National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis.

(AP Photo/File)

Editor's Note: This story is part of a long term reporting project from CPR News that explores how climate change is affecting Colorado, what's being done to address those changes and more. 

The National Park Service is 100 years old this month, and it faces some real challenges: money, maintenance and how to attract more diverse visitors. In June, President Obama visited Yosemite to say a bigger issue looms.

"The biggest challenge we're gonna face in protecting this place and places like it is climate change," President Obama said. "Make no mistake, climate change is no longer just a threat. It's already reality. Here in Yosemite, meadows are drying up; bird ranges are shifting farther northward; alpine mammals like pikas are being forced further up slope to escape higher temperatures."

Here in Colorado, wildfires pose a threat to the Cliff Dwellings at Mesa Verde and warming lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park may kill off aquatic life. Jonathan Jarvis, the Director of the National Park Service, spoke with Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner.

On how climate change will change how the National Parks are managed:

"So for our first 100 years, the basic concept upon which National Parks are managed is that you let nature run its course. You put back all the pieces that perhaps have been eliminated, like wolves back into Yellowstone or certain species of fish that may have been extirpated at some point. And you restore natural processes, like fire.

"You bring fire back into fire dependent systems and if you save all the parts; the working assumption is that you have the closest thing to a natural system as possible. But now that we know that climate change is human-caused and it is affecting that system, that upsets that basic framework upon which parks have been managed."

On what this means for the future of park management: 

"Well, it's not that you can't let nature take its course, it's more that we now have to recognize that the park is on a different course and it is being changed as a result of this human factor. We still want to take a very precautionary approach to that and not get in and do, you know, significant manipulation.

"But it may mean that now recognizing glaciers are disappearing from Glacier National Park, and that means that downstream waters may be warmer and different species of fish begin to come in. We have to be willing to sort of accept that rather than, you know, resist it, which was sort of where our policies would be now."

On linking parks to allow wildlife to more safely migrate to different areas of protection: 

"We're already doing that. I mean, I think one of the best examples in the United States is up in the sort of Front Range of the Rockies, sort of north to Glacier. And already after twenty, twenty-five years of very collaborative work with ranchers and foresters and the ag community and others, there are ways now that wolves and grizzly bears and other species can move across those landscapes, in spite of the fact that many of them are still privately-owned and being used for cattle grazing and others. This is how, I think, we're going to really help sustain and help wildlife deal with climate change."

On how Colorado parks show the impact of climate change

"Rocky is a great example. I think that certainly snowpack...we have relied on for, you know, as long as any of us can remember; the snowpack is our storage. That's how we store water. We've relied on it. It's become less reliable, and that has all kinds of downstream impacts for the entire Colorado River Basin, all the way down to Mexico and the Colorado River itself. And that water, which serves both agricultural and municipal and wildlife resources is being changed before our very eyes. And so all of the Colorado National Parks have direct impacts to that, because they're all part of that same basin."

Read the transcript:

This is Colorado Matters from CPR News. I'm Ryan Warner. The National Park Service is 100 years old this month. It faces some real challenges: money, maintenance, how to attract more diverse visitors. But in June, President Obama visited Yosemite to say a bigger issue looms.

President Obama: The biggest challenge we're gonna face in protecting this place and places like it is climate change. Make no mistake, climate change is no longer just a threat. It's already reality. I was talking to some of the rangers here. Here in Yosemite, meadows are drying up; bird ranges are shifting farther northward; alpine mammals like pikas are being forced further up slope to escape higher temperatures. Yosemite's largest glacier, once a mile wide, is now almost gone. As we look ahead in the coming years and decades, rising temperatures could mean no more glaciers at Glacier National Park, no more Joshua trees at Joshua Tree National Park. Rising seas could destroy vital ecosystems in the Everglades, and at some point could even threaten icons like the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.

Warner: And here in Colorado as CPR News will report, wildfires pose a threat to the Cliff Dwellings at Mesa Verde, and in Rocky Mountain National Park, warming lakes may kill off aquatic life. We're going to start this coverage of climate change in the Parks with Jonathan Jarvis. He's Director of the National Park Service and he's on the phone with us from Washington D.C.. Welcome back to the program.

Jonathan Jarvis: Thank you, Ryan. It's great to be here.

Warner: Like the president, you have said climate change is the biggest challenge facing the National Park Service. Say more about why.

Jarvis: So I think that the climate change is the biggest challenge facing the National Parks in its second century because it basically challenges the paradigm upon which we have been managing for the first 100 years. Essentially we now see anthropogenic change driven by climate change to core resources; glaciers at Glacier National Park, Joshua trees in Joshua Tree. Fires are burning longer, hotter, and forests are not coming back in the same way. 

Warner: Anthropogenic, a fancy word for human-caused, that there's a human element to this.

Jarvis: Absolutely. Absolutely. I think the science is very clear that humans are causing the planet to warm and that is driving climate change.

Warner: And you talked about this changing the paradigm by which the National Parks are managed. What do you mean by that?

Jarvis: So for our first 100 years, the basic policy, concept upon which National Parks are managed is that you let nature run its course. You put back all the pieces that perhaps have been eliminated, like wolves back into Yellowstone or, you know, certain species of fish that may have been extirpated at some point and you restore natural processes, like fire. You bring fire back into fire dependent systems and if you save all the parts, the working assumption is that you have the closest thing to a natural system as possible. But now that we know that climate change is human-caused and it is affecting that system, that upsets that basic framework upon which Parks have been managed.

Warner: And so what is the new framework? What does it have to be? I guess simply that you can't let nature simply take its course, is that the change?

Jarvis: Well, it's not that you can't let nature take its course, it's more that we now have to recognize that the park is on a different course and it is being, that course is being,  changed as a result of this human factor. We still want to take a very precautionary approach to that and not get in and do, you know, significant manipulation, but it may mean that now recognizing, you know, glaciers are disappearing from Glacier National Park and that means that downstream waters may be warmer and different species of fish begin to come in, is we have to be willing to sort of accept that rather than, you know, resist it, which was sort of where our policies would be now.

Warner: That might strike someone as very passive. Are there ways in which you can be more active or proactive, given the certain inevitability of climate change? And maybe how would that relate to a place like Rocky Mountain National Park or Mesa Verde?

Jarvis: Well, it's a great question, Ryan, and I think that is exactly where we are headed. I can't say that we are there yet, but a good example in Rocky Mountain National Park, of course, is that, you know, with winters not being as cold as they were, we're seeing beetles in particular be able to live through the winter, and as a result have a much greater kill on the forest which then allows fires to burn more intensely and longer seasons. And that is ultimately going to change the forest structure in Rocky Mountain National Park. So we have to begin to anticipate and maybe even have to be more aggressive about replanting certain tree types in order to retain that forest type than perhaps we were in the past. So there is a little bit more requirement for management action in advance of this kind of thing, as well.

Warner: According to officials at Rocky, temperatures have increased by an average of 3.4 degrees over the last 100 years. They liken it to a fever at the park. I want to say that you, yeah, go ahead.

Jarvis: No, I was going to say, you know that the National Parks are often located in relatively extreme environments, high mountains, deep valleys, alpine meadows, those kind, those are the areas that we, scientifically, are seeing perhaps more dramatic effect and change from climate than other areas. And so the National Parks are both, you know, impacted by this but also maybe some of the most impacted environments that we have in the country.

Warner: And, in that way, National Parks are sentinels for climate change, would you say?

Jarvis: Absolutely. We sort of view them, you know, a little bit overused metaphor of the, as the canary in the coal mine. The Parks can be exactly that and that's why good science, long-term environmental monitoring is key to our overall approach to this, as well. So it's not all about adaptation. It's also about monitoring and really identifying these changes as they occur.

Warner: Before becoming the director of the National Park Service, you were in charge of a region in the West actually, and you've had a history of bringing together scientists and wildlife managers to tackle the question of climate change. And, as director, you brought together scientists, including a couple of Nobel Prize winners to come up with something called “Revisiting Leopold.” This was a twenty-six-page document and I'll just say by way of background that Leopold is Starker Leopold, forester, conservationist. What were the revelations in what they came up with?

Jarvis: So the scientific team who served as advisors to me revisited this concept of how we manage National Parks, and now their recommendations are, one, is that we should be managing in light of constant change which is somewhat unpredictable. The way we're interpreting that and we are writing policies around this is that we have to think of multiple futures for National Parks, not just one singularity that we are driving towards. That because climate is affecting it, we have to be thinking about things like sea level rise over the next 40 years and how do we logically begin to move our facilities out of that or adapt those facilities to sea level rise.

Warner: I'd like to talk a bit about wildlife and what it means for them if, for instance, it gets warmer and they head north to escape. They may go from a place that's a National Park to one that isn't. Let's talk about wildlife corridors and where wildlife goes in relation to National Parks. Of course they're not thinking, I'm at a National Park or I'm not, but that's clearly a question for wildlife managers, isn't it?

Jarvis: It absolutely is, Ryan. Great question. So what most of the scientists are telling us is as we think about climate change at the landscape scale, at the ecosystem scale, is that we need corridors of connectivity. We need migration corridors that are protected, that allow species to move between islands of protection. So the National Parks are one of those sets of islands. There are wilderness areas also on the U.S. Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management. There are state parks. There are lands that have conservation easements over them. So when you look at the landscape, there are refuges, shall we say, and with a small 'r', places for wildlife to go, but they've gotta get there. They've got to be able to move across a complicated landscape that is bisected by interstates and railroads and pipelines and other developments. So we are working across these landscapes right now to say, if a species is being driven by climate change, how is it going to get from point A to point B?

Warner: Could you foresee linking Parks in some regard?

Jarvis: Absolutely. Absolutely. And we're already doing that. I mean, I think one of the best examples in the United States is up in the sort of Front Range of the Rockies, sort of north to Glacier. And already, after twenty, twenty-five years of very collaborative work with ranchers and foresters and the ag community and others, there are ways now that wolves and grizzly bears and other species can move across those landscapes, in spite of the fact that many of them are still privately-owned and being used for cattle grazing and others. This is how, I think, we're going to really help sustain and help wildlife deal with climate change.

Warner: Couldn't that, though, lead to some political friction? Because what you're talking about really is a blending, right, of federal lands, state lands, private lands. You've pointed to the cooperation that can be there, but we also know that there's great tension in that regard, isn't there?

Jarvis: There's also tension over our public lands, always has been and probably always will be. But I think if you sit down across the table with the variety of interests on the ground, I think the one common theme that I've always found and I've spent most of my career in the West, is that people care about these places. They care about the resource. They care about their lifestyle. And if you can find a way that accommodates all of that, then you really have kind of a sweet spot that can then really serve both communities, the economy, and conservation all together. But it takes hard work. It takes sitting down across the table and finding that common ground.

Warner: We're speaking with the director of the National Park Service, that's Jonathan Jarvis, and, Director, what does it mean that there are quite a few elected members of Congress who don't believe that climate change, one, is linked to human behavior or, B, that it's necessarily a priority the country must deal with.

Jarvis: Well, I think that, you know, the challenge with climate change is it's pretty hard to get your arms around in terms of understanding how it impacts the individual. You know, it's well-documented in the scientific literature. There's consensus amongst the larger scientific community, internationally, the IPCC that climate change is real. So to me, it's not a political issue. It's a reality. The challenge is for the public to better understand it and how it could potentially affect them personally. And that's part of our goals, as well, is that the National Parks are places that people really care, they care about Rocky Mountain National Park or Mesa Verde. And so without pointing fingers at anybody, one of our goals is to educate the public about what climate effects are happening right now, on the ground, in the places that they care about. And, over time--

Warner: I mean, I guess, I, I guess I'm asking you to point the finger a little bit, specifically at Congress, many members of which--

Jarvis: You're not going to get me to go there. 

Warner: I wonder why not?

Jarvis: Because that's just not my role. That's--

Warner: Do you get frustrated by the fact that there are so many who don't absorb the facts and don't think that climate is a priority?

Jarvis: Well, I think it's, again, it's hard for people that don't feel that it's affecting their personal lives to get their arms around something as big as climate change. You know, a one-degree or a two-degree change, which we, the scientific community says is going to happen, you know, if you're, you know, you're living your life in suburban United States, you're like, so what, I'll just turn up the air conditioning, you know, not really realizing that those kinds of temperature changes globally can have all kinds of long-term cascading effects. And, you know, as the President pointed out, you know, this is something that our children are going to be living with probably through their entire lives, that as the planet warms, there will be all these cascading effects and we better start planning for it now.

Warner: Are there other examples of how Colorado's National Parks can help inform this discussion?

Jarvis: Well, I think, you know, you mentioned Rocky and Rocky is a great example. I think that certainly snowpack in all of our, Rocky Mountain National Park, certainly our Sierra Parks, you know, we have relied on for, you know, as long as any of us can remember, the snowpack is our storage. That's how we store water. We've relied on it. It's become less reliable, and that has all kinds of downstream impacts for the entire Colorado River Basin, all the way down to Mexico, and the Colorado River itself. And that water, which serves both agricultural and municipal and wildlife resources is being changed before our very eyes. And so, you know, all of the, all of the Colorado National Parks have direct impacts to that, because they're all part of that same basin.

Warner: And what role does the National Park Service play in, I guess in that case, water management?

Jarvis: Well, we typically tend to be in the high mountains and one is science and monitoring those effects and letting the public know directly what we're seeing on the ground at any, at any point. I mean, the Park Service has been relied upon for most of its 100 years as a trusted interpreter of complex systems. We talk about civil rights. We talk about the Civil War. We talk about the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and newly added the development of the Atomic Bomb. We can talk about climate change. And I think the public can learn about that and so, and we can point directly to what we are seeing on the ground in a place like Rocky Mountain or Great Sand Dunes or Dinosaur or any of the Colorado Parks.

Warner: I think climate change and its impacts lend themselves to a feeling of hopelessness. Are there bright spots in the park system?

Jarvis: Well, you know, Wallace Stegner said that the National Parks are the geography of hope. We're a very optimistic organization. The National Park Service I think is the only organization that I know of that's, its organic act says that these places are to be preserved for the enjoyment of future generations. So our mission is to preserve these places for those future generations, preserve them unimpaired, and we now know that that might be a bit of a challenge. But, regardless of climate change, Rocky Mountain National Park is still gonna be there. It's gonna be there and it's gonna be gorgeous. And it's gonna still have elk and it's still gonna have forests, but it's gonna change. And I think that the hope of that is that that place will still be there to inspire future generations, and we need to bring the public along with us as we go down this path of change and seeing things that might not necessarily look like they did in the past, but still will be extraordinarily inspirational.

Warner: Thank you so much for being with us. 

Jarvis: Thank you, Ryan.