Climate Change Forcing National Parks to Choose Between Species

For the first time since the founding of the National Park Service (NPS), the government agency is no longer approaching park management with the belief that all species, ecosystems and landscapes can be preserved as they currently exist.

The change in conservation strategy has actually been coming for a while as a direct result of climate change, according to Gregor Schuurman, an ecologist at the NPS Climate Change Response Program.

"The press of climate change is not letting up any time soon. In fact, it's intensifying, and predicted to keep doing so," Schuurman told Newsweek. "This push is very much against the idea that we can keep things as they were."

Joshua tree
A new conservation strategy unveiled earlier this spring by the U.S. National Park Service is "very much against the idea that we can keep things as they were," one NPS official recently told Newsweek. A Joshua tree is pictured in the photo above at Joshua Tree National Park on January 28, 2021. Josh Brasted/Getty Images

The NPS unveiled its 80-page plan of attack for what it refers to as "climate-smart planning and management" earlier this spring. The plan was developed in partnership with the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) and is intended to serve as a guide for the country's more than 400 parks, which encompass more than 84 million acres throughout the country.

Bruce Stein, a NWF scientist who co-wrote the guide, said the "rapidly changing climate threatens to undermine decades of conservation work in our national parks," according to a NPS news release. Stein added that the proposed climate-smart approach "will be key to safeguarding wildlife and other park resources in a warming and increasingly uncertain future."

The new strategy was developed organically as NPS officials worked with parks across the U.S., Schuurman said. While the NPS has always emphasized the importance of "keeping things natural," climate change, he said that can be tied to human activity has accelerated some of the natural environmental changes that organizations like the NPS grew to expect.

"There's always been some dynamism, but human activity intensifies that," Schuurman said. "We have to manage for change and not just for persistence."

He said the NPS published its new guide as a way to advise parks around the country on how to make increasingly difficult park management decisions. Opinions on any given park's most concerning vulnerabilities vary from one person to the next, he said, but the guide can help park officials with the triaging process.

Joshua Tree welcome sign
A National Park Service sign welcomes visitors to Joshua Tree National Park in California on February 27, 2019. Robert Alexander/Getty Images

As an example, Schuurman said if a species is only considered moderately threatened by climate change but plays a vital role in its larger ecosystem, that species may take top priority over a species that is more seriously threatened, but on which its ecosystem is not as dependent.

"Sometimes it's not your biggest vulnerability, but it's your most critical vulnerability," he said.

Like individual species, parks vary in terms of the extent to which they are under threat. Parks located in the American Southwest are among those that are "pretty darn vulnerable" due to drought, warming temperatures and wildfire risk, Schuurman said.

During a recent interview with KPBS, Schuurman discussed the "really difficult situation" at Joshua Tree National Park, which is located just over 100 miles east of Los Angeles in Southern California. Despite the drought and warming temperatures threatening some species at Joshua Tree, Schuurman said others may be able to thrive as those conditions intensify—a possibility that Christian Delich, who works as one of the park's climate educators, echoed.

"As it continues to get warmer and a bit drier in the Mojave Desert, certain species within the park are going to be able to take advantage of those conditions and actually expand," Delich told Newsweek.

Other species are likely to face more difficulties in surviving the changing climate, Delich said. That doesn't necessarily mean that the species will go extinct, but they could eventually disappear from the parks in which they currently thrive.

At Joshua Tree, Delich said horned lizards are among the species considered "very vulnerable" as the climate continues to dry out and heat up.

Decomposing Joshua tree
A dead, fallen Joshua tree decomposes on the ground in Joshua Tree National Park in California on February 27, 2019. Robert Alexander/Getty Images

"I'm worried about the future of pinyon pines within the park, of California juniper, of horned lizards, even the creosote bush—a lot of those species that maybe the average visitor might not see as important" in comparison with the trees for which the park was named, Delich said.

Meanwhile, global climate models are predicting a "sharp decline" by 2100 in the Joshua tree population, he said. The trees were granted temporary endangered species status last fall, but Delich said he still finds the limited number of Joshua tree seedlings seen throughout the park "worrying."

Joshua trees are not unique to Joshua Tree National Park, but Delich said they used to occupy a much larger chunk of territory 15,000 to 20,000 years ago. Giant Sequoia trees are another example of a species that used to span several Western states but are now secluded to a region along the western Sierra Nevada.

These kinds of shifts are natural, Delich said. But climate change spurred on by the burning of fossil fuels and CO2 emissions have caused that to accelerate, he added.

"Every species on planet Earth comes and goes—nothing lasts forever," Delich said.

Even though it is not the NPS' job to make huge decisions that could impact an entire ecosystem's future—the NPS "is not supposed to interfere," as Delich said—tangible human impacts can be difficult for the agency to overlook.

On a smaller scale, Delich said park rangers occasionally revegetate areas that some among the park's nearly 2.4 million annual visitors drive through while in search of parking. But Schuurman said climate change necessitates a more unified and forward-looking response.

Joshua Tree National Park
A Joshua tree is photographed in Joshua Tree National Park on January 30, 2021. Josh Brasted/Getty Images

"If the conditions climatically that used to sustain a suite of species have shifted, then efforts to sustain the historical ecological condition may very well come at the expense of keeping others as they historically were, because the context has changed," he said.

As an example, Schuurman described a hypothetical conundrum about how to help cool-water fish survive in a stream that is growing warmer. Doing so may require increasing the amount of shade in the area, which may require planting additional trees along the stream's edge.

Some of these hypothetical scenarios are possible, Schuurman said, but all potential impacts on the ecosystem in question need to be taken into account before any decisions are made, and that's a tricky task since climate change is manipulating the extenuating factors so quickly.

"That's where we think trying to hold on can lead you to some difficult choices that begin to challenge the larger values of what you're trying to do in the first place," Schuurman said.

As parks work to implement the NPS' new conservation strategy, Schuurman said careful consideration will be needed every step of the way.

"We should reconsider goals and not just strategies, and we should integrate all of this adaptation into existing work," he said. "We need to act with intentionality when we manage resources."