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GAO: Interior Failed to Provide Park Service With Tools To Cope With Climate Change


This photo shows how much the Chaney Glacier in Glacier National Park has retreated since 1850. USGS photo.

Folks for some time have realized that there's something unusual going on with the climate, and whether you believe it's human-caused or naturally cyclical is besides the point. What's key is how we react to it. And the federal Government Accountability Office says the Interior Department has failed to adequately help the National Park Service react to those changes.

In a report issued this week the GAO says agencies need to develop guidelines for addressing the effects the changing climate is having on flora and fauna. Here's a snippet from the new report:

Climate change has already begun to adversely affect federal resources in a variety of ways. Most experts with whom we spoke believe that these effects will continue—and likely intensify—over the coming decades. Some federal resources, depending on a variety of factors, may be more vulnerable than others. Because this issue is long term, global, and may affect federal resources in a number of ways, it will require foresight on the part of federal agencies to prepare for and minimize the adverse effects of climate change. However, federal resource management agencies have not yet made climate change a high priority. BLM, FS, FWS, NOAA, and NPS are generally authorized, but not specifically required, to address changes in resource conditions resulting from climate change in either their resource management actions or planning efforts.

However, none of these agencies have specific guidance in place advising their managers how to address the effects of climate change in either their resource management actions or planning efforts. The resource managers with whom we spoke stated that in the absence of such guidance, they are unsure whether or how to take the effects of climate change into account when carrying out their responsibilities.

Such uncertainty may, as unanticipated circumstances arise, force resource managers to set their own priorities, which may be inconsistent with those of the agencies’ management and may result in misdirected efforts and wasted resources. Because there is growing evidence that climate change is likely to have wide-ranging consequences for the nation’s land and water resources, elevating the importance of the issue in their respective strategies and plans would enable BLM, FS, FWS, NOAA, and NPS to provide effective long-term stewardship of the resources under their purview.

The administration, of course, contends it has provided plenty of resources to the agencies. "The president has provided unparalleled financial investments for dozens of federal climate change programs, many of which are directed at adaptation and developing and deploying cleaner, more efficient energy technologies," says Kristen Hellmer, a spokeswoman for the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

According to the GAO report, climate change could have drastic impacts on national parks. For instance, its report points to the "(p)otential loss of national parks and forests with named features/species: for example, Glacier National Park (with no glaciers), Saguaro National Monument (with no saguaro cacti), Joshua Tree National Park (with no Joshua trees), and Tallgrass Prairie Reserve (with no tallgrasses)."

The report also questions the future of keystone species on public lands.

A species shift could have social ramifications, since park visitors value the experience of seeing species within the park. In some cases, federal land acquisition has been motivated by the presence of particular species, which may migrate to unprotected areas...

Climate change could impact other, less familiar, species as well.

An FWS fish biologist who studies and provides expertise on certain resources in Glacier National Park told us about a park species, the bull trout, that is at particular risk from climate change. The bull trout, listed as a threatened species under the ESA, is native to the western United States. It migrates in the spring from lakes and streams, such as Flathead Lake up the Flathead River system near the park, where it spawns in the fall in tributaries as far as 150 miles upstream. This fish is very sensitive to water temperature and clarity. Its spawning temperature range is 6 to 10 degrees Celsius (43 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit), and its young-rearing temperature range is below 16 degrees Celsius (61 degrees Fahrenheit). It is found in only the coldest streams. If temperatures increase, streams may become intolerable for the bull trout. In addition, if isolated glaciers disappear due to temperature increase, the mountain streams the glaciers feed may dry up late in the season, further reducing habitat. Therefore, the bull trout can only survive in a very limited area, and many of its migration corridors have been cut off as a result of ecosystem fragmentation

Despite the outward bleakness of this report, I think some progress is being made. Could more have been made? The GAO certainly thinks so. Here's a snippet from an Associated Press story on the GAO report:

The GAO said the Interior, Agriculture and Commerce departments have failed to give their resource managers the guidance and tools they need — computer models, temperature and precipitation data, climate projects and detailed inventories of plant and animal species — to cope with all the biological and physical effects from the warming.

"Without such guidance, their ability to address climate change and effectively manage resources is constrained," the report says.

At the Interior Department, officials pointed out to the GAO investigators that earlier this year Secretary Dirk Kempthorne had appointed a task force to look into climate change. That task force is, among other things, "examining how possible climate changes would affect disaster management, water resource management, and wildlife habitat management. It is evaluating new responses to manage our changing landscapes.

And over at the National Parks Conservation Association, the organization has been studying the problems climate change poses for the parks and earlier this summer issued a report, Unnatural Disaster: Global Warming and Our National Parks that offers some actions that can be taken today to ease the impacts. I discussed this report back in July.

The question now is whether Congress and the administration will pay attention to the GAO findings. You can find the report here.

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