Assessing vulnerability and adapting to extreme weather and climate events in the National Park System
The ecological consequences of climate change pose a new and evolving challenge to managers of U.S. national parks. Preservation and management of fragile and finite cultural resources as well as natural resources and processes is the core of the U.S. National Park Service mission. In support of that mission, parks are generally free of extractive resource uses and allowable human uses are narrowly defined. As a result, park natural resource management tends to focus on mitigating the legacies of past resource actions, limiting the influence of current activities on neighboring lands, and reducing the impacts of visitation and the infrastructure (often extensive) required to provide services for those visitors.
However, climate change consequences are not restricted by administrative boundaries or legal protections, they interact with other natural and anthropogenic stressors, and rates, patterns, and specific outcomes at the scale of park resources can be difficult to predict, let alone manage. We present an overview of local, multi-park, and service wide efforts for assessing the vulnerability of natural and cultural resources of the U.S. national park system, with a focus on units in the American Southwest, and the particular instances of extreme weather and climate events.
The National Park Service is a remarkably “bottom up” federal land management agency, in which individual park needs and decisions are primary drivers of management actions and which permeate agency culture. Effective mitigation of climate change impacts to natural and cultural resources must integrate local needs and conditions with a pragmatic national strategy that is inherently interdisciplinary. Further, it requires park managers to join with neighboring land managers and scientists to address ecological consequences beyond park boundaries, and to engage the public in a dialogue on climate change causes and consequences.
We present a framework that links several National Park Service efforts ranging from planning, predictive modeling and vulnerability assessments, resource monitoring and evaluation, management action plans, and use examples from parks in the American Southwest to illustrate the process and some initial “lessons learned.”