Our View: Parks' survival important to our future

May 17, 2007 11:00 pm

Sixty-five million years ago, the majestic redwood survived the great calamity that destroyed the dinosaurs. The tree's unique ability to move water about and to be fire-resistant gave it an edge over most other plants and animals.

But the redwood may have met its match in man.

Global warming, caused by man pumping greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, poses a serious threat to the redwoods. That in turn means a looming disaster for Del Norte County.

Left unhindered, global warming likely will alter precipitation patterns along the Northcoast. Redwoods will receive less morning fog and suffer through drier winters and summers.

Such changes certainly will transform the complexion of Redwood National and State Parks, where these ancient giants now prosper. Most obvious to any driver along U.S. Hwys. 101 and 199, it could dramatically reduce the number of redwoods now standing.

But the redwoods are more than just awe-inspiring trees made for our viewing pleasure. They are a keystone species whose disappearance would trigger the loss of several other plants and animals. For example, the Douglas fir, Sitka spruce, and western hemlock wrap their roots around the redwood's trunk for support. Redwood canopies sprout huckleberry plants, laurel trees and even Sitka spruce, causing famed author Richard Preston to aptly call them "coral reefs in the air." Other creatures, such as murrelets and the spotted owl, both already endangered, likely would face extinction without the redwood microenvironment to support them.

For Del Norte County, such a loss would be a catastrophe. Economically, we'd suffer a dramatic loss of tourism, for which the redwoods and our pristine river valley canyons are a major draw. But just as importantly, our very quality of life would suffer through the degradation of our recreational facilities and the very unique features that creates this area's natural beauty.

Now imagine these losses occurring more than a couple of hundred times in communities as the changing climate wreaks havoc at national parks across the United States, affecting communities from Alaska's glaciers to the Everglades, from Southern California's Joshua trees to Maine's coastal islands.

Fortunately, the National Parks Service is beginning to address the global warming issue, primarily by gathering data and starting to rethink forest management practices. It may take a few years before there are enough numbers, climate modeling, discussion and experimentation to develop the best strategy for mitigating global warming's effects.

At any rate, the National Park Service may very well be handicapped from even creating let alone implementing a strategy. Politicians in Washington hold the purse strings and select the service's leaders who set the policy. All of us should worry about the influence lobbyists may have on those decisions.

From Del Norte County's perspective – and from the perspective of anyone who values the great treasure of our national parks – elected officials on Capitol Hill must give the service the dollars and leeway it needs to address global warming problems. Anything less is a betrayal.