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Yellowstone's Future: Where Will Climate Change Take the Park?


    I long have focused on, and railed about, how our national park system is being slowly altered by the Bush administration's politics and its perceptions as to what constitutes fun and enjoyment in the parks. Sadly, more motorized recreation, more commercialization and privatization, fewer employees and dollars, more approaches to bring "new" forms of recreation into the parks all seem to be the driving forces of this administration's Interior Department and National Park Service. 
    All those things no doubt have an impact on the face of the national park system and, more importantly, on the underlying structure that long has endeavored to protect and preserve these wonderful places. Indeed, it's a daily fight against these efforts to recast not just what the national park system is but what it means for those who value the parks and their landscapes for what they are -- their ecosystems, wildlife, vegetation, mountains, streams, meadows and forests, their vistas and scenery, their seeming ability to rejuvenate all who enter them.

    Collectively, that represents one aspect of the fight to preserve the national park system for future generations. Another battle is being waged, though, one that also threatens to change the face of the park system.
    It's a battle that many believe also is human-caused. It's called climate change, and its impact on the natural landscape cannot be ignored.
    In a thoughtful essay that appeared in the Denver Post on Sunday, conservation biologist Jonathan Adams suggests that the time has come to consider how Yellowstone National Park will appear in the future as climate change deepens its roots in the Earth and its functioning ecosystems.
    For instance, Adams points out, as temperatures continue to warm the park's current resident wildlife likely will undergo change in its components as some animals, birds and even vegetation slowly migrate north in pursuit of cooler temperatures.
    "Scientists expect species to shift ranges poleward in latitude and up in altitude, non-native species may invade new areas, and once-common species may go extinct while once-rare species may become common," he writes. "Whether humans -- including conservationists, business owners, policymakers and the people who live near Yellowstone -- foster or inhibit that movement of species and natural communities may well signal the future of Earth's wild places."
    This is big-picture stuff viewed through a focus on one incredible place. Sadly, left unchecked the impacts of climate change won't be constricted to one place. They are expected to sweep over all our landscapes. Polar areas will continue to warm, the tropics will become hotter and more arid, temperate zones will shrink.
    As Adams so clearly points out, society today has choices to make, choices that will greatly affect Earth and its ecosystems.
    "The precise impacts of climate change in any one spot on the map remain uncertain, and the key to both conservation and any thoughtful human development will be keeping options open for both development and shifting natural systems," he points out. "If we are careful, nature will find a new equilibrium as the climate changes. But signs are that we think of Yellowstone as having absolute boundaries -- land is either in the park and preserved, or not in the park and open for development. If we allow strip malls and condominiums to be built right up to the edge of the current park, when ecosystems need to shift they will have nowhere to go, and the result could be extinction of species or the collapse of whole ecosystems."
    Adams, author of "The Future of the Wild: Radical Conservation for a Crowded World," makes some good points that we all should mull. You can find his entire essay here.

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