As a teenager growing up in California, I was pretty heavily involved with backpacking, climbing and backcountry skiing. School holidays were spent in Yosemite, the eastern Sierra and at Joshua Tree National Park. Through the Boy Scouts I learned how important it is to “be prepared.” While being prepared in those days often meant hauling around a 50-pound backpack, taking the lesson to heart ultimately gave me confidence in my ability to adapt to changing conditions in the backcountry.
Forty years later, I find that being the superintendent of Glacier National Park has given me a new appreciation for what it means to be prepared. Certainly my responsibilities managing one of the country’s iconic national parks, overseeing up to 450 employees during the summer season and more than 2 million visitors a year, are more complex. But Glacier National Park is a landscape that is changing—its shrinking glaciers and reduced habitat for sensitive alpine species like whitebark pine and the diminutive pika are observable and well documented. Some climate change research indicates that we will be experiencing a “no-analog future,” meaning one with climate patterns and ecosystem shifts that have not occurred in recorded history. There is no doubt that Glacier National Park will continue to be a wondrous and amazing landscape once the glaciers themselves are gone, but what other changes will there be to the ecosystem, to our facilities, and to our ability to provide our visitors with a meaningful and quality experience?
Before moving to Glacier I spent 22 years in Alaska working in and managing national parks. During my time there I witnessed some pretty incredible short-term changes. At Kenai Fjords National Park we spent every summer extending the trail out to Exit Glacier in an attempt to keep up with its retreat. In 2013, Alaska saw record-breaking high temperatures for the month of May followed by more record-breaking heat in June. I have come to describe this kind of crazy weather pattern as if someone has cranked the dial on the weather so that when it’s cold it’s really cold, when it’s warm it is really warm, and when it rains it comes down in buckets.
In the short time that I’ve been here, northwest Montana has had its own unusual variability. I’ve heard from several long-term residents about the intensity of this past winter’s cold spells, winds, and the unusually high snowfall—approximately 150 percent of a normal season’s snowfall. Because of some persistent weak layers in the snowpack, we saw some unprecedented avalanche activity by late winter. Not only do these conditions affect winter recreation, they also affect railroad operations around the park, and we anticipate they will challenge the park’s summer plowing efforts on the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Twenty-six years ago I spent more than two weeks cutting fireline on the Red Bench fire along the North Fork of the Flathead River. At 38,000 acres, the Red Bench fire was considered a large blaze. In March, I attended an agency administrator’s wildfire training class in Arizona, where we studied the nature of firefighting today and the responsibilities I might have to take on should a large fire occur in or near Glacier National Park. We learned that the size of fires today has increased dramatically and their behavior has become more extreme due, in part, to hotter and dryer weather trends. In the last five years there have been numerous fires nationwide that are three to four times the size of Red Bench. A single fire in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest burned more than 300,000 acres in 2012. But sometimes it’s not just the fire itself that wreaks havoc. The following winter, significant damage occurred in the Gila when a 1,000-year flood event struck the area, ripping through a landscape made unstable by the loss of vegetation.
Another significant change is the objective of fighting these large fires. We can no longer hope to contain them entirely, but often have to focus on protecting particular resources within our domain, such as historic structures, personal property, or, in the case of the 2013 Rim Fire in Yosemite, irreplaceable resources such as the giant Sequoia trees.
Over the last decade I’ve found myself focusing on climate change adaptation, thinking about how I might manage a national park in the face of climate change and high levels of climate variability. I’ve given numerous presentations to other park superintendents about adaptation strategies, and in doing so have noticed the struggle many of them are having with developing management strategies that can successfully address the uncertainty associated with climate change.
There are proven strategies one can use for managing uncertainty. “Scenario Planning” is a term used frequently in the world of business and investment planning to manage uncertainty. It’s about considering one’s actions across multiple possible and divergent futures, as opposed to trying to forecast a single future. It’s something most of us do instinctively, like when we walk out the door and debate whether to take the Gore-Tex shell, pack the fleece or slather on sunscreen (or all three). Similarly, I believe the National Park Service can develop a greater degree of flexibility by using scenario planning as a way to develop plans and make decisions in the face of increased uncertainty driven by climate change.
Scenario planning will help, but it won’t take away the discomfort associated with climate change uncertainty. I once had a mentor who counseled a group of us to “embrace ambiguity.” We all had a good laugh when we heard that, but now I see its applicability to thinking about planning for the future. The future is always ambiguous, there is always a degree of uncertainty, and there is always a need to be adaptable. As I think about the future of the park, it’s clear that it needs to be managed in a way that allows it to be responsive to change—potentially massive change.
As I look at the next generations and the challenges and opportunities they’ll face, I recall something I heard in a presentation last year: “I won’t be able to give my children everything, but I want to make sure that they’ll be prepared for anything.” I think that’s an approach well worth adopting, both personally and professionally.