Interview: NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis dishes on climate, politics, and watering giant sequoias
National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis calls climate change “the greatest threat to the integrity of the national park system that we’ve ever faced.”
In an exclusive interview with The Big Outside for my book on parks and climate change, he talks about how the National Park Service is responding to the climate threat, and the possibility of employing drastic measures like irrigating giant sequoia trees.
Jarvis, who began his NPS career in 1976 and took over as director in October 2009, oversees America’s 58 national parks and more then 300 other units of the park system at a time when scientists are learning more about the myriad threats posed by warming temperatures. Those include the expected disappearance of Glacier National Park’s glaciers within a decade; snowpack declining virtually everywhere and the sweeping impacts of that on rivers, recreation, and ecosystems; more, larger wildfires and invasive species devastating forests across the West; and the gradual inundation by rising seas of park lands from the Olympic coast to Acadia to the Everglades.
He says he began working on climate issues 20 years ago. Jarvis has served as a park biologist, chief of natural and cultural resources at several parks, superintendent at Craters of the Moon National Monument, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, and Mount Rainier National Park, and director of the Pacific West Region.
The Big Outside: Numerous national parks are trying to educate visitors about climate change. Visitors to Glacier, for example, can learn why the park’s glaciers are expected to disappear by around 2020. You’ve noted that, in sharp contrast with the previous administration, you are now permitted to talk about climate change. What is the Park Service’s role in the public conversation about climate?
JJ: “First and foremost is my willingness to say the National Park Service does have a role in climate change. My goal is for the public to understand that there are significant effects happening in the parks right now, and that they need to be aware of that.”
The Big Outside: Researchers and park employees that I’ve interviewed use terms like “tidal wave” in referring to the impacts of climate change on parks. What can realistically be done, given the breadth of these impacts?
JJ: “‘Tidal wave’ is not a very good metaphor for climate change—it’s not episodic, it’s going to be a creeping change. From the Park Service standpoint, we’ve just recently developed our climate response strategy, which has four components. One: the parks provide an extraordinary place to monitor climate change effects. Two: the NPS has to communicate what it’s learning and observing on the ground. The third piece to this approach is mitigation, reducing the carbon footprint of park operations. The NPS should be a leader in all aspects of recycling, alternative fuels, energy efficiency, and sustainable design and construction. Finally, the park system is going to scenario planning and seeing what places will be the most vulnerable and how to adapt. The new visitor center for the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor is designed for a three-foot sea-level rise, as an example.”
[The Big Outside Note: Read more about climate change and national parks, including the NPS Climate Change Response Strategy, at nature.nps.gov/climatechange.]
The Big Outside: There’s an impassioned debate among public-lands managers these days about how far to go to preserve vulnerable iconic species as ecosystems change drastically—whether, for instance, to “assist” migration by relocating species to habitats where they can survive, or to directly manipulate an ecosystem to preserve a species. What specific measures, if any, do you think should be taken along these lines?
JJ: “The Park Service is not into single-species management. Unlike the ESA (Endangered Species Act) or in some cases refuges set aside for one critical species, we strive for ecosystem integrity and saving all of the parks, even the non-charismatic species out there. I think it’s even more critical in these challenging times of climate change that we try to save all the parks.”
The Big Outside: What about the question that some have raised of irrigating giant sequoia groves in order to save them?
JJ: “There are iconic species, no doubt about it, that may require some heroic efforts on our part to maintain. It’s not like giant sequoias can migrate, and climate change may cause them greater stress in their present habitat. We are beginning to discuss things like assisted migration. I can’t say we’re ready to go there, though the peregrine falcon and California condor are examples (of similar strategies).”
[The Big Outside Note: Both the peregrine falcon and the California condor were endangered and recovered through active management—captive breeding and reintroduction to suitable habitats.]
“We may be faced with situations like irrigating the giant sequoias and transplanting them farther north in the Sierra. I think it’s inexcusable to lose them. We are going to be forced into heroic efforts with some species.”
The Big Outside: Does the climate crisis demand a different approach to managing parks, one that treats them as a part of a larger ecosystem rather than as individual preserves?
JJ: “If there’s any silver lining, climate change is forcing us to think and act at the landscape scale. No longer can we think of parks as islands. We have to be planning migration corridors, so species can migrate northward.”
The Big Outside: What other specific measures will the NPS take to address climate change?
JJ: “The NPS is pushing to completely fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which at its height in the past was $900 million; it now generates much more than that, but (the revenue) goes into the Treasury, and Congress decides how much funding LWCF gets. They may use some of that money to purchase connective land between parks (to create migration corridors).”
[The Big Outside Note: The LWCF was created by Congress in 1964 to use specific federal revenue sources to finance acquisition of public properties for recreation. In 1977, the fund’s authorization was increased to $900 million annually, but Congress has never given it more than $369 million, despite the fact that the fund’s revenues far exceed that amount. In 2010, Congress and President Obama authorized $38 million in LWCF funding, up from $27 million in 2009.]
The Big Outside: Let’s talk about one park that appears to be critically endangered. What do you think will become of the Everglades, most of which would be inundated by a 23-inch rise in sea level—which is at the lower end of projections of worldwide sea rise?
JJ: “We continue to work hard to restore the natural flows of freshwater into the Everglades. By restoring the Everglades’ natural water flow, you build in a stronger resiliency to sea-level rise. Some mangrove swamps will move in that system, but it’s not like it’s going to be an abyssal plain. It’s going to be changed.”
The Big Outside: What are your thoughts on the political impasse in Congress over taking action on climate change?
JJ: “Congress acts as the will of the people. One of the challenges of climate change is that it’s not well understood by the general public. There’s a lot of confusion about the difference between climate and weather. It hasn’t hit them personally yet. That’s one of the peculiar and unique aspects of the national parks—the parks provide an opportunity to show people the change that has occurred within their own lifetime, even between their last couple of visits.
“Lake Mead is at 38 percent (of capacity); the last time it was that low, it was being filled. At a Colorado River water users meeting at NPS, some people were telling me that Lake Mead may never fill again. The reality is that you may (someday) not be watering your lawn. This is not just an issue of wild lands. It’s going to hit you at home soon.”
The Big Outside: One prominent federal climate scientist told me he’s optimistic that what’s occurring can be a teaching moment for America. Where do you see room for optimism in the future of the parks under a new climate regime?
JJ: “A core value of the NPS is optimism. We don’t want to paint a bleak picture. The role for the national parks is to tell the American story, good and bad, and learn from it. We’ve told the stories of Japanese-American internment, slavery, civil rights, and now we’re called upon to tell this story as well.
“Just last year, we did 28 listening sessions around the country as part of America’s Great Outdoors. Eighteen of those were with youths—we didn’t allow anybody in the room who was over 25 but me. There is a lot of optimism among young people, but there’s also a strong dose of reality. They feel they’ve been handed a future that has a lot of challenges. But the young people I’ve talked to, urban and rural, very diverse, have a great deal of optimism.
“We need to help feed that optimism, (to demonstrate) that this country is capable of addressing this issue. We’re not going to stop climate change tomorrow, but we can help slow it down, adapt, lead the world, and preserve these extraordinary places.”