Report: Droughts, Wildfires, Diminished Snowfalls Threatening America's Treasures

Washington (July 25, 2006) -- Global warming is threatening the health of Yellowstone, Yosemite and ten other national parks in the West, according to a report released today by the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Rising temperatures, prolonged droughts, severe wildfires and diminished snowfalls are likely to lead to extinctions of plant and animal species, flooding of popular beaches, losses of glaciers and snow-capped mountains, closures of parks from wildfire, and reduced recreational opportunities.

The report, "Losing Ground," also stressed that the worst of the predicted effects can be avoided if emissions of heat-trapping pollution is reduced compared to business-as-usual expectations and that state and regional leaders from the West and others around the country already are taking steps to slow, stop and eventually reverse global warming and should continue their efforts. The federal government must begin to significantly reduce our emissions within ten years, and cut them by more than half by mid-century.

"A climate disrupted by heat-trapping pollution is the gravest threat our national parks have ever faced," said Stephen Saunders, president of the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization and one of the report's principal authors. Saunders previously served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior over the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Some of the report's park-specific findings include:

  • Global warming has contributed to a bark beetle infestation that is endangering Yellowstone's whitebark pines, threatening to rob grizzly bears of a major food source.

  • Many plant and animal species may be eliminated from western parks, with mountaintop species the most vulnerable.

  • Glaciers and ice caves have melted in North Cascades and Mt. Ranier National Parks, and the majestic peaks of mountain parks across the West could be snow-free in summer within decades.

  • Joshua Tree National Park may be without their namesake trees, at risk of dying off completely within the park's borders due to increasing temperatures.

  • Temperature increases may make already-scorching parks like Zion National Park in Utah too hot to be visited.

  • The most popular beaches in the San Francisco area, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, are in danger of being flooded by a rising sea level.

The report identifies the 12 western national parks most at risk from the effects of climate change: Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico, Death Valley National Park in California; Glacier National Park in Montana; Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in Utah and Arizona; Golden Gate National Recreation Area in California; Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming; Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado; Mount Rainier National Park in Washington; North Cascades National Park in Washington; Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado; Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho; and Yosemite National Park in California.

More information and the report on the web at:

National parks in the East also are not immune to the effects of global warming, but those in the West are particularly vulnerable because the western United States has warmed at twice the rate experienced in the East over the past half century, and because water scarcity puts the environments of the West at risk from changes in temperature and precipitation. Reports released from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last week showed that the first half of 2006 was the warmest on record, including 11 states in the American West enduring much warmer temperatures than normal.

"The good news is that we have the technology and know-how to reduce global warming pollution," said Theo Spencer of NRDC. "State and local leaders are catching on that we need to save these parks and move towards a clean energy future. When will Washington hit the same trail?"

Bill Wade, the chair of the executive committee of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, said, "Our national parks have been less impacted by human activities than other lands in the American West. They, therefore, will serve as indicators of the changing health of our planet -- a kind of 'climate change canary in the coal mine.' This validates the reason for their establishment and underscores their continued importance."

In the absence of federal legislation curbing the emissions that cause global warming, political leaders from the American West are taking action. California has led the way on tailpipe emission standards for vehicles. State governments in California, Washington, Oregon, Arizona, New Mexico, and Montana are implementing or developing comprehensive plans to reduce their contributions to global warming.

Global warming is caused mainly by heat-trapping carbon dioxide pollution from cars and power plants. Scientists say that we need to level off emissions in the next ten years, and reduce emissions by half by the middle of this century to avoid the worst effects of global warming.

Note to reporters: Interviews with Bill Wade of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees and Dr. Jesse Logan, U.S. Forest Service (retired), who contributed the report's section on the vulnerability of grizzly bears in Yellowstone, can be arranged through Eben Burnham-Snyder at NRDC.