Next Time You Visit a National Park, You Might Get a Lecture on Climate Change

Park rangers are increasingly talking to visitors about global warming.

The Abyss geothermal pool is seen October 8, 2012 in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. Yellowstone protects 10,000 or so geysers, mudpots, steamvents, and hot springs.Yellowstone National Park is America's first national park. It was established in 1872. Yellowstone extends through Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. The park's name is derived from the Yellowstone River, which runs through the park. A
National Journal
Clare Foran
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Clare Foran
Dec. 12, 2014, midnight

“Hey, you want to save some money?”

That’s the first thing Bri­an Et­tling says when he meets a cli­mate-change skep­tic.

Et­tling has spent his sum­mers work­ing as a park ranger at Crater Lake Na­tion­al Park in Ore­gon for nearly a dec­ade. He is on a mis­sion to teach vis­it­ors that man-made glob­al warm­ing is real. But cli­mate change can be a touchy sub­ject. So Et­tling de­vised a strategy. When a park vis­it­or casts doubt on glob­al warm­ing, he makes an ap­peal to their pock­et­book.

“I try to shift the con­ver­sa­tion away from po­lar bears and ice caps,” Et­tling says. “I tell people there are a lot of things they can do to save money on their elec­tric bill that will also help the en­vir­on­ment. Usu­ally, I can get through to them that way.”

Et­tling has had time to per­fect the ap­proach. He star­ted talk­ing about the im­pact of cli­mate change at Crater Lake sev­er­al years ago. Et­tling de­cided to speak up, he says, partly be­cause vis­it­ors kept ask­ing about glob­al warm­ing. 

Na­tion­al parks are on the front lines of cli­mate change. And park rangers are in­creas­ingly de­liv­er­ing the mes­sage that glob­al warm­ing is tak­ing a toll on the icon­ic areas. Sci­ent­ists say evid­ence of a warm­ing Earth can be seen every­where from rap­idly melt­ing gla­ciers at Gla­ci­er Na­tion­al Park in Montana to rising sea levels in the Flor­ida Ever­glades. Park of­fi­cials lament the chan­ging land­scape. But they say cli­mate change also cre­ates an op­por­tun­ity to turn parks in­to open-air classrooms. 

Edu­ca­tion­al ef­forts have ramped up in re­cent years. Great Smoky Moun­tains Na­tion­al Park, which spans parts of North Car­o­lina and Ten­ness­ee, has hos­ted cli­mate-sci­ence work­shops for high school and middle school teach­ers as well as col­lege pro­fess­ors. Cali­for­nia’s Golden Gate Na­tion­al Re­cre­ation Area pro­duces a pod­cast that dis­cusses glob­al warm­ing. The vis­it­ors’ cen­ter at Yosemite Na­tion­al Park in Cali­for­nia is chock-full of cli­mate change bro­chures and fact sheets.

“We have an op­por­tun­ity to take a seem­ingly faraway concept and make it tan­gible and real by show­ing how Yosemite has been af­fected,” says Paul Ol­lig, the park’s deputy chief of in­ter­pret­a­tion and edu­ca­tion.

The Na­tion­al Park Ser­vice trains staff to talk to vis­it­ors about glob­al warm­ing, an ini­ti­at­ive that has won sup­port in the highest reaches of the ad­min­is­tra­tion. Earli­er this month, the White House is­sued a dir­ect­ive ask­ing the Park Ser­vice to cre­ate a na­tion­al blue­print for cli­mate edu­ca­tion. Park rangers won’t be re­quired to teach cli­mate change. But of­fi­cials say the pro­ject will en­cour­age parks to up their edu­ca­tion­al of­fer­ings.

“We still have some park man­agers who think it’s too con­tro­ver­sial to talk about cli­mate change,” says Ju­lia Wash­burn, the Park Ser­vice as­so­ci­ate dir­ect­or for in­ter­pret­a­tion and edu­ca­tion. “This na­tion­wide plan will really show that this is a pri­or­ity.”

However, some park rangers ex­per­i­ence anxi­ety at the thought of talk­ing about an of­ten con­tro­ver­sial sub­ject. Rangers worry that they don’t know enough about the sci­ence to sound cred­ible. Park staff also fear a hos­tile re­ac­tion from vis­it­ors.

A con­ten­tious de­bate over the ex­ist­ence and causes of cli­mate change con­tin­ues to rage, des­pite the fact that the vast ma­jor­ity of sci­ent­ists say that glob­al warm­ing is real and driv­en by hu­man activ­ity like the burn­ing of fossil fuels.

“It’s rare for a ranger to be ac­cos­ted by someone who has strong opin­ions deny­ing cli­mate change, but that def­in­itely crops up,” says Bob Lil­lie, a park ranger who has worked at Crater Lake and Yel­low­stone Na­tion­al Park in Wyom­ing.

More than 280 mil­lion people vis­it na­tion­al parks each year. But vis­it­ors who don’t be­lieve in glob­al warm­ing may opt out of edu­ca­tion­al talks and leave cli­mate bro­chures sit­ting on the shelves of vis­it­or cen­ters.

Et­tling avoids ar­guing with vis­it­ors who deny cli­mate change. In­stead, he spends much of his time talk­ing to people who are con­cerned but not en­tirely cer­tain that it is real.

“Any­one who is on the fence, those are the people I have the best chance of reach­ing,” he says.

Rangers are also op­tim­ist­ic that vis­it­ors may be more re­cept­ive to learn­ing about glob­al warm­ing when con­fron­ted with the im­pacts of ex­treme weath­er up close.

“Parks are so spe­cial to people. They really are na­tion­al treas­ures. So I think it’s power­ful for people to see that and see how things have changed,” Lil­lie says.

Amid all the talk of glob­al warm­ing, the Park Ser­vice wants to make sure that vis­it­ors are not over­whelmed. To that end, of­fi­cials en­cour­age rangers to high­light ways the ser­vice is work­ing to pro­tect parks from ex­treme weath­er and in­crease re­si­li­ence. 

Et­tling is quick to tell vis­it­ors that the fu­ture is not all doom and gloom. And he is al­ways ready to spell out steps people can take to aid the en­vir­on­ment in their daily lives.

“You really have to de­liv­er a pos­it­ive mes­sage,” he says. “I want people to know that there are things they can do to deal with this. Oth­er­wise talk­ing about glob­al warm­ing could hurt more than help.”

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