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Changes in the web of life in the Pacific is impacting humpback whales that summer at Glacier Bay National Park/NPS

Changes in the web of life in the Pacific are impacting humpback whales that summer at Glacier Bay National Park/NPS

National Parks Traveler's 3rd Annual Threatened And Endangered Parks

By Kurt Repanshek

Warming Pacific waters that are impacting whales that summer at Glacier Bay National Park and a worrisome mixture of climate change and urban sprawl that is weighing on Saguaro National Park are just two examples of how outside influences are creating problems inside national parks.

There are many more examples, too, of impacts that are affecting the parks, in some cases striking at the very qualities that justifed their inclusion to the National Park System.

In National Parks Traveler's 3rd Annual Threatened and Endangered Parks report we'll take a look at some of these issues in a series of stories from around the country that highlight the impacts wearing on the parks.

For example, at Glacier Bay in Alaska, climate-triggered glacial retreat long has been noted. Possibly of greater concern are recent signs of decline of the ecological web that nourishes humpback whales that visitors hope to spot in the park. Not only has park staff noticed concerning declines in the number of calves born to humpback whales in recent years, but during the 2014-2016 marine heatwave some whales returning to the park were so thin by the end of summer that "you could see their shoulder blades."

At Saguaro in Arizona, the park's signature cacti, and many other floral and faunal species that call Saguaro home, face many challenges — urban development, invasive species, and drought and wildfires amplified by climate change rank among the most-pressing.

“The lesson is national park status is not the end of one’s work protecting that area for its resources and for its visitor experience,” says Kevin Dahl, National Parks Conservation Association's senior program manager for Arizona and a recently elected Tucson city councilmember. “There will be threats from outside or activities inside the park that are inappropriate that citizen activists need to be able to help stop or change.”

Cross the country to coastal New York and you can see the problems confronting Fire Island National Seashore. Some fear climate change could erase the park in half-a-century, as sea-level rise seems likely to submerge the 26-mile-long park that is situated on an approximately half-mile-wide barrier island. The vulnberable nature of that setting most recently was on display in 2012, when Hurricane Sandy ripped a breach that remains to this day in the Otis Pike Fire Island High Dune Wilderness.

Located within 60 miles of nearly 21 million people living in the New York metropolitan area, the seashore faces the dual challenge of sea-level rise and popularity. 

“If there’s anything we learned during the pandemic, it’s that parks are a safe haven, a popular and desirable place where visitors could enjoy the great outdoors and connect with family and friends safely. We have seen a small explosion of visitation,” says Superintendent Alexcy Romero.

Not too far south of Fire Island, the Chesapeake Bay and the places within the watershed that are managed by the National Park Service are at risk from the effects of climate change, including sea-level rise, and the damage wrought by increasingly severe storms. These threats exacerbate and accelerate longstanding concerns about environmental pollutants and runoff in the region. Coastal communities and landscapes throughout the bay are experiencing increasing flooding due to sea-level rise, which is compounded by the fact that the mid-Atlantic region is also sinking in a natural process known as subsidence.

But several initiatives and programs, including the proposed Chesapeake National Recreation Area, offer reasons for hope.

Possibly complicating how the National Park Service can react to these situations and others that impact the 423 units of the National Park System is funding, funding that covers resources, and studies, and personnel. While the agency is being flooded with billions of dollars in the coming years through the Great American Outdoors Act as well as the Biden administration's infrastructure legislation, that funding is not for adding full-time personnel to the agency. 

The administration's Build Back Better legislation, as approved by the House of Representatives, does contain funding the Park Service could use for both adding personnel and dealing with the impacts of climate change and building resiliency into park landscapes, but that measure's future is in jeopardy.

Climate Change Tightens Its Grip On Alaskan Parks

Retreat of the tidewater rivers of ice at Glacier Bay National and Preserve is a clear and easily viewed sign of climate change. Not as visually apparent is what is transpiring beneath the shimmering surface bay waters in this 3.3-million-acre swath of mountain and marine wilderness.

Within those waters, an arguably more dire climate-triggered impact than glacial retreat is underway: the decline of the ecological web that nourishes humpback whales that visitors hope to spot in the park.

Read the story.

Climate Change And Popularity Pose Dual Threats To Fire Island National Seashore

Visitors ferry to Fire National Seashore to swim, enjoy the beaches, walk in the maritime forest, tour historic buildings, and spend time with family and friends. But 50 years from now, climate change might submerge a good portion of the park.

Whenever there’s a new moon, full moon, or storm brewing over the Atlantic Ocean, Fire Island Ferries accommodates sea-level rise by adding steps to its ferries bound for the national seashore, a 26-mile-long park situated on an approximately half-mile-wide barrier island that keeps ocean waves from pummeling Long Island’s south shore.

“We’re using steps to get up off the dock and onto the boat on a more frequent basis,” said Timothy Mooney, president, and owner of Fire Island Ferries, Inc. His company has raised its docks and bulkheads up to a foot to accommodate the sea-level rise.

Read the story.

Ghost Forests And A Rising Sea

Along the Chesapeake Bay on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge is a marshy wilderness of fields and open water, dotted with stands of evergreen and deciduous trees, where herons, egrets, and countless other birds perch regally along the brackish wetlands. Here too, however, are eerie collections of barren, ashen, leafless stumps—the refuge’s “ghost forests,” which are irrefutable evidence of climate change.

These ghost forests occur when rising sea levels push too much saltwater inland, inundating trees that aren’t meant to grow in such watery conditions. An estimated 5,000 acres of the wildlife refuge have been converted from tidal marshland to open water since the refuge was created in 1933, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that the sea level around Blackwater could rise around three feet by 2100. At that rate, two-thirds of the area’s tidal marshes could be under water in as short as three decades.

“The Chesapeake Bay is one of the most threatened ecosystems in the United States when it comes to sea level rise,” says Reed Perry, manager of external affairs for the nonprofit Chesapeake Conservancy. “There is already erosion, but development has accelerated the process of erosion, and sea level rise is threatening coastal communities and marshland places like Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.”

Read the story.

Funding Imbalance And The Parks

A veritable flood of dollars – literally billions – is flowing into the National Park System to address maintenance projects long overdue for attention, but as heartening as that influx is, there's still an imbalance in how the National Park Service is funded that goes beyond bricks and asphalt.

One example is that the bulk of the maintenance spending is heading towards brand-name parks. Indeed, scroll through the first 50 projects funded through the Great American Outdoors Act, legislation designed intentionally to address the park system's maintenance backlog, and you’ll see multiple projects funded for Blue Ridge Parkway, Yosemite, Shenandoah, Mount Rainier, Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks.

Projects proposed for Fiscal 2022 also seem tilted towards larger parks: Glacier National Park (multiple funded projects), Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon, Everglades, Mammoth Cave, Blue Ridge Parkway (multiple), Great Smoky Mountains, Big Bend (multiple), Yellowstone (multiple).

Read the story.

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