How the Parks of Tomorrow Will Be Different

America’s most special places will always be beautiful, but a warming climate forces us to accept that they can’t be frozen in time.

Photographs and Videos by Keith Ladzinski

Assateague Island National Seashore, which sits on a 37-mile-long sliver of land just off the coast of Maryland and Virginia, is gradually shuffling west. Over centuries, as hurricanes and nor’easters drive sand from its Atlantic beaches across the island and into its bayside marshes, the entire island is scooting closer to the coast.

“It’s neat, isn’t it?” says Ishmael Ennis, hunching against a stiff spring wind. “Evolution!” He grins at the beach before him. It’s littered with tree stumps, gnarled branches, and chunks of peat the size of seat cushions—the remains of a marsh that once formed the western shore of the island. Later buried by storm-shifted sand, it’s now resurfacing to the east, as the island shuffles on.

Ennis, who recently retired after 34 years as maintenance chief at Assateague, has seen his share of storms here. This national seashore, in fact, owes its existence to a nor’easter: In March 1962, when the legendary Ash Wednesday storm plowed into Assateague, it obliterated the nascent resort of Ocean Beach, destroying its road, its first 30 buildings, and its developers’ dreams. (Street signs erected for nonexistent streets were left standing in a foot of seawater.) Taking advantage of that setback, conservationists persuaded Congress in 1965 to protect most of the island as part of the National Park System. Today it’s the longest undeveloped stretch of barrier island on the mid-Atlantic coast, beloved for its shaggy feral ponies, its unobstructed stargazing, and its quiet ocean vistas—which have always been punctuated, as they are on other barrier islands, by impressive storms.

Surrounded by giant green anemones, a lone ocher sea star feeds on mussels and barnacles. Since 2013 sea stars along the Pacific coast have been dying in unprecedented numbers. Scientists suspect that warmer seas are weakening the species’ resistance to disease.

Scientists expect that as the climate changes, the storms will likely strengthen, sea levels will keep rising, and Assateague’s slow westward migration may accelerate. Ennis knows the island well enough to suspect that these changes are under way. Assateague’s maintenance crew is already confronting the consequences. On the south end of the island, storms destroyed the parking lots six times in 10 years. The visitors center was damaged three times. Repair was expensive, and after fist-size chunks of asphalt from old parking lots began to litter the beach, it began to seem worse than futile to Ennis.

High in the Sierra Nevada, floodlit giant sequoias tower into the night sky. They can live 3,000 years, but California’s historic drought has tested them. “We’re treating this drought as a preview of the future,” says ecologist Nate Stephenson.

A tinkerer by nature—he grew up on a small farm on Maryland’s Eastern Shore—he realized the situation called for mechanical creativity. Working with the park’s architect, Ennis and his co-workers adapted the toilets, showers, and beach shelters so that they could be moved quickly, ahead of an approaching storm. They experimented with different parking lot surfaces, finally arriving at a porous surface of loose clamshells—the kind often used on local driveways—that could be repaired easily and, when necessary, bulldozed to a new location. “It was a lot of what we called ‘Eastern Shore engineering,’ ” Ennis says, laughing. “We weren’t thinking about climate change. We did it because we had to.” He lowers his voice, mock-conspiratorially. “It was all by accident.”

Accidental or not, these modest adaptations were the beginning of something broader. The seashore is now one of the first national parks in the country to explicitly address—and accept—the effects of climate change. Under its draft general management plan, the park will not try to fight the inevitable: It will continue to move as the island moves, shifting its structures with the sands. If rising seas and worsening storm surges make it impractical to maintain the state-owned bridge that connects Assateague to the mainland, the plan says, park visitors will just have to take a ferry.

When Congress passed the act creating the National Park Service in the summer of 1916, it instructed the agency to leave park scenery and wildlife “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” The law did not define “unimpaired.” To Stephen Mather, the charismatic borax magnate who served as the first director of the Park Service, it meant simply “undeveloped.” Early park managers followed his lead, striving both to protect and to promote sublime vistas.

But the arguments began almost as soon as the agency was born. In September 1916 the prominent California zoologist Joseph Grinnell, writing in the journal Science, suggested that the Park Service should protect not just scenery but also the “original balance in plant and animal life.” Over the next few decades, wildlife biologists inside and outside the agency echoed Grinnell, calling for the parks to remain “unimpaired,” in ecological terms. But the public came to the parks for spectacles—volcanoes, waterfalls, trees you can drive a car through—and preserving them remained the agency’s primary concern.


GLACIER NATIONAL PARK PHOTO GALLERY

As the ocean absorbs some of the CO2 emitted by humans, its pH falls, making it more acidic. That can harm marine life—making it harder for species like mussels to form shells.

In 2009 Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis assembled a committee of outside experts to reexamine the Leopold Report. The resulting document, “Revisiting Leopold,” proposed a new set of goals for the agency. Instead of primitive vignettes, the Park Service would manage for “continuous change that is not yet fully understood.” Instead of “ecologic scenes,” it would strive to preserve “ecological integrity and cultural and historical authenticity.” Instead of static vistas, visitors would get “transformative experiences.” Perhaps most important, parks would “form the core of a national conservation land- and seascape.” They’d be managed not as islands but as part of a network of protected lands.

The report is not yet official policy. But it’s the agency’s clearest acknowledgment yet of the changes afoot and the need to manage for them. Exactly what that management looks like isn’t certain, and much of it will be worked out park by park, determined by science, politics, and money. Some parks have already gone to great lengths to resist change: Cape Hatteras National Seashore, for instance, spent almost $12 million to move a famous lighthouse a half mile inland. But such dramatic measures are rare and likely to remain so; the Park Service budget today is about what it was in 2008.

Instead, many parks are looking to boost their tolerance for change, adapting their own infrastructure and helping their flora and fauna do the same. At Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, scientists are searching the oak savannas for cooler microclimates into which the Park Service might transport the endangered Karner blue butterfly, which has been all but driven from the park. In Glacier, biologists have already captured bull trout and carried them in backpacks to a higher, cooler lake outside their historic range. The idea is to give the fish a refuge both from climate change and from invasive lake trout.

At Sequoia, Stephenson wants park managers to consider planting sequoia seedlings in a higher, cooler part of the park—to see how the seedlings fare, and also how the public would respond to experimenting with the icons. “We have to start trying things,” he says.

CAPE HATTERAS NATIONAL SEASHORE PHOTO GALLERY

At Assateague, while Ennis’s successors prepare the parking lots and toilets for change, Liz Davis, the chief of education, is preparing the park’s younger visitors. In 25 years at Assateague she has introduced countless school groups to the seashore. When elementary students visit, she takes them to the beach, shapes a model of the island out of sand, and throws a bucket of seawater across it to show how the island shifts. Then she turns the model over to the kids: Where would they put the parking lots and campgrounds? How about the visitors center? “They get really into it,” she says, laughing. “They’ll say, No, no, don’t put the new ranger station there, it’ll get washed away!”

Like the Park Service, visitors must learn to accept that their favorite park might change. “People ask, ‘Will I still be able to enjoy it? Will my kids and grandkids be able to enjoy it?’ ” Davis says. “The answer is yes, they will. They might not enjoy it in the same way, and they might not get here the same way. But they will still be able to enjoy it.”

Discuss this article

Newsletter

Never miss a Nat Geo moment

Your email address
Submit