As temperatures warm, Joshua trees are seeking better habitat at higher elevations, which may eventually drive them from their namesake park. As climate conditions change it requires that we take a new approach, such as scenario planning to manage our parks.
The National Park Service can improve the long-term health of national parks by making natural, cultural, and social systems better able to withstand and recover from climate changes through adaptation. Adaptation as defined here is an adjustment in natural or human system that moderates harm or takes advantage of beneficial opportunities amidst the effects of climate change. We will utilize climate projections to build scenarios and manage for a future that minimizes adverse outcomes. Adaptation actions form the core of the National Park Service (NPS) response to climate change.
The National Park Service uses scenario planning as a tool to prepare for the long-range impacts of climate change on our natural and cultural resources. The process involves using current climate change projections to develop possible climate and ecological futures. Managers work through a variety of options for the future and develop responses and action plans to be used in each situation. Scenario planning allows park managers to plan for an uncertain future and maximize actions most likely to be beneficial. This is a new approach to managing our resources, so the Climate Change Response Program is hosting workshops to teach NPS staff how to create these scenarios and responses for their own parks.
Natural Resource Adaptation Strategy
Natural systems can be made more resilient to climate change through enhancing these elements:
- availability of climate refugia (habitats that persist as climate changes)
- landscape corridors that allow plants and animals to move to more suitable locations
- Healthy populations with sufficient genetic diversity to adapt
- blocks of natural landscape large enough to be resilient to large-scale disturbances and long-term changes
- lack of additional threats and stressors
The success of adaptation strategies will be enhanced by taking a broad approach that identifies connections and barriers across the landscape. Networks of protected areas within a larger mixed landscape can provide the highest level of resilience to climate change.
The adaptation strategy for cultural resources revolves around identifying appropriate actions for vulnerable resources before the threat from climate change becomes acute. Sites should be fully documented, with prioritization given to those at high risk (e.g. close to sea level, in floodplains, or on permafrost). If vulnerable, the NPS should work with partners to determine the resources cultural significance and lay out a course of action. These actions may include relocation, protection in place, or acceptance of loss.
Scenario planning is an approach for long-term strategic planning designed for highly uncertain and uncontrollable situations. Most commonly used in business and military environments, it is being looked at increasingly for conservation management in the face of climate change. Scenario planning does not attempt to predict the most likely future but uses what if questions to explore and maintain a range of plausible multiple working futures and consider appropriate actions within them.
The NPS has worked hard to become a leader in protecting natural and cultural landscapes. The need to emphasize climate change adaptation does not distract us from this lineage of stewardship; instead it strengthens conservation and takes our management skill to the next level. Five goals will guide climate change adaptation in the parks:
- Incorporate climate change consideration and responses in all levels of the NPS planning framework.
The NPS's new approach to planning emphasizes elements that cross-traditional boundaries and integrate different disciplines and organizations. Our planning can no longer assume that the future climate and the ecosystems it supports will be the same as today's. Therefore, an increased focus on adaptive management and scenario planning will guide all levels of agency planning. Modification of existing policy and guidance to better protect parks may be warranted.
- Implement adaptation strategies that promote ecosystem resilience and enhance restoration, conservation, and preservation of park natural resources.
The human and natural values that visitors discover in parks are not static; instead they are dynamic and evolving. By focusing on resilience, NPS management goals and practices will better align with our current understanding of the ever-changing nature of parks. New conservation plans will be better integrated across park boundaries and focus on ecosystem processes, reduction in "stressors," restoration of damaged systems, and preservation of genetic integrity.
- Develop, prioritize, and implement management strategies to preserve climate-sensitive cultural resources.
Cultural resources are often sensitive to climate change and existing preservation practices may not adequately protect them under future scenarios. They may require additional protection in place (such as protecting prehistoric buildings from flooding), or we will need the capacity to quickly move cultural resources into museum collections. The best course of action will require a mix of scientific prediction of vulnerability, the development of cost-effective preservation technologies, consultation with partners and indigenous peoples, and enhanced curation and museum collection capacity.
- Include climate-related vulnerability assessments in project approval and funding decisions.
As an increased number of park facilities and infrastructure become susceptible to climate change impacts, the NPS will modify its decision process (funding, construction, and operation) to better account for vulnerability and risk. High-risk assets should be inventoried and appropriate protection actions and alternatives chosen.
- Enhance the sustainable maintenance, design, and construction of park infrastructure.
Park facility planning, funding, design, and construction should have greater emphasis on sustainability and the resilience to climate change. Options may include using changing park operational periods to reduce energy use, designing movable structures, integrating park buildings into regional transportation networks and gateway communities, and locating assets in less vulnerable locations.
Suggested links to learn more about climate change adaptation or how other agencies are addressing this topic: