You are here

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.


Some who've commented are missing the point of the GAO report. Putting the issue of the cause of climate change aside for the moment, this report shows that field people in the NPS are lacking any guidance or consistency of approach on how to address the changes that are already being witnessed, and those that are projected to occur.

The NPS mandate by Congress, from the 1916 Organic Act, is to conserve the resources of the parks "unimpaired" for the "enjoyment of future generations." Federal courts have consistently ruled that this is a single mission, that the NPS must do both, but that the conservation mission is paramount because without conservation the enjoyment of future generations will be compromised.

So how does the NPS deal with climate change-induced effects in the parks, considering the "conserve unimpaired" mandate? Should park managers accept the changes as inevitable, try to artificially prop up species habitats to prevent their loss as the climate warms, establish refuges and transplant species to parks that might have more hospitable climates for vulnerable species, etc? Right now there is nothing in policy and, until recently, there has been little assistance from Washington to address this. If we are to have a national system of national park (and the Congress has also mandated that we think of it as a system with interrelated parts that contribute to the whole), then we should have a consistent approach. Not necessarily a cookbook where every park does exactly the same thing... but sideboards to guide local action, so we collectively move in the direction of conservation and avoid gross errors which may do more harm to the system and its components.

THAT is what the GAO report revealed... that consistency and guidance are lacking. The good news is that the workshop which GAO reported on began a discussion which is moving quickly now and many people from all over the NPS are involved in trying to determine what the policy guidance should look like. GAO usually just reports on what's happening, but this time their inquiry stimulated needed action.

NOW... back to the causes of climate change.

Here are some direct quotes from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Working Group I Summary for Policymakers released in February of this year (

**Global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide have increased
markedly as a result of human activities since 1750 and now far exceed pre-industrial values
determined from ice cores spanning many thousands of years. The global increases
in carbon dioxide concentration are due primarily to fossil fuel use and land-use change, while those of methane and nitrous oxide are primarily due to agriculture. (page 2)

**In this Summary for Policymakers, the following terms have been used to indicate the assessed likelihood, using expert judgment, of an outcome or a result: Virtually certain > 99% probability of occurrence, Extremely likely > 95%, Very likely > 90%, Likely > 66%, More likely than not > 50%, Unlikely < 33%, Very unlikely < 10%, Extremely unlikely < 5%. (page 3 footnote 6)

**Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea level. (page 5)

**Most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations... Discernible human influences now extend to other aspects of climate, including ocean warming, continental-average temperatures, temperature extremes and wind patterns. (page 10)

The IPCC report is considered to be a conservative, consensus document. Even the Bush administration accepts its findings. DOI has now established a climate change task force (perhaps stimulated by the GAO workshop) and Deputy Secretary of the Interior Lynn Scarlett on 6/25/07 said to the group (this is a paraphrase) that the administration does not question the scientific consensus put forth in the 2007 IPCC report that climate is warming and human activities are the leading cause. She went on to say that the task force should accept that and move forward with recommendations of how to reduce emissions and manage lands under climate change scenarios.

So… while the GAO report was critical, and it remains to be seen what will come of the DOI task force, there’s positive movement.

If only practical and effective solutions were that easy to implement. Environmental impact, usually in for form of irreversible damage, is the track record of man-made alterations to local geographies around the nation. Dams generate hydroelectric power in the southwest, at the cost of plant and animal habitats, allowing for exotic species to gain hold and further alter the terrain. Accidental introduction of zebra mussels and Asian carp threaten the eastern waterways. There are too many examples to list, encompassing agriculture sources, exotic plant species and a wide variety of mammalian, avian, aquatic and even bacterial life forms. None of these issues, though well documented, have been effectively managed, despite the agreement of various governing bodies that "something needs to be done before the landscape is forever altered".....and yet, we expect policy makers here to eradicate an issue that is global in origin, and while many of the contributors to the source of the issue simply aren't willing to "adjust" the internal consumption of raw materials that are utilized in developing their economic development?

Specific to the park system's ability or lack thereof to contemplate and effectively adjust for environmental modifications, in my opinion, no, they aren't equipped in any sense of the word. Financially they haven't the resources or manpower to enact effective changes. Informationally (or scientificially) they haven't the data to plan effectively. Say what you will of the sources, that indeed is NOT the issue. Rate of change, past and anticipated, determine the best course of action, and a bit of research will show that rates vary by location due to multiple factor. So how quickly to act, where to act, and how MUCH to act become a complex issue. The evidence clearly shows some degree of environmental changes, but how the impacted species are responding without intervention is a relatively new and unfortunately poorly researched topic.

Talking politicians, there's a novel concept. Let's face it, the last time poilticians decided they HAD to do something was in response to the tragedy that was Spet. 11, and we're still living with the remnants of that whole debacle. The joke that is Homeland Security, an ineffective war that refused to target the real issues and ring-leader at the root of the attacks, thousands dead, billions wasted, no end in sight. And you somehow interpret through an opinion on one issue that I align myself with either party of nitwits that foster the spread of world-wide democratic tyranny? Democrat or Republican, you're a loser either way. Bill was no better than George, Ron was no better than Bill, John was no better that Dick. Honestly is not exactly a strong suit up on the Hill. And insofar as representing the constituents, unless there's money to be had, you should know better.

Finally, the "bogus" science that I represent....I should have known better than to inject chemical processes into this discussion. Mankind is indeed responsible, but to rest the blame SOLELY at the feet or industrial causes is simple not accurate. Kindly put, the largest contributor to the methane gas that is most responsible for the chemical reduction (again, not referring to the overall loss, but the process by which ozone is REDUCED, or molecules are split, chemically speaking) are domestic cattle. You've no idea, during the course of their digestive process, or the conversion of cellulose to enegry, the volumes of this gas are produced and released into the environment. Yes people, cow farts, along with other species of the ruminant family. As these populations have exploded into "third world" areas with the encouragement of the US during the past century, coupled with slash and burn farming techniques, general deforestation, leading to the current situation of the planet's inability to effectively "compost" our man-made gasses, maybe you can get a better sense that this simple solution of reducing one variable of an equation does not balance the equation. The entire point was that if not done carefully, changing on side increases the value of the other. Basic algebra. Now I'm REALLY in trouble.......But I NEVER said that things should remain status quo. And again I never pretended to be a proponent of EITHER side of this issue. Bush and Gore have about as equal an chance at being right. Their motives are both definately questionable, and neither is a shining poster-boy for their team. That is why I encourage your own personal investigation, preferably incorporating multiple sources that are not sponsored by dollars generated from left or right-wing special interest groups. And careful of the G-8 studies, they have a particular stake in this as well. But there are MANY independent international reports done with "good" science, as opposed to my allegedly "bogus" made-in-the-USA science, which merit further reading. The simple fact is there is no quick fix to this situation. Glaciers cannot regenerate overnight, sea temperatures are notoriously fickle, and land masses do not change from grassland to desert in a generation. Action is indeed required, by a measured response is cautioned lest greater damage befall the entire system. If that be the case, then we are indeed, as a species, screwed. THAT is what I'm trying to avoid. And if it be true that we're screwed already, as some would have you believe, then a slow demise should be or goal. Don't turn up the heat and burn the house down just because it's already on fire.

Lone Hiker, good points and well taken but that does not satisfy my curiousity why you didn't blame this all on the cockroachs (emiittance of huge amounts of methane gas). In jest!
However, in all this being said by you, don't you agree that Al Gore has taken the right steps to prepare us for unimaginable consequences of doing NOTHING about global warming. I don't see him as a alarmist in the slightest degree, but as a concerned private citizen who wishes to present the argument that something should be done about global warming. At least he has brought the ball to Bush's court who dribbles away from the issue (and whom has turned a deaf hear...but listens well to corporate money...that is the big polluters!). I have profound grievances against the Bush & Cheney Administration for there inability to work in earnest with world leaders to enact (and mandate) a policy for carbon negative...instead they opt to run the clock out with bureaucratic paper wrangling and public spiel of nonsense on the issue of global warming. Hopefully, the next administration will do a far better job and have the courage and dedication to foster a holistic and comprehensive policy with world leaders on the subject of global warming. I have spent 45 years working outdoors (in the parks) and I see my backyard slowly dying. That's why I truly believe Rachel Carson and Al Gore did something that is RIGHT!


I'm not particularly enthralled with the prospects for the future either. And to Jr. Ranger, I have six of my own who I am most concerned about, but to claim that the old farts aren't doing anything and the younger generation is spearheading the movement isn't at all accurate. Maybe due to having lived through other global issues, the threat of nuclear meltdown between nations, exploding populations, dwindling resources, and other events have lead a certain segment of the population to what I refer to as a more measured response. Yes, things need to be changed, but as I mentioned, change to what degree, where, and how? First, when you're figuring on changing things globally, it can't in all praticality be done quickly. Mankinds record on our knee-jerk reactions reads like a list of the "Greatest Debacles in the History of Earth", and maybe that is something that more people need to be aware of prior to demanding instant change. Second, we as a country still tend toward this topic as a political, not social issue. Sadly, by the time attitudes change it may indeed be too late. In our system of geovernment, rarely is anything undertaken, no matter how socially important, without profits driving the equation. One possible answer is to learn how to generate billions by cleaning up our collective act, then at least the econimic engine will drive the solution to it's proper end. Lastly, I under NO circumstances suggest that cattle are solely responsible. Methane is a byproduct of numerous processes in our environment. But the study that I referred to was independently commissioned by a "non-political" entity, that is, someone OUTSIDE of this country with no agenda to follow. The numbers are quite staggering in terms of total output, and the reductive capability of this gas is not to be questioned.

Al Gore is correct in bringing this issue to light, but was hardly the first to promote environmental change. I suggest that he also promote behavioral change, and start walking the walk as he encourages the general public to do. As a leader, you're totally ineffective unless examples are set and followed. Just ask "W"......

Amen vink80! I could not have said it better!

The last time that it was a widely accepted notion of science that nature was something that remains in a fixed and unchanging state was when Aristotle was tutoring a young and impressionable Alexander the Great.

I'd like to see everyone that is so hell-fired sure that humans are causing global warming to start walking the walk. I'd like to know when you're going to give up your cars and stop using your energy consuming electronic devices and stop taking all those unnecessary treks to national parks using internal combustion power.

Why don't we all go live in caves again and crap on the ground. This whole issue has more to do with those among us with a deep seated disdain for modern life and the supposed miseries it visits upon poor old Mother Earth. It has little to do with hard science. It has more to do with imposing restrictions on human freedom than with any concrete evidence that it will save the our sacred mother from her delinquent and thoughtless children.

I'll make a prediction: the earth is going to get cooler in the next ten years. I mean it! The earth is going to be a colder place by 2017. Anyone willing to place a bet? I'm as confident as Julian Simon was in betting Paul Ehrlich back in 1980.

In the meantime Al Gore needs to stop eating meat (what with all this cow farting going on) and stop traveling by Lear jet. I know, I know, he bought his carbon offsets from the officially sanctioned Church of Environmental Salvation but he really should start setting a better example for those of us who don't have access and the spare cash to tithe to such exalted and rarefied institutions.

So what's your take on the IPCC's finding that it's 90% likely that humans are causing/have caused observed climate changes?

I don't think concern about global warming necessarily equates to disdain for modern life; rather, it's founded in disdain of waste and pollution and a concern for those who come after us. And it takes more than giving up one's car to "walk the walk". Fossil fuels are involved in everything we consume and use from food to plastics to telecommunications. It's virtually impossible not to consume fossil fuels in one way or another, but that shouldn't mean that anyone concerned about climate change should be labeled a hypocrite. It's about recognizing a potential problem and working to fix it from the inside; it's not about living in a cave. The system can only be changed from the inside since that is where we all operate.

And listen, there are far greater reasons in my opinion to wean ourselves from fossil fuels other than global warming including ozone pollution, volatile chemical emissions, 45000+ deaths a year from accidents, wars over oil, oil spills, habitat destruction, and so on. If climate change, actual or possible, is the impetus for making that break, then so be it.

I fully understand your sentiment that I'm either completely off my nut or some other such metaphor, and that the flatulence issue was something I invented to justify an opinion. For any and all interested parties, I suggest that your view a news article from the Associated Press, 9/12/07

Wed Sep 12, 9:06 PM ET
LONDON - Eating less meat could help slow global warming by reducing the number of livestock and thereby decreasing the amount of methane flatulence from the animals, scientists said on Thursday.

I again realize that this is just one study in many of your eyes, especially since I proposed no hard data in my initial writing to substantiate my position. However, this is hardly the first paper to position itself along the lines of environmental scientists who have noted and measured (don't ask how, use your imaginations) the averages, increases and projected the trend over growing population consumptions, etc. For the full article, consult your local AP-Science website. I don't like giving links, it's almost like advertising. And I think people learn better when they work at it just a bit. Just a little more food for thought, as it were.......

And Frank, trust me, we'll take up the whole fossil fuels issue at a more opportune time. But "Big Oil" and I aren't real happy with each other either.....especially with the advent of certain high-tech polymers that are having their patent submissions suppressed, and that would lend a dramtic reduction to our plastics consumption.
But like I said, another time.

Add comment


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide