How national parks are experiencing the impacts of climate change and serving as the heart of landscape conservation

Senator Tom Udall and National Park Service Principal Climate Change Scientist Patrick Gonzalez discuss the importance of national parks in reaching the 30x30 goal

Lauren Bogard
Oct 16, 2020 · 6 min read

The Center for Western Priorities held its sixth stop on the Road to 30 virtual tour of states across the West to emphasize the importance of the bold proposal to protect 30 percent of America’s lands and water by 2030, known as the 30x30 initiative. The virtual event was co-hosted by the National Parks Conservation Association, and featured New Mexico Senator Tom Udall, National Park Service Principal Climate Change Scientist Patrick Gonzalez, and Matt Kirby, National Parks Conservation Association’s Director of Energy and Landscape Conservation, and focused on the impacts of climate change on our national parks and how parks can serve as hubs of conservation, connecting larger landscapes.

In conjunction with the event, the Center for Western Priorities and National Parks Conservation Association released a new storymap highlighting how national parks are the heart of landscape conservation. Coinciding with the Road to 30 virtual tour, the Center for Western Priorities has published a series of explainer blogs and interactive story maps delving into the important conservation roles played by National Wildlife Refuges, BLM’s National Conservation Lands, state parks, tribal land management, wildlife corridors, and an innovative conservation strategy called the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan.

Highlights from the speakers at the national parks event are shared below.

New Mexico Senator Tom Udall

Tom Udall, United States Senator for New Mexico: “Like so many Americans, my family and I have enjoyed — and made great use of — our nation’s public lands. I cherish the time I’ve spent at Canyonlands, Chaco Canyon, family rafting trips down the Colorado River, visits to the Grand Canyon, trips to Grand Teton National Park — all of them etched in my memory. But our outdoor treasures are in peril, as are the wildlife and ecosystems they support. Worldwide, we have lost two-thirds of monitored wildlife in the last fifty years and scientists are warning that one million species are at risk of extinction over the next decades. Here in the U.S., we are losing about a football field’s worth of natural area every 30 seconds. And this nature crisis is inextricably linked to the climate crisis we face: climate change causes habitat loss, and as we lose more and more habitat, we emit more greenhouse gas. That’s why I’ve introduced the Thirty by Thirty Resolution to Save Nature — to protect thirty percent of our lands and waters by 2030 — and more in the coming decades. Protecting, preserving, and restoring our public lands is a huge opportunity to make gains on our overall climate goals. And we must tackle climate change with everything we have and transition from fossil fuels to net zero carbon pollution using the principles of equity and justice to guide our work.”

Dr. Patrick Gonzalez in Yosemite National Park. Photo: Al Golub

Patrick Gonzalez, National Park Service Principal Climate Change Scientist, Associate Adjunct Professor at University of California, Berkeley: “The U.S. national parks protect some of the most irreplaceable natural areas in the world. Cutting carbon pollution from cars and power plants would reduce climate change and help protect our national parks for future generations.”

Matt Kirby, Director of Energy and Landscape Conservation at NPCA

Matt Kirby, Director of Energy and Landscape Conservation, National Parks Conservation Association: “Parks are the heart of connected landscapes. To protect our parks, our planet, and our people in the face of a changing climate, we need a plan to protect and connect more of America’s land and water. National parks are uniquely threatened by climate change, and are also uniquely capable of acting as natural anchors of protected lands that will help us achieve the goal of protecting 30% of our lands and waters by 2030.”

Jennifer Rokala, Executive Director of the Center for Western Priorities

Jennifer Rokala, Executive Director of the Center for Western Priorities: Scientists have urged us to protect at least 30 percent of our planet’s land and water resources as a necessary step to prevent the unraveling of the ecosystems that support all life on this planet. Mounting impacts of climate change are being felt across the country, and research shows that many of our public lands are being impacted more rapidly than the rest of the country. Climate change is driving longer and more intense wildfire seasons, decreased snowpack and water retention, drought, impacts on wildlife, extreme weather events, heat waves, and sea-level rise, all of which impact public lands such as national parks. Despite the administration’s best attempts to roll back conservation protections, there is strong bipartisan support from voters in the West to conserve our public lands for future generations, a critical step towards reaching this bold 30 by 30 goal.”

A video recording of this event is available on RoadTo30.org. To learn more, check out our video explaining the 30x30 initiative, featuring National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Dr. Enric Sala and U.S. Senator Tom Udall.

The Road to 30 Virtual Tour visited states across the West throughout the summer and fall. To stay informed on future virtual tour events and for more information about 30x30, visit our website and sign up for our Road to 30 mailing list.

30x30 Background:

Nature across the world is collapsing. Global human activity has altered three-quarters of the Earth’s lands, while within the United States, about a football field worth of natural area is converted to human development every 30 seconds. Hundreds of leading scientists have warned that this rapid loss of natural space is resulting in a mass extinction, exacerbated by climate change. In the face of this crisis, scientists have urged us to conserve at least 30 percent of the planet’s lands and oceans by 2030 (30×30), a step that is necessary to prevent the unraveling of fundamental natural systems. Research has found much higher animal and plant abundance within protected areas, both on land and in marine reserves. Protected natural areas are also critical to stabilizing the climate and reducing the risk of the most severe impacts of climate change.

Protected natural areas have numerous economic and environmental benefits, including drawing visitors to local economies built on outdoor recreation. Outdoor recreation and tourism provide rural communities — that may otherwise be dependent on the boom and bust cycles of energy development — an opportunity to diversify their economies. Protected natural areas also provide a competitive advantage for hiring and retaining workers; research shows that in the West, protected public lands support faster rates of job growth and higher levels of per-capita income. Natural areas also provide fresh drinking water to hundreds of millions of Americans, and research has shown that protecting watersheds is the most cost-effective strategy to ensure clean drinking water. Increased human health and well-being is also related to access to natural areas. These benefits can include lower risks of disease and obesity, as well as better mental health.