New report: Climate change threatens important cultural landscapes

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New report: Climate change threatens important cultural landscapes
Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Outer Banks, NC, 2011. Photo ® David Leavitt, courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation.

WASHINGTON, DC.- The Cultural Landscape Foundation today unveiled Landslide, its annual thematic report about threatened and at-risk landscapes. The Landslide 2019: Living in Nature report highlights ten cultural landscapes throughout the nation that are threatened by flooding, wildfires, regional drought, and other effects of human-induced climate change. The ten sites demonstrate the wide array of effects from climate change and the scope of its impact on our natural and cultural resources. Ranging from small parcels to thousands of acres, the sites are also geographically and typologically diverse, comprising agrarian landscapes, living communities, and historical monuments and stretching from Hawai'i to the Heartland. The richly illustrated report includes an introduction by Jonathan B. Jarvis, the former director of the National Park Service and currently the executive director of the Institute for Parks, People and Biodiversity at the University of California, Berkeley. The report provides a history of each site, outlines the threats posed to them, and ways for people to get involved.

First issued in 2003, Landslide has highlighted more than 300 significant at-risk parks, gardens, horticultural features, working landscapes, and other places that collectively embody our shared landscape heritage. Landslide designations have resulted in advocacy that has saved numerous sites. Moreover, once a site is enrolled in the Landslide program, it is monitored by TCLF. In keeping with TCLF’s prior thematic Landslide reports, each of the sites in Landslide 2019: Living in Nature was nominated by individuals or groups advocating for their stewardship.

“Climate change is a widely acknowledged threat to natural and ecological systems, but the dire potential impacts on irreplaceable cultural systems and historic resources need greater attention,” said Charles A. Birnbaum, TCLF’s President & CEO, “and it requires action, now.”

“As you read through TCLF’s annual Landslide and lament the loss of irreplaceable cultural and historical sites, get angry and then get busy. The planet needs you,” wrote Jonathan B. Jarvis, former director of the National Park Service and currently executive director of the Institute for Parks, People and Biodiversity at the University of California, Berkeley.

Based on an ever-growing body of objective scientific data, there is overwhelming international consensus that the adverse effects of human-induced climate change are already upon us. Landslide 2019: Living in Nature highlights cultural landscapes throughout the nation that are threatened by the slow-motion crisis unfolding before our eyes. As dynamic, living, interconnected systems that have been shaped by the interaction between human activity and ecology, cultural landscapes defy the notion of a strict division between natural and cultural resources, holding the key to our long-term well-being and connecting us to the evidence of who we are, how we became so, and what we can achieve.

Now, many of our most cherished cultural landscapes are facing existential threats, as the increasing frequency of extreme weather events, wildfires, accelerated extinctions, and human displacement is chronicled in daily headlines. A landmark report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services warns that rates of species extinctions are accelerating and that “the health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever.” Compiled by 145 expert authors from 50 countries, with input from another 310 contributing authors, the report is based on the systemic review of approximately 15,000 scientific and government sources. Moreover, NASA-funded research has discovered that the gradual thawing of the Arctic’s permafrost could release trapped carbon dioxide, speeding up global warming and taking us past a series of tipping points that could render its effects irreversible.

The ten Landslide 2019: Living in Nature sites (here’s a link to hi-res images for the Landslide sites):

Buckner Homestead Historic District, Stehekin, Washington
With a history dating back to 1889, the Buckner Homestead Historic District in North Cascades National Park comprises a complex cultural landscape intimately tied to the early pioneer settlements, mining booms, and apple industries of the Pacific Northwest. The cultural landscape is the setting of hayfields, pastures, and historic orchards of vintage apple varieties nourished by century-old irrigation techniques that have remained largely unchanged since William Buckner first cultivated the land in 1911. Yet this historic agrarian landscape is threatened by increased drought, flooding, erosion, and wildfires due to decreased summer precipitation and increased winter precipitation, as temperatures rise by a projected high of nearly five degrees Celsius by the end of the century.

Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Outer Banks, North Carolina
Established in 1937 and covering some 70 miles of unspoiled barrier islands along North Carolina’s Atlantic Coast, the Cape Hatteras National Seashore—the nation’s first national seashore—occupies a unique place in Native American, colonial, and maritime history, connecting events of great historical importance, from the first English settlement to the German U-boat attacks of World War II. But this thin strip of land that is also a vacationer’s paradise is being consumed by rising waters and battered by storms of ever-growing intensity, placing in doubt the survival of the immense cultural and natural resources it contains.

Death Valley Scotty Historic District, Death Valley, California
Still standing today in Grapevine Canyon within the Death Valley Scotty Historic District are the elaborate Spanish-style villa and ranch that tell an intricate story of frontier romanticism, contrived riches, and real excess. The result of the unlikely friendship between legendary conman “Death Valley Scotty” and his millionaire backer Albert Johnson, the high-desert Shangri-La drew thousands of tourists and cemented a national legend. Constructed in the 1920s and now listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the buildings and their arid setting were heavily damaged in 2015 by the strongest flash floods in recent memory. As efforts to repair the site and plan for its future continue, this historic desert landscape—at an elevation of 3,000 feet—is a reminder that the destructive effects of climate change are far from limited to low-lying coastal areas.

Easton’s Point, Newport, Rhode Island
Set along the water’s edge in the historic maritime town of Newport, Rhode Island, the Easton’s Point neighborhood boasts one of the highest concentrations of Colonial-era homes in the United States. Located north of the harbor and fronting Narragansett Bay, the enclave of richly articulated eighteenth-century streetscapes is part of the Newport National Historic Landmark District, established in 1968. While the low-lying area and its unrivalled collection of historic structures have never been immune to the forces of nature, the frequent and severe flooding of recent decades has brought the neighborhood and its stewards to a crossroads, making Easton’s Point emblematic of the challenges—and hard choices—that many culturally rich coastal areas will face in the wake of a changing climate.

Gateway National Recreation Area, Staten Island & Jamaica Bay, New York; Sandy Hook, New Jersey
One of the most visited national parks in the United States, the Gateway National Recreation Area (GNRA) comprises nearly 27,000 acres of islands, ponds, marshes, and meadowlands that span from Sandy Hook in New Jersey to Jamaica Bay and Staten Island in New York City. Included among these rich wildlife habitats are a trove of historic sites and recreational areas that together represent a unique collection of natural and cultural resources serving one of the most urbanized areas of the country. The future of the GNRA’s myriad resources depends upon the park’s already fragile ecosystems, which are increasingly susceptible to the effects of a changing climate.

Giant Sequoia Range, Sierra Nevada Mountains, California
Giant sequoia have existed as a species since the time of the dinosaurs and are some of the oldest and largest living things on Earth. The trees can live to be thousands of years old, with the largest of them approaching 30 feet in width. The Giant Sequoia Range comprises 73 isolated groves that cover approximately 48,000 acres in California’s central and southern Sierra Nevada Mountains. With their thick bark and elevated canopies, the sequoia are the quintessential fire-adapted species, but the groves now face a dramatic threat linked to our warming planet, as three severe wildfires have burned through hundreds of acres of groves in the last five years alone.

Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument and Blackwater National Wildlife Reserve, Dorchester County, Maryland
Located within the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Dorchester County, Maryland, the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument commemorates the site of the clandestine efforts of legendary abolitionist Harriet Tubman. Born into slavery, Tubman eventually escaped bondage only to return nineteen times to free her family and friends, going on to become the first woman to lead an armed assault during the Civil War. Although President Barack Obama established the monument in 2013 “for the benefit of present and future generations,” the coastal landscape that bears witness to Tubman’s story is threatened by rising waters and subsidence, with the refuge having lost some 5,000 acres of wetlands since 1938.

Holden Arboretum, Kirtland, Ohio
One of the largest botanical gardens in the United States, the Holden Arboretum opened to the public in 1937. Located just a few miles from the banks of Lake Erie, this 3,500-acre ecological museum comprises a patchwork of old-growth forests, young post-agriculture forests, and wetlands combined with more than 200 acres of cultivated gardens showcasing an immense diversity of plants from around the region and the world. The increasingly evident results of climate change have begun to cause dramatic shifts in the arboretum’s ecology, adversely affecting its natural areas and plant collections alike. In response to these challenges, the arboretum is acting as a laboratory to develop climate-hardy, disease-resistant species that will help create more resilient landscapes for a warming planet.

Isle de Jean Charles, Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana
Characterized by barrier islands, ridges, forested wetlands, natural levees, and marshes, the Isle de Jean Charles, which lies in Louisiana’s Mississippi Delta, became a sanctuary to Native Americans escaping slavery and the horrors of the infamous Trail of Tears (1830–1839). Descended from French settlers, the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw community has kept their cultural lifeways alive for more than 170 years, engaging in subsistence living on their ancestral lands. But the arrival of the fossil fuel industry in the 1950s and the growing ferocity of storms in the wake of global warming have hastened the loss of one of the last Native American cultural landscapes in the region.

Puʻukoholā Heiau National Historic Site, Kawaihae, Hawai'i
Built between 1790 to 1791 by Kamehameha the Great on the northwestern coast of the island of Hawai'i, the Puʻukoholā Heiau temple symbolizes the birth of the modern Kingdom of Hawai'i and is now a national historic site. Constructed of lava rocks and consecrated with the sacrifice of a political rival, the temple precinct was meant to fulfill the fourth and final prophecy that would aid Kamehameha’s rise to power. But today, rising tides, ocean acidification, and invasive species threaten to irreversibly alter the only historic landscape that is directly linked to the unification of the Hawaiian Islands.

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