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Report: Climate change likely to kill Yellowstone forests

Climate change will likely denude much of the forested ecosystem that supports Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks by the year 2050, a Jackson-based report says.

Rising temperatures increase the chance of catastrophic wildfire, The Coming Climate says. Instead of recurring once every 100-300 years, wildfires on the scale of those that burned Yellowstone in 1988 will happen only decades apart. By mid-century there will be “a very real chance that coniferous forests will disappear from most areas,” the report says.

Teton County Commissioner Mark Newcomb co-authored the paper with Corinna Riginos, a research ecologist. The 34-page paper, a year in the making, predicts radical changes for the landscape in and around Grand Teton National Park. The authors also offer insights into economic consequences of climate change against a backdrop of environmental tourism. Grand Teton National Park is a $502-million annual economic engine at the heart of Wyoming’s tourism industry.

“Some of the predictions are pretty dire,” Newcomb said in an interview. “The amount of forested acreage just shrinks and shrinks as the wildfire interval decreases.”

Co-author Corinna Riginos agreed. “It’s quite staggering the kinds of change that [climate change] could bring about,” she said. “What you’re effectively talking about is massive loss of forest cover in a region that’s mostly forest-covered. The effects would cascade to virtually every species and every process.”

Ski area towns can expect more rain and less snow as a result of climate change, leading to scenes like this one in Jackson, a report funded by a nonprofit organization says. In Jackson Hole, many local businesses and organizations try to be green, yet they rely heavily on transportation systems that have large carbon footprints. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

Ski area towns can expect more rain and less snow as a result of climate change, leading to scenes like this one in Jackson, a report funded by a nonprofit organization says. In Jackson Hole, many local businesses and organizations try to be green, yet they rely heavily on transportation systems that have large carbon footprints. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

The report uses the 1988 fires in Yellowstone National Park and surrounding areas as a benchmark. Similar fires are likely to happen within perhaps as little as a decade of one another, the paper says. “The climatic conditions necessary to burn an area at least as large as what burned in 1988 will occur one to five times before 2050,” the authors write.

Conifers would not have time to reestablish themselves. The result would be a landscape altered. Aspen trees could replace evergreens, but they, too, could be threatened by drought. “A more likely scenario is that much of the [Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem] will be converted to non-forest (grassland and shrubland) vegetation by the second half of the 21st century,” the paper says.

The report draws on a 2011 paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences titled Continued warming could transform Greater Yellowstone fire regimes by mid-21st century. Author Anthony L. Westerling and others wrote, “our findings suggest a shift to novel fire–climate–vegetation relationships in Greater Yellowstone by midcentury because fire frequency and extent would be inconsistent with persistence of the current suite of conifer species. The predicted new fire regime would transform the flora, fauna, and ecosystem processes in this landscape and may indicate similar changes for other subalpine forests,” the paper’s abstract said.

Newcomb is an environmental consultant who graduated from public high school in Jackson Hole and worked the usual Jackson Hole jobs. He became sensitized to the valley’s housing and employment dilemma when he began doing administrative work for his father’s Exum Mountain Guides. He studied Geology at Carleton College and Mandarin Chinese at Nanjing University, then went to the University of Wyoming where he earned a master’s degree in economics and finance. Riginos has published more than 25 peer-reviewed scientific papers. Their report draws from a variety of scientific and agency reports and is is buttressed by five pages of footnotes (see the full report below).

It is real and it is here

The authors didn’t have to go far to find evidence of climate change. Newcomb, whose father was a climbing guide and ski patroller and mother a search dog handler, grew up on the ski slopes above Wilson. He returned there to collect some climate statistics, including at Phillips Bench, a long ridge half way up Teton Pass where there’s been a weather station for decades.

“The frost-free season on Phillips Bench, for example, is about 18 days longer, on average, now than it was in the early 1990s,” the paper says. “Across Teton County, annual average minimum temperature has risen by 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit since 1948; most of this warming occurred since 1980.”

Newcomb and Riginos also collected information from dozens of snowpack sensors around the region. The sensors measure the water content of the snowpack, which is collected mainly for agricultural purposes and to help predict runoff. Called the “snow-water equivalent,” the April 1 measurement has decreased between 7-15 percent between 1960 and 2002 for most sites across the ecosystem. Glaciers in the Tetons and Wind River Range are shrinking.

Bye-bye Bullwinkle

Of course, the changing landscape alters living conditions for wildlife. Canada lynx, snowshoe hare, American marten, northern goshawks and other forest birds will be challenged as the climate changes. Wolverines are threatened, as is the wee talus-dwelling pika.

Moose can’t tolerate heat and face a “substantial threat” in places like Teton County, the paper says. “The predicted loss of forest and increasing summer temperatures combine to make widespread moose persistence in the GYE doubtful.”

Elk, “may be able to persist but with very different ecologies and mixed population responses,” the paper says. “In the northern [Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem], green-up is occurring earlier and more rapidly than in the past, which in turn has been correlated with lower elk calf production rates.”

Mule deer and pronghorn could fare better and increase their numbers here. But higher temperatures also could lead to invasion by invasive cheatgrass.

Bark beetle epidemics would occur more often as low temperatures become less frequent. Cold snaps, particularly in the fall, are key to limiting infestations.

In 2007 Yellowstone National Park was forced to close the Firehole River to angling when temperatures soared and some 1,000 trout died. That’s an inkling of what’s in store. Anglers can expect 20 percent fewer Yellowstone cutthroat trout by the 2040s under high CO2 emissions scenarios, the paper says. That puts the issue into perspective for outfitters and guides who work in the $9.5-million annual industry.

It’s the economy…

Subtitled Ecological and Economic Impacts of Climate Change on Teton County, the paper seeks to tie the environment to everyday business in northwest Wyoming. “The key is the economy in Teton County is so closely linked to the ecosystem,” Newcomb said. “As we look at this more comprehensively it’s always going to have to be through the lens of the ecosystem.”

Yellowstone fires in 1988 cost the region $21 million in tourism that year and another $39 million the following years, the paper says. Some Jackson tourist business owners are more fearful of wildfires and the accompanying national press than they are about $5-a-gallon gasoline. “It is likely that fires will have a substantial negative impact on tourism in Teton County over the next several decades,” the paper says.

“The task is to connect that to economic impacts,” Newcomb said. “That’s too difficult to hypothesize [about] much.”

The report tries. “Economically, these changes are likely to alter the patterns of tourism and visitor-generated revenue substantially,” the report says. “Fewer opportunities to ski, snowmobile, fish, float, or hunt will likely lead to fewer visitors.”

There could be some short-term benefits, however. Snow sports may grow for a while if Jackson Hole fares better than other resorts, but the cost of snowmaking would keep increasing, the report says.

“Climate change may benefit the real estate business, as more people may choose to make this relatively cool region their home,” the paper says. However “if more people seek to visit and move to Teton County because of its relatively more pleasant climate (especially in summer), growth will pressure already scarce housing opportunities and add congestion to already congested roadways,” the paper said.

Teton County and Wyoming have a booming tourism industry that's often evident at the popular Bubba's Bar-B-Que in Jackson. Whether tourists will still come if the area is no longer forested is a question authors of a study could not immediately answer. Climate changes might make cooler Jackson Hole more attractive. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

Teton County and Wyoming have a booming tourism industry that’s often evident at the popular Bubba’s Bar-B-Que in Jackson. Whether tourists will still come if the area is no longer forested is a question authors of a study could not immediately answer. Climate changes might make cooler Jackson Hole more attractive. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

Some readers will see potential short-term benefits and, unfortunately, won’t be urged to action, Newcomb said. “We are one of the coldest spots in the nation and as the world warms we’ll still be a relatively more pleasant pace to be,” he said.

“Adapting to that new future and preparing for it, I think, are important take-aways,” Newcomb said. Compiling the report “spurred more thought [about] how our tourism industry is likely to adapt and could adapt.”

Co-author Riginos said people should be spurred on, not disheartened, by the seemingly immense challenges. “I would urge people to consider very seriously the shocking possibilities for the future and use that as a motivation to bring about positive change, rather than feeling overwhelmed,” she said.

Where to start?

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, said Jonathan Schechter, founder and executive director of the Jackson think tank Charture Institute that funded the study through a grant from 1 percent for the Tetons. It was authored through the Teton Science Schools’ Teton Research Institute, which the Science Schools shuttered this spring. The nonprofit Charture Institute sponsors community discussions about the direction of Jackson Hole’s future. Schechter himself is a consultant who also helped establish 1 percent for the Tetons, an offshoot of 1 percent for the Planet. 1 percent for the Tetons, another nonprofit, gives out environmental grants annually from contributions made by its business members.

“People are feeling vexed because what the right thing to do is not at all clear,” he said. “The real problem is nobody has figured out what that step should be.”

In Teton County, transportation makes up a larger portion of the carbon footprint than other places, in part because Jackson Hole is a destination resort. Fully 79 percent of carbon emissions are due to transportation with 62 percent of that attributed to ground transportation, 17 percent to air travel.

Shouldn’t the millions of visitors to Jackson Hole and the neighboring national parks be given the message about how climate change is affecting the environment? Jet passengers would seem to be an easy target for education and taxation. Wouldn’t an airline carbon tax offset deleterious effects and teach at the same time?

“Air travelers can now easily purchase carbon offsets for their trip,” the report says. “Purchasing carbon offsets supports carbon sequestration efforts such as tree planting in deforested areas and promotes the development of emerging carbon trading markets.”

Jackson Town Councilman Jim Stanford works as a river guide in Grand Teton National Park and is sensitive about environmental issues, refusing to buy what he thought were wasteful yard signs for his first political campaign. Activists need to think about climate change every day and at all levels of the political spectrum, the vice president for sustainability at the Aspen Skiing Company told a conservation convention in Jackson last fall.

Jackson Town Councilman Jim Stanford works as a river guide in Grand Teton National Park and is sensitive about environmental issues, refusing to buy what he thought were wasteful yard signs for his first political campaign. Activists need to think about climate change every day and at all levels of the political spectrum, the vice president for sustainability at the Aspen Skiing Company told a conservation convention in Jackson last fall.

But air travel is a difficult environment in which to try and reduce emissions. A few years ago when Schechter approached the manager of the Jackson Hole Airport after proposing a carbon tax of some sort on air traffic, he got a stack of papers two feet high and a warning about federal rules. “This is all the documentation about why we can’t do something like this,” he said he was told.

“The Jackson Hole Airport is the only commercial airport in a National Park,” Schechter said. “With that distinction comes great responsibility and great opportunity. If we are clever, we should be able to think of ways that simultaneously honor that distinction and use the power of market forces to help reinforce that distinction.”

For Newcomb, a Jackson Hole program would be mostly educational because of the community’s small size. “If you ask me personally, we could play a role, we could have an influence,” he said. “What it would be though is strongly symbolic.”

Real money melts from the slopes

Resort skiing generates some $58 million a year in the area, and backcountry skiing and snowshoeing another $22 million annually, the study says. At the Park City, Utah ski resort, one estimate put potential economic damage of climate change at 20 percent, or $120 million, by 2030.

At Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, brand manager Anna Olson keeps a close eye on customers’ attitudes. Visitors, she says, are on vacation and might not want to worry about the world’s problems.

“It’s a challenge to educate people when they’re on holiday,” she said. Are visitors interested in climate change and what effect they are having? “Not as much as you would think,” she said.

Jackson businesses contribute an undisclosed amount annually to a private program that guarantees revenues to airlines to ensure solid seasonal air service. The program is often seen as a subsidy to enhance air travel at a time when some feel a tax is in order. However, the guarantees have increased efficiency, Olson said. Because of the program, there are fewer planes that fly in with many empty seats. “We have a very tight program that is closely related to load factors,” Olson said.

The resort itself is engaged in conservation, “from the parking lot to the top of the mountain,” Olson said. Some company businesses are members of 1 % For The Planet, the nonprofit that asks companies to dedicate 1 percent of their gross to environmental causes. Jackson Hole Mountain Resort this year met its conservation goals under the International Organization for Standardization’s 14001 program. The resort announced this spring a 10 percent reduction in emissions, audited by a third party.

Jackson Hole is “the only ski resort in the United States to have an externally audited Emissions Management System,” the resort said in a statement this spring.

Aspen uses its cachet

Aspen, the chic Colorado resort, has been active in the climate change debate for a while, taking it to the streets and even to the Supreme Court of the United States. It filed a friend-of-the court brief in a lawsuit brought by Massachusetts, other states and environmental groups against the EPA. The suit argued that the federal agency had the authority to regulate CO2 as a pollutant. The ski company said it was already was being affected by climate change and stood to lose millions of dollars if business as usual continued. In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of regulating CO2 as a pollutant.

Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company, told the story to the Shift conservation festival in Jackson last fall. “Did we pass this ourselves because we’re Aspen and the center of the universe?” he asked. “No.”

But Aspen does have the cachet to attract attention. It can leverage its brand. “You have these incredibly well-known athletes,” he said of Aspen-based skiers. “These people have hundreds of thousands of fans.”

More often, however, conservation is grunt work. Working at Aspen, Schendler watched the company’s carbon footprint grow, despite efforts to trim it. The company looked deeper, and saw that its power supply utility had just purchased a coal-fired generating plant.

The lesson was clear; “Instead of changing light bulbs we need to change the utility board of directors,” he told the Jackson audience about his thinking. That prospect was neither sexy nor exciting. It took five years of community organizing to change the board.

People need to realize that climate change means more than having a shallower snowpack, perhaps more rain, he said. They should consider flash floods that would rip out infrastructure and other natural disasters that occur as a result of more volatile storms that mark our changing world.

“No one said your road is going to be destroyed,” he said of climate-change predictions. He showed pictures of Colorado mountain floods. “No one told us climate change would destroy the base lodge.”

Schendler said he’s frequently asked how he can be an environmental advocate while working for a ritzy resort. Aspen, after all, caters to people who jet in from Europe with little dogs on their lap, get whisked up the mountain with coal-fired electricity.

Former Jackson Mayor Mark Barron, seen here at the annual elk antler auction in  2013, was cogniscent of the towns dependence on tourism and advertised to visitors his widespread efforts to reduce the town's carbon footprint. Some believe Jackson has an opportunity to educate the millions who pass through the area every year, but people on vacation might not be in the mood to be taught about troubling climate change. (Angus M. Thuermeer Jr./WyoFile)

Former Jackson Mayor Mark Barron, seen here at the annual elk antler auction in 2013, was cogniscent of the town’s dependence on tourism and advertised to visitors his widespread efforts to reduce the town’s carbon footprint. Some believe Jackson has an opportunity to educate the millions who pass through the area every year, but people on vacation might not be in the mood to be taught about troubling climate change. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

“I’m a sustainability guy at Aspen where you can buy a $50,000 bottle of wine,” he said, pondering the contrasts and attempting to resolve the issue. “This is not really about giving up your iPhone,” he said. “It’s about powering your iPhone with clean energy.”

The country needs a climate policy, a tax on carbon, he proposed. But, “there’s no political will,” he said. “Politicians don’t make political will, they respond to it. We have not been out in the streets providing our congressmen, our president, with an excuse to act, a cover to act.

He pointed to the civil rights movement, the country’s recent rapid acceptance of same-sex marriage. “The thinking is you’ve got to have a social revolution,” he said. “You have to be on fire about this issue every day.”

That’s the same thing co-author Riginos seeks. “One of the things we can all do is push for this to be an issue on the national and international level,” she said.

For Schechter, Jackson Hole could become a standout by using its reputation to send a climate-change message to millions. He and the report’s authors are now figuring out where they will present their message. “If we get together as a community, we can punch above our weight and start getting the message out.”

Through a small business he co-owns, the author makes annual donations to 1 percent for the Tetons — Ed.

Research paper The Coming Climate:


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About the Author

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Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at [email protected] or (307) 690-5586. Follow Angus on Twitter at @AngusThuermer

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5 Responses to Report: Climate change likely to kill Yellowstone forests

  1. Paul Cook June 15, 2015 at 1:14 pm #

    evangelic armegeddon and evirongelic climageddom are both media and political wonderments. fear sells.
    just ask Jerry Falwell or Al Gore, just a couple of working guys,trying to make a buck.

    Paul Cook

    wilson, Wyoming

  2. Larry Hicks June 11, 2015 at 10:55 am #

    Gloom and doom based on faulty assumptions, falsified, tampered, and erroneous information and junk science. Never ceases to amaze me how people misuse science and ignore statistical analysis and mathematics. No doubt all the assumption on climate change were derived from IPCC models, which have been tampered and manipulated to provide for their desired outcome.

    Larry Hicks

    Baggs, Wyoming

    • lou maytrees June 14, 2015 at 6:44 pm #

      Did you even read the article Larry? “The frost free season at Phillips Bench, for example, is 18 days longer on average now than it was in the 1990’s. … Across Teton County annual average minimum temperatures have risen +1.3*Fahrenheit, with most of this occurring since the 1980’s.” I guess you think observed thermometer readings are part of a global conspiracy too. Or how about ‘its just natural, something, we don’t know what, is causing it. Its like magic you know. we just know it can’t be any kind of those proven green house gas we’ve thrown into the atmosphere.” Maybe its them commies!

      Lou Maytrees

      vero beach, Florida

  3. John Wright June 9, 2015 at 9:41 am #

    Discourage driving and fund greener transportation with toll fees on existing roads, higher gas taxes and auto registration fees scaled to each vehicle’s emissions/mpg ratings?

    John Wright

    Jackson, Wyoming

  4. Mary Keller June 9, 2015 at 7:08 am #

    Thanks for this, Angus. I’ve worked the past 10 years to foster Climate Change awareness and activism in Wyoming and as I read this article I can feel the dial nudging on the landscape of the social imagination. Bi thought “I think he’s found it–that balance between evidence-based imagery (fish and moose disappearing due to hear) and economic impact. I think the silent majority in Wyoming of wildlife-loving people can be motivated and have the moral courage if they get the picture clearly enough.

    Mary Keller

    Cody, Wyoming

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