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In the short time that I’ve been here, northwest Montana has had its own unusual variability. I’ve heard from several long-term residents about the intensity of this past winter’s cold spells, winds, and the unusually high snowfall— approximately 150 percent of a normal season’s snowfall. Because of some persistent weak layers in the snowpack, we saw some unprecedented avalanche activity by late winter. Not only do these conditions affect winter recreation, they also affect railroad operations around the park, and we anticipate they will challenge the park’s summer plowing efforts on the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Twenty-six years ago I spent more than two weeks cutting fireline on the Red Bench fire along the North Fork of the Flathead River. At 38,000 acres, the Red Bench fire was considered a large blaze. In March, I attended an agency administrator’s wildfire training class in Arizona, where we studied the nature of firefighting today and the responsibilities I might have to take on should a large fire occur in or near Glacier National Park. We learned that the size of fires today has increased dramatically and their behavior has become more extreme due, in part, to hotter and dryer weather trends. In the last five years there have been numerous fires nationwide that are three to four times the size of Red Bench. A single fire in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest burned more than 300,000 acres in 2012. But sometimes it’s not just the fire itself that wreaks havoc. The following winter, significant damage occurred in the Gila when a 1,000-year flood event struck the area, ripping through a landscape made unstable by the loss of vegetation.

Another significant change is the objective of fighting these large fires. We can no longer hope to contain them entirely, but often have to focus on protecting particular resources within our domain, such as historic structures, personal property, or, in the case of the 2013 Rim Fire in Yosemite, irreplaceable resources such as the giant Sequoia trees. Over the last decade I’ve found myself focusing on climate change adaptation, thinking about how I might manage a national park in the face of climate change and high levels of climate variability. I’ve given numerous presentations to other park superintendents about adaptation strategies, and in doing so have noticed the struggle many of them are having with developing management strategies that can successfully address the uncertainty associated with climate change.

Montana Headwall Page 60 Summer 2014

There are proven strategies one can use for managing uncertainty. “Scenario Planning” is a term used frequently in the world of business and investment planning to manage uncertainty. It’s about considering one’s actions across multiple possible and divergent futures, as opposed to trying to forecast a single future. It’s something most of us do instinctively, like when we walk out the door and debate whether to take the Gore-Tex shell, pack the fleece or slather on sunscreen (or all three). Similarly, I believe the National Park Service can develop a greater degree of flexibility by using scenario planning as a way to develop plans and make decisions in the face of increased uncertainty driven by climate change. Scenario planning will help, but it won’t take away the discomfort associated with climate change Chad Harder uncertainty. I once had a mentor who counseled a group of us to “embrace ambiguity.” We all had a good laugh when we heard that, but now I see its applicability to thinking about planning for the future. The future is always ambiguous, there is always a degree of uncertainty, and there is always a need to be adaptable. As I think about the future of the park, it’s clear that it needs to be managed in a way that allows it to be responsive to change—potentially massive change. As I look at the next generations and the challenges and opportunities they’ll face, I recall something I heard in a presentation last year: “I won’t be able to give my children everything, but I want to make sure that they’ll be prepared for anything.” I think that’s an approach well worth adopting, both personally and professionally.

Montana Headwall  

Outdoor Adventure Under the Big Sky

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