U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, co-chairman of the House Sustainable Energy and Environment Coaition, talks during a hike on July 7, 2023, to Sharon Stiteler, a public information officer and bird expert. Quigley and four of his coalition colleagues, along with staff members, visted Denali to learn about climate change impacts in the national park. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
In Denali National Park and Preserve, effects of climate change are wide-ranging and dramatic.
There are landslides being triggered by warming temperatures and thaw, glaciers shrinking, plants expanding their territory upslope, shifting populations of animals from insects to large mammals, struggling salmon runs in the Yukon River basin that pass through the park area – and there is a documented record of rising temperatures, especially in winter.
For five Democratic U.S. House members who were visiting Denali last week with staff and family members, the signs of climate change made a profound impression.
The most striking thing they saw, multiple members said, was probably the landslide at a site called Pretty Rocks. There, at about the halfway point of Denali’s 92-mile road – the main access route for visitors to one of the most famous U.S. national parks – the ongoing slide wiped out a critical section, forcing a shutdown of public traffic that started in 2021 and is ongoing.
Most of the members confessed they knew little about the now-notorious Pretty Rocks landslide prior to the Denali trip.
“When I was coming here, I was told there was a landslide in the park. But I did not expect the entire road to disappear. I thought there would be rocks on the road, not this,” said Rep. Katie Porter, D-California, one of the visiting members.
To restore access to the second half of the road, the National Park Service has started a complex project to install a bridge over the unstable ground. The project, which must accommodate permafrost, a rock glacier and various other geologic hazards, along with the national park mission of nature preservation, is expected to cost about $100 million. The complicated funding has come from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 and from annual appropriations, a supplemental disaster appropriations bill and the Great American Outdoors Act.
It is gratifying to see those investments in action, said the House members visiting Denali.
“I’m pleased to see the infrastructure law going to work in our national parks. That landslide basically cut off a huge part of the park for the American people and to be able to restore it will be significant,” said Rep. Ted Lieu, D-California. Seeing the site in person and hearing from experts also conveyed the message of how complex the project is, he said. “I definitely understand the challenges much more as to why you couldn’t just rebuild the road,” he said.
Rep. Kim Schrier, D-Wash, said she was struck not only by the “Herculean effort” to restore the road at Pretty Rocks but the other identified landslides along the park road, which number nearly 150. The tour has helped her understand that thaw from climate change is triggering potentially dangerous landslides all around mountainous terrain, an eerie thought even on a beautiful day when hiking, looking at birds and gazing at parts of Denali, North America’s tallest peak, that was visible through clouds: “It’s almost like an artificial calm,” she said.
Leading the delegation was Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Illinois, who is co-chair of the House Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition, a group with 90 members, all of them Democrats.
But the general public is concerned about climate change effects, like the increasing frequency of extreme weather events, he said. “So clearly it’s impacting people, but there’s a real disconnect there,” he said.
The disconnect led to the idea of the park tours, he said. “How do we communicate to all Americans about something we know they all love: national parks?” he said.
Prior to the Denali visit, Quigley took climate tours with colleagues to Everglades National Park, Indiana Dunes National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Shenandoah National Park, Acadia National Park and Yosemite National Park.
The Denali trip included a session with Superintendent Brooke Merrell, who spoke about the climate change impacts to salmon and other subsistence resources, among other subjects; a hike with park spokesperson and bird expert Sharon Stiteler; and a tour of permafrost research sites on land just outside park boundaries at Eight Mile Lake, along the Stampede Road, where permafrost has been monitored for decades.
]The spread of carbon dioxide-absorbing woody plants over landscapes previously dominated by small tundra plants like cottongrass, like that at Eight Mile Lake, will offset only a minor fraction of the carbon gases being released by warming permafrost, he said.
With a quarter of the planet’s land mass underlain by permafrost, “The Arctic in the future may be releasing as much carbon as a whole industrialized nation does,” Schuur said. For now, that change is relatively gradual. “Rather than a bomb going off, it’s a slow leak,” he said.
He is leading a long-term research project at Eight Mile Lake where future trends have been simulated by using nothing more than buildup of high snow piles in the winter. Those have powers of insulation that hold warmth in the ground. The resulting depression created over the 14 years that the project has been in place, Schuur said, shows what will happen to the whole landscape by about mid-century.
About a mile away from Schuur’s research site is another site that is part of a National Science Foundation-funded project that is taking constant measurements of temperature, the flux of carbon gases into and out of the ground, the level of solar reflection, the progression of vegetation changes, the insect, bird and small mammal population shifts and numerous other changes. The Eight Mile Lake site is part of the National Ecological Observatory Network, or NEON, a series of installations where scientists are watching changes to landscapes.
And climate-change advocates need to prepare for a long slog to reverse trends, Schuur said, because much of the release of carbon gases into the atmosphere that creates the planet-warming greenhouse effect is locked by processes that include the ongoing thaw of the permafrost beneath their feet.
“We are going to keep hitting record levels, even when we do the right thing,” Schuur said. “But we have to give people hope.”
The message was well-received by the five House members, all of whom are advocates for action on climate change. But finding similar sentiments across the congressional aisle has proved difficult, the members said.
Just getting Republican votes for projects like the Pretty Rocks repair has been difficult, the members said. Only 13 House Republicans voted for the 2021 infrastructure legislation.
Among the Republicans who did support the infrastructure bill, and enthusiastically so, was the late Don Young, R-Alaska, who served for 49 years as the state’s sole House member.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, played a big role, something that the Democratic House members on the Denali trip noted.
Alaska’s entire delegation — Murkowski, Sen. Dan Sullivan, a Republican, and Rep. Mary Peltola, the Democratic successor to Young and herself a member of the House Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition – was invited to join the Denali trip, but they all cited scheduling conflicts, said Stiteler, the park spokesperson.
Some Murkowski staffers, however, visited the Pretty Rocks site the week before the House members went there, said Brian Dusek, her press secretary.
The senator encourages colleagues to visit Alaska, Dusek said by email. “Specifically, these Members of Congress who visited the site of the Pretty Rocks landslide can now have a better understanding of the severity of the situation and the pressing importance to address it—especially for the communities around Denali National Park whose local economies rely on the visitors who come to Alaska to go on the Denali Park Road,” he said.
Sam Erickson, Peltola’s press secretary, said she too considered it important for members of Congress to visit Alaska in general and the Pretty Rocks site in particular:
“Rep. Peltola believes that any opportunity for other members to see and appreciate the challenges that come with Alaska’s unique environment is valuable. Alaska is so different from the rest of the country that it is often hard to understand the significance of something like the Pretty Rocks landslide without seeing it in person. Trips like this help inform lower 48 members about other Alaskan issues that come before the Congress.”
Echoing Dusek, Erickson said bipartisanship is important to Peltola. He cited a bill that she is sponsoring with Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Montana, to enhance national park access.
Quigley, the organizer of the Denali trip, has his own national parks legislation. He just reintroduced a bill that would bar the sale of single-use plastic water bottles in national park facilities, which would effectively reinstate an Obama administration policy that was overturned by the Trump administration.
An earlier version of Quigley’s bill had 62 cosponsors, all of them Democrats.
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