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Michael Bean

As the National Park Service turns 100 this week, many parks will be celebrating the great strides that have been made in conserving magnificent landscapes, sharing our nation’s diverse stories, and providing recreation activities for all Americans. But as the candles are blown out and helium dissipates from the balloons, we are left facing what could be the greatest threat to our parks and other public lands—climate change.

The National Park Service Centennial is a time of great celebration. But as we laud the past 100 years, we must acknowledge that the next century will present grave challenges to the magnificent places that make up the world’s greatest system of national parks.

One need look no further than Glacier National Park to see the devastating impacts of climate change. On Thursday—the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service—U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell will tour the park with scientists and stakeholders to see firsthand how climate change is affecting park resources.

Giant masses of ice—the park’s namesake—are melting at an alarming rate. According to some analyses, by 2020 the glaciers will be significantly melted and could disappear within one or two decades.

The effects of climate change can be seen at natural and historic parks across the nation—from sea-level rise affecting the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor to ecosystems being disrupted in the Florida Everglades.

Earlier this summer, President Obama addressed a crowd at Yosemite National Park and called climate change the biggest challenge we’re going to face in protecting places like the iconic park. He pointed to alpine meadows drying up, wildlife ranges shifting due to rising temperatures, the park’s largest glacier melting and wildfires increasing.

The Park Service is trying to answer the call.

Glacier is conducting research and making changes in park operations to reduce emissions of greenhouse gasses and help ecosystems adapt. As an official Climate Friendly Park and a leader in the National Park Service’s efforts to combat global climate change, Glacier continuously strives to seek out new ways to make operations more efficient and sustainable.

A nationwide strategy of communication, mitigation and adaptation to climate change has also been adopted for the entire Park Service.

A 2015 National Park Service study found that 118 parks were vulnerable to sea-level rise due to climbing global temperatures. Much of the infrastructure and many historic sites in the parks face a high risk of sea-level rise that imperils park assets worth billions of dollars.

These parks include popular beaches which will serve as vacationing spots this month—national seashores offering retreats for millions of Americans—from California to Cape Cod down to Florida and Texas.

Help is also coming from the Department of the Interior’s U.S. Geological Survey through a new joint report with the Park Service. It will evaluate how widespread the trend of earlier Spring has become. In mountain parks like Glacier and North Cascades in Washington, an earlier Spring means reduced snowpacks and changes in the timing and amount of stream flow, which affect terrestrial and aquatic species of wildlife as well as recreational opportunities such as cross-country skiing and fishing.

Climate change is inarguably the highest mountain the Park Service will have to climb in its mission to preserve public lands for future generations. But the initiatives currently in place and those being developed for the future are building a foundation for action. These are the building blocks for efforts that will allow our grandchildren’s children to visit Glacier National Park and marvel at the magnificent icy formations for which the place was named.

Michael Bean is the principal deputy assistant secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

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