Saving Our National Parks Could Save Us, Too

Love for national parks is one of the few things that unites most Americans. Even the bitterly partisan U.S. Senate recently agreed on a resolution designating the week of April 16 through April 24, 2022, as “National Park Week,” by unanimous consent. One bipartisan Senate resolution isn’t going to fix all of the challenges national parks are facing today, but our mutual love for national parks could help us come together on at least one divisive issue impacting our parks: climate change. 

According to a recent Pew Research Center report on climate change, “partisan affiliation remains the dominant divide in views of climate and energy issues, with Republicans and Democrats staking out competing visions for the country’s energy future.” 

While the aforementioned Pew report found that more than 70% of Americans believe climate change is an issue and should be addressed, it also found that we are far from agreement on how it should be addressed. But, recent polling by the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) suggests Americans could come together over climate change policy if it’s centered on protecting national parks from further impacts. 

The poll found a bipartisan majority of 84% see national parks as part of the solution to address climate change and 83%, regardless of political affiliation, would be more likely to support a representative who supported a bill to reduce the impact of climate change on U.S. national parks.

Canyonlands National Park (photo by Tom Till, courtesy Visit Utah)
Canyonlands National Park (photo by Tom Till, courtesy Visit Utah)

“It was interesting to see how much of a unifying force national parks can be on the topic of climate change,” says Erica Parker, Managing Director of The Harris Poll, which conducted the NPCA poll, in a recent statement. “Americans, both Democrats and Republicans alike, clearly see the adverse effect climate change is having on the national parks and that connection compels them to support climate change solutions.”

Theresa Pierno, President and CEO for NPCA says, “This poll shows national parks unite us and offer solutions for addressing it. With visitation to our parks at an all-time high, Americans are seeing the impacts firsthand with parks burning, flooding, melting and eroding. We all agree. We cannot and must not wait.”

And the time to come together on climate change was yesterday. A new UN report on climate change indicates that harmful carbon emissions from 2010-2019 have never been higher in human history. The report concluded that the world is on a “fast track” to disaster, with scientists arguing that it’s “now or never” to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. That’s the proverbial tipping point that could lead to “cascading and irreversible climate effects,” says UN chief António Guterres, such as “unprecedented heatwaves, terrifying storms, widespread water shortages and the extinction of a million species of plants and animals.” 

“Climate change is the most serious problem our national parks face, wreaking havoc on so many things we love,” says Pierno.

We are already seeing how climate change can impact the delicate environments, ecosystems and resources protected by the boundaries of our national parks. Peer-reviewed science from the NPS Climate Change Response Program has found that human-caused climate change has exposed the US national park area to more severe increases in heat and aridity (that means higher temperatures and less rain) than the rest of the country as a whole.

Lake Powell, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (courtesy Visit Utah)

Scientific research in national parks has identified numerous changes attributed primarily to human-caused climate change, including:

  • Doubling of the area burned by wildfire across the western US, including Yosemite National Park
  • Melting of glaciers in Glacier Bay National Park
  • A doubling of tree mortality across the western US, including Sequoia National Park
  • A loss of bird species from Death Valley National Park
  • A shift of trees onto tundra in Noatak National Preserve
  • Sea level rise of 17 inches near the Statue of Liberty National Monument
  • Decline of the flow of the Colorado River (which runs through Arches National Park, Canyonlands, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Grand Canyon and Lake Mead), along with drought, reducing Lake Mead and Lake Powell to their lowest levels

According to that same 2020 report, “adaptation measures can strengthen ecosystem integrity. Yet, reducing greenhouse gas emissions from human activities is the only solution that prevents the pollution that causes climate change. Energy conservation and efficiency improvements, renewable energy, public transit and other actions could lower projected heating by two-thirds, reducing risks to our national parks.”

Southern Utah’s 16th annual Amazing Earthfest 2022 is hosting an event highlighting climate change’s effect on national parks, calling it “the greatest threat the national parks have ever faced.” Registration is required to attend this and other Amazing Earthfest events.

Learn more about National Park Week on the NPS website and what you need to know to make the most of National Park Week. For more outdoor adventures, subscribe to Salt Lake magazine to receive the latest issue.

Christie Porter
Christie Porter
Christie Porter is the managing editor of Salt Lake Magazine. She has worked as a journalist for nearly a decade, writing about everything under the sun, but she really loves writing about nerdy things and the weird stuff. She recently published her first comic book short this year.

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