Climate change comes to our National Parks

The problems (frequent 100-year storms, closed roads, vanishing glaciers) are straining the systems. Some conferences begin to grapple with the immense consequences and trade-offs.
Crosscut archive image.

Washington State icon: Mount Rainier

The problems (frequent 100-year storms, closed roads, vanishing glaciers) are straining the systems. Some conferences begin to grapple with the immense consequences and trade-offs.

What does it mean for our national parks when magnum storms perennially wash out roads and curtail public access? At a small gathering at North Cascades National Park last week, sponsored by the National Parks Conservation Association, user groups, National Parks and Forest Service pashas noodled the fallout of the climate elephant. It was a postlude to three severe, 100-year storms, bunched together over the last dozen years, that have walloped Washington's three national parks.

The political rub: America's gems lose their polish when there's no one to take in the shine.

The crux of the climate challenge is zero sum. Park boosters know that it's unsustainable to wring $50 million for repairs from the feds every couple of years. Lawmakers triage these budgets, and such decisions will fundamentally remake how Northwesterners look at their national parks.

For North Cascades Superintendent Chip Jenkins, this Old Testament weather throws into relief the broader question of institutional trust. Families upset over damage to the Colonial Creek Campground or the Stehekin Valley Road are much more likely to blame the National Park Service rather than, say, God (or more accurately, God's fossil-fuel-dependent children). Westerners eye government as an ill-responsive, necessary evil, and park damage only compounds that sense of mistrust and frustration.

The challenges are immense. A warming climate means that some critters will thrive while others disappear. We'll bid a long, sweet good bye to the North Cascades 300-plus glaciers, more than exist at Glacier National Park or at any park in the lower 48 for that matter. (We'll also kick the headwaters conundrum to another generation.) And there's the mountain pine beetle, a Dante-inspired tormenter who feasts on Lodgepole and Ponderosa pines and leaves a sea of combustibles in its wake. As our fire-weary British Columbia neighbors can attest, the pine beetle will go forth and multiply, mating gleefully in the heat.

Forest fires are in fact one of the few instances where interagency cooperation appears seamless. Unfortunately, natural resource apparatchiks are often hemmed by political boundaries, organizational cultures, and regulations that inhibit creative problem solving. One example cited last week was Cascade River Road, with a 300-foot swath washed away by the North Fork of the Cascade River and another section submerged by Boston Creek. Ideally, Skagit County will step up, recognizing the park's central role in the regional economy. Whatever happens, the Forest Service and National Park Service need the tools to horse trade, negotiate, and find a solution. Soon.

The debate taking place at North Cascades, along with earlier meetings at Olympic and Mt. Rainier, brings into focus the larger subject of parks and public life. The late Harvey Manning gave expression to the "keep out!" wilderness school. If you stay away, you can't love a place to death. Think of it as a kind of wilderness celibacy.

The Manning School runs counter to the University of Wisconsin's William Cronon, a historian who famously argued that wilderness requires human contact. Limit access, limit families, and America's Greatest Idea loses its constituency. Then America's (other) Greatest Idea, democracy, will undermine it.

A few of these themes were echoed at a UW conference last week entitled "Three Degrees: The Law of Climate Change and Human Rights." In his Friday keynote, Cornell's Henry Shue underscored the intergenerational nature of climate change and its disproportionate effect on the world's poor. It was the thread of a common narrative. Reduced access to national parks will also affect the poor more than the wealthy, however much we embrace parks as the consummate democratic institution. With money and time, elites will continue to enjoy the North Cascades, Olympic, and Mt. Rainier. The rich always seem to get greener.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson is the former editorial-page editor of the Everett Herald. Follow him on Twitter @phardinjackson