departments have been ultimately directed by George W. Bush, who has famously not concerned himself with climate change. But the GAO report, and interviews with National Park Service scientists and managers around the country, strongly suggest that government stewards of parks, wildlife and public land simply don't understand the problems they face in an era of climate change. "Resource managers we interviewed ... said that they are not aware of any guidance or requirements to address the effect of climate change, and that they have not received direction regarding how to incorporate climate change into their planning activities," the GAO report said.

The Department of the Interior, which oversees many of the bureaucracies that manage public land, seems unclear on the very concept of addressing the effects, rather than the causes, of climate change. In its official response to the GAO report, the department had an associate deputy secretary rebut the criticism that the agency has "made climate change a low priority" by, essentially, changing the subject. In its response, the Park Service highlighted what it viewed as its successes - none of which were successes in protecting parks, forests and rangeland from global warming's effects. Instead, the agency's response letter said, "We have made a high priority on developing renewable energy resources; improving energy efficiency and the use of alternative energies at our facilities across the nation."

The officials who manage America's natural resources deserved the GAO's scathing critique. But there are roadblocks beyond bureaucratic intransigence that keep naturalists from effectively grappling with global warming's effects. Though researchers have identified some species, regions and ecosystems already threatened by global warming, science is mostly ignorant of climate change's impacts; until recently, there was little experimental research in the field. Science doesn't yet have information as basic as how much heat or dryness it takes to kill a tree, or whether foggy coastal and less foggy inland California will become warmer or cooler due to global warming.

Beyond the lack of scientific data is a fundamental philosophical problem: To preserve public wildlife during a time of significant climate change, managers will have to do things that run counter to the current ethic of "natural preservation."

"Conservation and land management agencies like the Park Service are confronted with a collapse of the paradigm they've operated under, which is (that) the future will be more or less like the past, and nature needs to be managed only on the margins, where we correct for the minor injustices humans inflict on the natural environment," says David Graber, chief scientist for the Pacific West region of the National Park Service, whose office is at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park. "We're facing a period of dramatic uncertainty. What managing nature would mean is a dramatic unknown. We don't know what our goals would have to be. "We're literally talking about things that have only been talked about for months, rather than years."

 

Global warming undermines almost all the rules that environmental stewards have lived by.

With a warming planet, invasive species are no longer merely exotic pests that hitch ship passage from other continents. They're native grasses, shrubs, beetles, bacteria and viruses that have had new "native" habitat opened for them to invade, courtesy of higher average temperatures. The millions of acres of forests that have been recently killed by beetles - which now thrive in the recently warmer northern winters - are but one apparent testament to this emerging phenomenon. "The west side of the park used to have much colder winters, which slowed the beetles. But winters for the past 15 or so years have not been as cold," notes Judy Visty, natural resource management specialist at Rocky Mountain National Park. "Pine beetles are wreaking havoc."

With planetary warming, forest fires and droughts in the Western U.S. have transformed into something more significant than mere components of a historic cycle of life. Scientists now predict that escalating droughts, tree die-offs and fires could cause Western forests to contribute more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than they extract.

Research into California's giant sequoia indicates that with warmer average temperatures, these monarchs of the forest may slow and then stop producing seedlings. And "if the fog, or if the ocean currents were to change, (the coastal redwood) would be in real trouble," says Ken Lavin, interpretive specialist at Muir Woods National Monument.

Many global warming-induced changes aren't yet as noticeable as forest die-offs, but are notable nonetheless. Mountain lakes disappear along with the glaciers at Montana's Glacier National Park. The pika, a cool-weather-loving mountain rodent, is vanishing from the Sierra Nevada. Rising seawater threatens to salinize the freshwater ecosystems of the Everglades and submerge beach habitat along the Northern California coast. And an increasingly hot and dry climate is projected to kill 90 percent of the trees at Joshua Tree National Monument.

For most people, these events are the canaries in the ecological coal mine, portending the far-off day when climate change may have life-and-death implications for humanity. For conservationists, however, these embattled plants and animals - and all the other species global warming will kill or push to new habitats - are the coal mine. Conservationists need to think hard and fast now: Do we rush to rescue climate-imperiled species before it's too late? Or do we let nature take its course, quietly watching the disappearance of species that we have spent decades restoring and protecting?

"It may be that soon one-third of the species I'm seeing outside my window might not be able to find habitat here. Maybe half of them will be new species that find the new climate here amenable," says Graber. "Am I going to fight the new species? Am I going to welcome them?"

The questions are agonizing for naturalists such as Graber. For nearly a half-century, preserving native species and fighting invasive ones has been the reason for his existence. That goal is enshrined in the job descriptions of thousands of people running the vast natural-industrial complex made up of parks, preserves, refuges, private nature conservatories, and millions of other acres of protected U.S. wildlands.


The ecological movement wasn't always so sure of itself. There are other possible, sensible-sounding approaches to maintaining nature preserves. New York's Central Park and San Francisco's Golden Gate Park are horticultural fabrications, with scant relationship to the natural world that came before. Locals seem to like them just fine. In fact, the idea of "preserving" nature as a pleasing aesthetic spectacle, as opposed to the restoration and maintenance of authentic ancient ecosystems, drove park management well into the 20th century.

Then, in 1962, the secretary of the Interior set up a special advisory board on wildlife management, led by ecologist A. Starker Leopold, that went about researching and discussing exactly what America's parks should be. The board came up with a revolutionary idea, summarized in a pamphlet known universally in the nature bureaucracy as the "Leopold Report." It is best known for five evocative words summarizing what became the American scientific community's consensus on what nature preserves should be: "a vignette of primitive America."

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