Rebuilding After Sandy: Moving The National Park Service Forward With An Eye On Climate Change

General George Washington's Revolutionary War headquarters at Morristown National Historical Park in New Jersey somehow avoided damage from trees that Hurricane Sandy knocked down. Saw crew member David Adams from Stones River National Battlefield worked on removing the downed trees. NPS photo.

Editor's note: Climate change might not lead the nightly news, but its impacts continue to grow. Hurricane Sandy last October hinted at the problems more potent storms pose for the National Park System, particularly for units at sea level. For this, the last installment of our series looking at the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, we talked to some stakeholders for their thoughts on how the National Park Service can respond and move forward.

If ever there was an exclamation point to a report warning of the consequences of climate change, Hurricane Sandy was it.

As the storm swept up the Eastern Seaboard last fall it cut national seashores in two, inundated mainland parks that lie at sea level, downed untold scores of trees, and in its aftermath left the National Park Service with an opportunity to put its parks back together with similarly potent storms in mind.

As fate would have it, Sandy battered the seaboard less than two months after the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization and the Natural Resources Defense Council warned of the consequences of climate change on coastal units of the National Park System.

Lying at sea level as they do, national seashores -- Cape Cod, Fire Island, Assateague Island, Cape Hatteras, Cape Lookout, Cumberland Island, and Cape Canaveral -- are helpless when the Atlantic is churned by storms, and to sea levels rising as the polar caps melt. Much of the land in those seashores is barely 1 meter above the current sea level, Stephen Saunders, president of the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization, said last August. That low-lying landscape makes them highly susceptible to overwash and higher sea levels, he said.

Sandy proved him correct, as Assateague Island sustained overwash in many areas and Fire Island was breached by the hurricane's punches. The Sandy Hook unit of Gateway National Recreation Area in the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area had its wastewater treatment system knocked out indefinitely by the storm, and the electrical system at Statue of Liberty National Monument likewise was rendered useless and there's no timetable for reopening Lady Liberty.

The damage moved inland, too, as Morristown National Historical Park in New Jersey was littered with downed timber that, fortunately, somehow failed to hit Gen. Washington's headquarters as they fell, and Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C., was transformed into a waterwater slalom course by its namesake stream.

An Opportunity Not To Miss

In looking at the damage parks from Assateague Island and Fire Island to Rock Creek Park and Gateway NRA sustained -- initial estimates put it at roughly $350 million, though that figure could change as more damage might surface as parks dig out -- Mr. Saunders and other stakeholders at the National Parks Conservation Association and the NRDC see a great opportunity for the Park Service to prepare for future devastating storms.

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Damaged boardwalk was piled up like cordwood at Fire Island National Seashore. NPS photo.

Those opportunities exist not just for building storm-resistant infrastructure, but also in interpretive and educational programs that revolve around climate change, and in restoring native ecosystems better suited to rebound from hurricanes.

That latter point has been discussed in the greater New York-New Jersey metropolitan area for more than a few years. Several reports on how to ecologically restore the Hudson-Raritan estuary were issued through the last decade. One aspect of that restoration would be "softening" the landscape by encouraging the return of maritime forests of Holly oak and pitch pine, as well as eelgrass beds and even oyster beds that possibly could blunt stormwaters, said Alexander Brash, senior director of the National Parks Conservation Association's Northeast Regional Office.

Of course, he added, implementing that approach wouldn't be easy, in part because of the infrastructure -- chemical storage facilities, wastewater treatment plants, docks and marinas, and communities -- that line the coast.

"There’s always ongoing discussions about where to put these things, how protected are they, are certain neighborhoods, communities, or economic classes being unfairly burdened with them. And what are the preparations for storms?” he said. "Sandy brought it out along the coast of Jersey, even out in southern Long Island where all of a sudden ... a major car garage in Bayshore Long Island, five streets back from the edge of the water, was all of a sudden inundated by Sandy.

“Sandy rolls in, it really resets the playing field. An incredible amount of damage all across the board," said Mr. Brash.

In coping with that damage and moving forward, he added, a lot of the research performed for the harbor's restoration becomes invaluable.

Climate Change Preparations

Preparing parks for climate change is not a new mantra. Park Service Director Jon Jarvis in October 2009 warned that "(T)he management implications for protecting species, biological communities, and physical resources within finite land management boundaries in a rapidly changing climate are complex and without precedent."

More recently, the Interior Department issued a report (attached below) on a department-wide approach to sustainable landscapes and facilities that stressed that "(C)limate change adaptation actions cannot be delayed to wait for a complete understanding of climate change impacts; bureaus can use adaptive management, as appropriate, for managing resources in the face of uncertainty."

"Climate change adaptation," the report concluded, "is a long-term endeavor requiring immediate action in combination with investments in monitoring, assessment, flexibility, collaboration, and improved scientific information."

But in these fiscally challenging times, what can the Park Service afford in terms of building some adaptability into its units? Money will always be an issue with the Park Service, and time, or rather lack of it, can be a hindrance as well.

At Gateway NRA, Superintendent Linda Canzanelli is confronted with nearly $200 million in damage across her park, and with the summer travel season approaching, the need to repair things as quickly as possible.

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Trees downed by Hurricane Sandy narrowly missed historic tombstones at St. Paul's Church National Historic Site in New York City. NPS photo.

But haste is something she'd like to avoid.

"I'd love some peer-reviewed science that actually looked at what we are trying to accomplish, and what are some of the best ways of doing it," she said.

Tough Choices Confront NPS

Climate change not only requires more studies tied to coping with its impacts, but likely will force the Park Service to make tough choices about what it can and cannot do, offers Mr. Saunders of the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization.

“The answer," he said when asked how the Park Service should react to Sandy, "is inventorying, monitoring, and planning, and designing. It is a question not just of climate change, but of the budgetary climate. Climate change is going to drive costs up, and in the near to mid-term, the budget is going to be getting tighter at the federal level. So it is just not going to be possible to repair every instance of damage to park resources.

“Especially given that, the answer's to do what the Park Service always needs to be doing, but focus it on climate change. Identifying resources that are vulnerable, that are most important to a park, developing plans to protect them ahead of the impacts, and figure out how you’re going to respond once the impact occurs," added Mr. Saunders, who served as deputy assistant secretary of the Interior Department over the Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service during the Clinton administration.

At the NRDC, which collaborated with Mr. Saunder's organization to produce last summer's report on climate change and the national seashores, Theo Spencer, who focuses on climate change, said the Park Service has no choice but to adapt its operations to climate change as it moves forward.

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Hurricane Sandy's winds and waves peeled up paving stones at Liberty Island. NPS photo.

“The past is no longer prologue, I think that’s pretty clear. Especially after Sandy. I think that the Interior Department and the Park Service are going to be looking at things through a new kind of lens, which is one where they’re going to be seeing more extremes in weather," he said.

That said, the agency likely will encounter political pushback on some matters, said Mr. Spencer.

"With the example of the greater New York area ... you have the option of building a $10-$20 billion storm gate rather than doing wetlands restoration or other initiatives like trying to build up reefs and other things that would slow down the impacts of storm surges," he said. "It’s much more cost-effective to do what is essentially natural replenishment, but I don't know if politically it’s going to be possible."

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Storm waters knocked out the pumps that drive the fountains at the World War II Memorial's Wall of Stars. Stephen Brown photo.

All Parks Need To Prepare For Climate Change

Though the Park Service in general seems to be moving in the right direction on climate change, some parks aren't doing as thorough a job as they could, said Mr. Saunders.

“What we really need to be doing is just factoring climate change into all the park planning. More really than inventing a new type of planning, I would say. It will certainly change dimensions and focus over the planning efforts, it should," he said. "Let me stop and say we’re just beginning to do these kinds of things, and the record so far is very uneven. Canaveral (National Seashore) did not bear the brunt of this storm, but certainly could (see impacts from) other storms. They’re working on a new (general management plan), and the draft essentially ignores climate change.

“It varies a lot, superintendent by superintendent, for sure," Mr. Saunders said. "And (general management plans) are done not just by the parks, but by the national planning staff. Canaveral was one of the last ones to get through a draft, if you will, before the new regime and the new orientation began to take effect. I am hopeful that they will make substantial revisions before finalzing the draft. But in that report ... there were some embarrassingly cursory mentions of climate change. But really nothing that amounts to any assessment of what the effects could be on that park."

At Assateague, where officials are more thoroughly tackling climate change in their GMP, "they're doing a great job," he said. "Part of that is you’ve got a superintendent there who is very much into (climate change), very much aware of it. They are in the GMP process looking at a future that may not include the access across the Verrazano Bridge to the Maryland unit of the park.”

When it comes to park planning and climate change, continued Mr. Saunders, NPS managers also need to look beyond their borders, because ecosystems often lap over park boundaries. Lands inside and out of parks are needed for plants and animals to migrate along in response to climate change impacts.

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A breach in the West Pond at the Jamica Bay Wildlife Refuge at Gateway NRA led to a mixing of sea water and fresh water, something that could pose problems for migratory waterfowl. NPS photo.

"We need to be thinking about this in some fundamentally different ways. But at the root it really is about park planning as parks have always done it. Just dealing with new threats and issues," he said.

In short, agreed NRDC's Mr. Spencer, it can't be business as usual in the parks.

“I think the Park Service needs kind of a master directive to look at these impacts and make decisions going forward that take climate change into consideration," he said. "And that means parks aren’t going to be the same, they’re going to be different. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the visitor experience will be significantly damaged or the parks will be less beautiful. It’s just that we’re in a new reality and financial decisions have to be made accordingly.”

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DOI Sustainability Plan.pdf676.72 KB