Can state parks be climate resilient?

One of the hats I wear is State Parks Advisory Board (PAB) member and the chair of PAB’s climate change committee. Last year we sent a survey to all state park managers to get information on how climate change was affecting each of our 35 state parks from the perspective of the experts on the ground – park managers and staff – and to get their insights on mitigation and adaptation strategies.

Many emphasized the worsening drought, higher temperatures, falling lake and stream levels, habitat loss, wells and springs drying up, and more wildfires. But no one could have predicted the massive wildfires we now face and the consequences of monster fires like the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire.

As a result of the fires and relentless drought, many of our parks along with our national forests are closed, and some of our parks are severely damaged or compromised. Several are no longer sources of great seasonal recreation; they are emergency sources of water for firefighting efforts. When and if the monsoon rains come and the fire season moderates, we can more fully access the damage. One question we will need to ask is how can we rehabilitate our parks and make them more climate change resilient in a time of increasing drought?

Most of our state parks are water based. They rely on streams and rivers and functional watersheds. Many are multi-jurisdictional. Their water resources are hampered and dominated by primary water rights holders and antiquated water use agreements.

The adaptation and mitigation strategies identified in the survey went well beyond extending boat ramps. In 2011 the Track Fire burned 80% of Sugarite Canyon State Park. Retired Superintendent Robert McIvor stressed the need “for forest thinning and the creation of firebreaks and defensible space.” Staff in Cimarron Canyon stated, “the canyon has a lot of built-up fuel.” Fenton Lake Manager Joshua Herron said “massive post-fire sediment (from a prior fire) has devastated the lake. Without dredging, it will slowly fill in and kill the lake.” Many of our water-based parks need erosion control and levee upgrades and their stream banks shored up.

If we wish to maintain critical habitat and water-based recreation in our parks, we need to think outside the box and plan now for the future challenges climate change will bring. Where will our water come from? How can we keep our parks alive and vital?

“One hundred-year-old treaties should not be relied upon when modern answers are available for smart and sustainable water use,” said Chris Bolen, boating manager at Elephant Butte Lake. Ranger Kevin Wilcox added, “When the Rio Grande compact was put in place, it was based on bad data during an unusually wet period,” and not on actual drier averages.

“The Pecos River gets pretty close to drying up during the summer months,” said John Villanueva, manager of Villanueva State Park. “The river is one of the main reasons people come to our park.”

Can the state secure better water rights for our parks? Can we negotiate with adjacent owners to pump water from their wells into our lakes and critical wetlands? Can we restructure or renegotiate water release agreements to increase water availability of all our water-based parks? We may need that water for fire mitigation, not just for habitat and recreation. This demands immediate study.

State Parks Director Toby Velasquez believes our parks can develop essential climate change resilience and is working to filter the survey recommendations “into state park business practices.” But we need a lot of help.

It will take a massive interagency effort and a lot of revenue to make our parks resilient. It will require new thinking and a big lift. Last year the Legislature made a one-time $20 million appropriation to our state parks. Most of that will go to deferred maintenance and infrastructure. To save the vitality of our parks in a time of rampant climate change we need inter-agency studies, new regulations and an unprecedented influx of state and federal money. This is also an opportunity for our oil and gas industry to step up to the plate and fund essential initiatives through our public-private partnerships.

We all love our parks. They are the rare source of water-based recreation and critical habitat in our increasingly parched desert environment. Many New Mexicans also feel our parks are crucial to our ability to psychologically survive climate change.

Published on June 27, 2022, in the Albuquerque Journal.
© Judith Polich. All Rights Reserved. May be republished with author’s written consent and proper attribution.

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