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September 2007

The Impact of Climate Change on Florida’s Everglades, Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias

What do Florida's Everglades and Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias have in common? Both face uncertain futures as temperatures rise.

THAT’S ABOUT THE SAME AMOUNT of time we have before the National Park Service’s Centennial. In the event that we can’t get a handle on emissions by then–a real possibility–we’ll need to transform our thinking about parks. We’ll need to discover new ways to preserve our most cherished wild places and their inhabitants in a way that the current system does not.
These are hard ideas to get your head around. It’s possible that Everglades, Joshua Tree, and other fabled parks could lose their signature features–or simply cease to exist. Already, even preserves such as Wrangell-St. Elias, Everglades, and Yellowstone continue to lose biodiversity at a rapid pace, despite their large size and protected status. With up to 40 percent of the planet’s species endangered, more of conservation’s status quo–sustainable development, wilderness protection, community-based land preservation–isn’t likely to preserve biodiversity into the next century.

To safeguard our wilderness from climate change, we may need to replace the concept of national parks–which Wallace Stegner so famously called the best idea America ever had–with one better-suited to these extreme times. We may need to give up our cherished notion of national parks as permanent preserves with immutable boundaries and unalterable environments.

One ecosystem-wide approach embraced by conservation ecologists is that of reconnecting remaining wildernesses through corridors, on a continental scale. The Wildlands Project, as it is known, calls for “rewilding” North America through four big megalinks: along the Pacific via the Sierra Nevada, along the Rocky Mountains, across the Arctic and boreal forests from Alaska to Labrador, and along the Appalachian Mountains. The project calls for core protected areas to be connected by public and private lands that would provide safe passage for wildlife. Vegetated overpasses would allow wildlife to cross between wilderness areas split by roads, and private landowners would be encouraged to maintain critical pathways. Similarly, a network of protected marine areas could provide migration corridors from southern Florida north along the Gulf and East Coasts, to allow marine species to reach cooler water. Many conservation biologists believe such “megapreserves,” modeled on a deep scientific understanding of continent-wide ecosystems, are our best hope for arresting species extinction.

CERTAINLY, PARKS WERE a farsighted investment, made by people who were thinking of their great-grandchildren–us–when they decided to put a few places aside, knowing that we too would have a deep need for wild places. In an era when Americans were proving that we could tame just about any landscape on earth, some forward-thinking people had the wisdom to leave a few alone.
But national parks weren’t just a one-time investment; they are assets that were entrusted to us to maintain and reinvest in, lest they lose their value. Now that the pace of life has sped up, we need the solace that their natural environments offer more than ever. Each year, the United States loses three million acres of open space to housing developments, malls, fast-food joints, and golf courses. One chunk at a time, the wilderness slips away, which makes the land protected by parks ever more valuable. Will I be able to pass along these timeless jewels, and the values inherent in them, to my own children and grandchildren? When all is said and done, will I be able to tell Charlie and Joe that we did our best? Or will my generation go down as the one that squandered the wilderness we inherited?

“Wilderness is an anchor to windward,” said Senator Clinton P. Anderson in 1963. “Knowing it is there, we can also know that we are still a rich nation, tending our resources as we should–not people in despair searching every last nook and cranny of our land for a board of lumber, a barrel of oil, a blade of grass, or a tank of water.”

But now: floods, fires, pestilence. Are we falling into the sort of desperation that Anderson warned about, spending countless billions to build new roads and coal-fired power plants, digging ever deeper for offshore oil, importing our manufactured goods from countries with few environmental safeguards–and thereby sowing the seeds of destruction of the wild, untrammeled places that helped to define us?

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