National Parks and Climate Change

04/16/2013 02:57 pm ET | Updated Jun 16, 2013

The week of April 20 kicks off National Parks Week, seven days of free entry to the amazing landscapes and seascapes that comprise our national park system. Nature looks just fine right now in these spectacular locations, but looks are deceiving. In fact, climate change is having a big impact on them. "Climate change" are certainly two bad words when combined in this scary phrase, but in some ways, there's actually a silver lining here. We are being forced to better understand how nature works, and also to revise many of the outdated ways we think about it. The good news is that the National Park Service is taking a leading role in figuring how what is happening to species as temperature and precipitation patterns change, and what we can to do to help nature adapt.

Throughout 2013, Dr. Gary Machlis, science adviser to the NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis, is going around the country discussing "Revisiting Leopold" with national park employees and other super-interested parties. "Revisiting Leopold" was written by 12 eminent scientists, asked by NPS to reconsider the basic management guidelines the parks have been using for nearly 50 years.

A half-century ago, Senator Stewart Udall (serving under JFK) turned to Starker Leopold and pretty much said "help" with the national parks. A public relations crisis was underway, with superabundant elk decimating places like Yellowstone. Hired guns came in to cull the herd; some citizens were outraged at the killing and some wanted to do it themselves. Starker was the son of the famed Aldo Leopold (A Sand County Almanac) and a respected ecologist in his own right. He also had something of his father's literary flair. The document he produced (with others) was only 24 pages long, and much of it is still relevant.

One of Leopold's most prescient observations in the original report is that "few of the world's parks are large enough be in fact self-regulatory ecological units; rather, most are ecological islands subject to direct or indirect modification by activities and conditions in the surrounding areas." The new report builds on the insight that national parks are embedded in larger systems and goes farther, suggesting that the parks be conceived of as "anchors of conservation in a continuum of uses." Marking the parks as a network, like a central nervous system, connecting all over our country is a brilliant and important idea. Providing plants and animals with the ability to move across boundaries to renew their genetic viability and to fulfill their migrational and territorial needs is essential. And as climate change encroaches, plants and animals already on the move need to be able to get where they're going.

Another big subject "Revisiting Leopold" takes on concerns our cultural resources, and the fact that these cannot be separated from our ecological resources. Cultural resources include pieces of the human-built world, like the remains of ancient human settlements, but they also include salmon migrations, and the ways these have interacted with and been sacred to indigenous peoples. Looked at this way, the National Parks are charged with protecting living history, processes that not only reflect on the past but bring its wisdom into our present day.