IN 1979, ALFRED RUNTE ADVANCED THE WORTHLESS-LANDS THESIS (Runte 1979). This loosely posits that the National Park System comprises lands with low economic, and subsequently low ecological, value. The concept is controversial in some respects, but many alpine researchers have acknowledged the “rock and ice problem” in national parks. Certainly, scenic alpine vistas are overrepresented in national park units compared with low-elevation areas with higher primary production, species diversity and richness, and complex ecosystem structure. The National Park Service has a unique chance to use the rock and ice problem as an advantage in understanding climate change, which might be the greatest challenge scientists and society have ever faced (Speth 2005).
Cartographer: Jacob Tully, Western Washington University, Geography Department.
Figure 1. National Park System units in the western conterminous United States contain extensive alpine areas and span maritime-to-arid ecosystems over a dozen degrees of latitude. As part of a suite of high-elevation, protected areas, extensive alpine sites adjacent to park boundaries are managed by the USDA Forest Service and other agencies. Projection: Albers Equal Area Conic, NAD 83. Data sources: USDA Forest Service, National Park Service, ESRI, U.S. National Atlas.
The fundamental physics of an enhanced greenhouse effect due to fossil fuel combustion is well understood, and Earth is warming (IPCC 2007). Considerable uncertainty exists regarding the impacts of climate change, but high latitudes and high elevations are thought to be leading indicators of future trends. The suite of high-elevation lands protected by the National Park Service is ideal in terms of documenting and monitoring the physical, .oral, and faunal impacts of climate change. Indeed, the network of alpine lands managed by the Park Service in the mountainous western United States spans maritime-to-arid ecosystems over a dozen degrees of latitude (fig. 1, above). The web grows even farther if we consider alpine park units in Hawaii, Alaska, and the eastern United States. It is a network that has no other analog and offers unparalleled opportunities for global change monitoring.
Bunn, A. G. 2009. The rock and ice problem in national parks: An opportunity for monitoring climate change impacts. Park Science 26(1):17–21.
Available at http://www.nature.nps.gov/ParkScience/archive/PDF/Article_PDFs/ParkScience26(1)Spring2009_17-21_Bunn_2612.pdf.