Policy Update Jan 15, 2020

Letter in Support of Climate Science

NPCA submitted the following letter to members of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology ahead of the Jan. 15th hearing titled An Update on the Climate Crisis: From Science to Solutions 

The spectacular sites throughout our National Park System are not just ideal places to enjoy the wonders of nature and learn from pivotal events in America’s history. They are also critical hotspots for the scientific research needed to combat the growing threat of climate change. Our national parks continue to serve as living laboratories for scientists and resource managers, as well as places to teach the next generation of conservation leaders. The resources, accessibility, unspoiled nature and remarkable geographic distribution of our national parks make them the greatest collection of study sites a scientist could ask for, especially at a time of environmental upheaval. Additionally, these beloved places capture the imagination and inspire a strong, national conservation ethic.

Yet an appreciation for hard-earned science has dropped sharply in our current political climate, in ways that could profoundly harm the parks and cause damage to the integrity of science. The Trump administration has proposed devastating cuts to science-based agencies, most recently, for example, a 12 percent cut to the National Science Foundation and a 12 percent cut to the Institutes of Health. Science has no political agenda; it is a process that explores how to best answer questions through a carefully structured approach, has an extremely rigorous set of filters, relies on carefully collected data and repeatable testing, and is subject to a grueling system of review. The polarized perception of science we are seeing today is inconsistent with the history of the National Park Service — and for that matter, the history of the United States.

When science is undermined, suppressed or misrepresented for political purposes,we all suffer the consequences. There are numerous examples of this; agency staff denied opportunities to share their research publicly, whole portions of reports removed before publication, agency staff told to remove mention of humans’ role in causing climate change.

This is coming at a time when there is no bigger threat to the future of our national parks than climate change. It is already destroying what these treasured places were created to preserve – our wilderness, history and culture. Temperatures in national parks are warming twice as fast as the rest of the country, threatening the very existence of namesake features at Glacier, Joshua Tree and Saguaro National Parks. Cape Hatteras National Seashore is eroding into the sea from rising tides, and Rocky Mountain National Park is experiencing record wildfires, scaring the landscape and devastating nearby communities and local economies. These places offer a view of climate change’s devastating impact on our land as 80 percent of our more than 400 national parks are currently experiencing changes in climate through extreme trends in temperature, precipitation or early onset of the spring season.

Just as national parks cannot survive in isolation and depend heavily on the matrix of habitat and ecosystems that surround them, parks also cannot survive without informed decision-making based on science. The way in which federal lands are managed comes from collaborative, joint and communal scientific resources that serve all bureaus of the Department of the Interior. As an example, protecting critically endangered species requires high quality data generated from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to inform management strategies and recovery plans within the National Park Service. Air quality data from the Environmental Protection Agency is crucial to helping national parks determine whether visitors will encounter haze and other safety concerns. The U.S. Geological Survey’s monitoring of wind, tide and currents contributes to the management of the 88 coastal national park sites that need to plan for recreation, infrastructure and the protection of resources from extreme weather events.

Science and scientific discovery have a surprisingly strong legacy in our parks. In fact, entire disciplines in science recognized around the world came from discoveries in our national parks. The theory of ecological niche, ecological succession, Carbon-14 isotopic research and the world’s longest running predator-prey study can be traced back to national park sites. Today, researchers are working actively in most park units, spanning all fields of science including light pollution, social sciences (visitor behavior), hydrology, fire ecology, climate change, and mammal and bird migration. And for over a century, the National Park Service has seamlessly collected scientific data that provides invaluable baseline information on the natural world shared with all other federal agencies. Scientists can better understand air quality in the Great Smoky Mountains, for example, because park staff have been analyzing the air at the park for decades, providing a rich understanding of how the environment is changing.

The integrity of science has never been more important to our National Park System than it is right now. Our public lands are the canary in the coal mine of climate change. How our parks can adapt to threats like climate change, wildfires, flooding or species loss relies heavily on whether the Park Service continues to have access to the best available science and information to make sound and informed decisions – so we may enjoy these places for generations to come.