TACOMA, Wash. - Thousands of cars, pickup trucks and minivans carry visitors to Mount Rainier, North Cascades and Olympic national parks. They leave behind tons of plastic water bottles, granola bar wrappers and banana peels.
Mount Rainier staff have a two-hour, 60-mile drive just to get from one area of the park to another.
Heating the Hurricane Ridge visitor center at Olympic costs almost $12,000 a year for diesel fuel.
Not exactly what most people would consider the "green" image expected of the National Park Service. But that's about to change. Working with the Environmental Protection Agency, the Park Service has launched the Climate Friendly Parks program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
"Our national parks can be used to demonstrate the impacts of climate change," said Shawn Norton, who heads the climate program for the Park Service.
Raising the ante, the Western region office wants park operations to be carbon neutral by 2016, the 100th anniversary of the Park Service's creation.
It won't be an easy task. All the driving, waste and utility consumption - not to mention the energy to power employee computers, to buy fuel for snowplows and to haul away food scraps - spew greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. As a result, the state's three national parks have an estimated combined carbon footprint of 30,820 metric tons of carbon dioxide. That's the equivalent of a year's worth of emissions from 2,667 households, or about double the size of Nooksack and Everson combined.
A carbon footprint estimates the amount of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and other greenhouse gases. The footprints for Mount Rainier, North Cascades and Olympic national parks are produced by the more than 5 million people who visit and the functions needed to operate the more than 1.85 million acres at the parks.
To identify what contributes to each park's footprint and how to reduce emissions, staffers at the three parks met in two-day workshops in February and March. The ideas are in their embryonic stage, and no cost has been calculated for them.
"It's a pretty ambitious goal to become carbon neutral for park operations by 2016," said acting Mount Rainier superintendent Randy King. "We have to start working on that now to reach that goal."
Park officials want to reduce carbon emissions because scientists believe greenhouse gases are responsible for changes in the Northwest climate. The result has been more frequent and stronger storms lashing the Northwest and warmer weather, resulting in more winter rain and less snow at higher elevations.
"One-hundred-year floods are now happening every 14 years," said Paul Kennard, a park scientist.
April snowpack measurements in the Cascades and the north Sierra have declined from 1950 to 1997, said Alan Hamlet of the climate impact group at the University of Washington Department of Civil and Environment Engineering.
"By 2020, they are predicting a 27 to 29 percent loss of snowpack compared to 1980 levels," Hamlet said. This means snow-reliant river basins, such as the Quinault, the Skagit and the Yakima will see an increase in winter flows, peak flows earlier in the year and lower summer flows, all of which could reduce fish populations in those rivers.
The effect of climate change on the parks is easy to see following each flood and by measuring receding glaciers. It's more difficult to gauge the impact on endangered species such as marbled murrelets, or the bloom of wildflowers such as Cascade aster in subalpine meadows.
"We should care because our resources are finite," said Karen Gustin, superintendent at Olympic National Park. "Being good stewards of our communities, whether a national park or a backyard, we have to be conscious of how we can protect those resources."
Chip Jenkins is the superintendent of the North Cascades National Park Complex that includes the Ross Lake and Lake Chalen National Recreation areas.
"National parks are the canary in the coal mine," he said. "We are places where there are leading indicators of what is going on in the United States.
"So if you are seeing changes in these parks, and we are, they are indicators of what you will see elsewhere in the country." King said climate change is already affecting the parks.
"It's hard for visitors to access and enjoy Mount Rainier National Park when the roads and trails are washed out," King said. "A change of a few degrees in average temperature would certainly impair the park's plant and animal communities, glaciers and watersheds. Some species of plants and animals could be imperiled."
Park leaders said the Climate Friendly Park program will better focus efforts already under way to reduce emissions, and has required a change in thinking.
"When we started this program in 2002, the words 'climate change' weren't even to be spoken in the federal sector," said the Park Service's Norton.
Ideas generated during the workshop will be the foundation of a plan for each park. But steps to cut emissions have already been taken.
At Olympic, lights and a hand dryer in a Rialto Beach restroom are powered by a small wind-driven generator and solar panels. "Solar might not be unique to the rest of the world, but it's something new for us at the park," said Nancy Hendricks, the park's environmental protection specialist.
A North Cascades heavy-equipment operator suggested the park reduce the use of fuel-guzzling heavy-duty pickup trucks by using a trailer to haul tools. Smaller, more fuel-efficient trucks can pull the trailer or it can be left behind when not needed.
The worker, Reilly O'Brien, "already figured it out. He didn't have to be told to do it," Jenkins said.
That philosophy - do the most that can be done with existing resources - is the approach Gustin is taking in Olympic.
"We just have to set some reasonable goals," she said. "We have to remember what changes we'll make will be positive and get us toward our goal."
The long-term ramifications are what drive King to find solutions now at Mount Rainier.
"The scientists tell us that climate change is under way, we can't stop it at this point. But they also tell us that we can still make choices about how we live in our homes and communities - that will affect the scope, severity and impacts of the change," he said. "Ultimately, we have to ask, what kind of world do we want our children to inherit?"