With climate change, Oregon coastal parks face a new norm: Severe weather and rising sea level
Trees lining the path to Arcadia Beach slant back against the hillside as if permanently enduring invisible gale-force winds.
The path down to the beach buckles and drops. A winter storm first washed away access to Arcadia Beach in 2015 and landslides and erosion continue to warp the path. Caution tape blocks off a spot near a set of stairs where the ground has crumbled away.
The state expects to begin rerouting and repairing the path this year. In the past, the storm damage would have been written off as the type of problem you just have to deal with on the coast sometimes.
After all, the popular parks in the Nehalem Bay Management Unit — including Arcadia Beach, not far from Cannon Beach — are dynamic landscapes. Park staff are used to seeing unusually high waves or storm surges wash out stairs or erode embankments during rough winters.
But now, park manager Ben Cox said, “we’re seeing that happen more and more with less power and force behind a storm because the water level is just higher to begin with.”
The days of simply making a repair at a place like Arcadia Beach and hoping it lasts may be over. The byproducts of climate change, such as more severe weather and rising sea levels as oceans warm and expand and glaciers melt, are already becoming apparent.
“I think the biggest shift for everyone is understanding that the events we’re responding to — the landslides and erosion — are, by and large now, not (the result of) meteorological outliers but the new norm,” Cox said.
Climate change has begun to influence a host of decisions at coastal state parks, from what land is acquired to how trails and facilities are repaired, replaced or even relocated.
Recent property acquisitions like Sitka Sedge near Pacific City “are either protected from some of the most dramatic effects, or are capable of adapting to it, or serve as a place to observe and understand these changes as they occur,” said Chris Havel, a spokesman for the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department.
Meanwhile, planners see how some coastal properties not exposed to the ocean may serve “as a savings account of sorts that could provide recreational opportunities if other properties become less usable,” he added.
A climate change response plan prepared by the department in 2010 predicted a range of impacts to state parks.
These included saltwater intrusion into estuaries; changes in where wildlife species are able to survive and thrive; localized extinctions; increased risk of forest fires; flooding at some park facilities; and erosion that could threaten park infrastructure or historical sites, and even, in some cases, lead to the loss of entire facilities and beaches.
“The past is no longer an appropriate guide to future conditions,” the plan stated, “and immediate and long-term preparation and proactive adaptation to the consequences of climate change is necessary at all levels throughout (the department).”
The response plan cautioned park managers to consider not only how people access and enjoy a site, but also how messages and stories about sites might need to change over time. Some parks are working to better educate visitors about how human activities like climbing or carving into crumbling coastal cliffs exacerbates erosion that may already be accelerated by climate change.
Despite the awareness of the possible impacts of climate change, many of the management plans for parks in the Nehalem Bay Management Unit are old. They do not include references to climate change, or recommendations on concrete, site-specific steps parks like Ecola or Nehalem Bay should take to withstand climate-related shifts.
“Park plans done up through the early 2000s didn’t actively incorporate the influences of sea-level change, storms and erosion, and earthquakes (and) tsunamis,” Havel said, “and now they do.”
For instance, a 2012 campground proposal for Cape Lookout State Park, south of Tillamook, noted that trees at campgrounds were dying from saltwater intrusion and needed to be replaced with plants able to thrive in a changing environment. There is a long-term plan to relocate the campground inland within park boundaries and allow areas that have to be abandoned to return to a natural state.
But a management plan for Nehalem Bay State Park completed in 2009 includes maps that sketch out a kind of dream sheet for the park, including new campgrounds and new trails — all in a place likely to suffer both from rising sea level and a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake and tsunami.
At the time the plan was drafted, the park had been identified as one of two on the North Coast with room to expand camping facilities “to help meet the growing unmet demand.”
Nehalem Bay was the parks department’s third most popular park in terms of the number of overnight stays last year. Fort Stevens State Park was number one with 279,432 overnight stays.
General concerns about sea-level rise, global warming and natural disasters were raised during public comment periods and listed in a summary of key issues in the plan. Still, if that management plan were drafted today — nearly a decade later — it would likely look very different. There are little adjustments Cox and park planners can make, though. Given newer information about both climate change and natural disasters, some of the recreation trails proposed at Nehalem Bay are being reworked as evacuation routes.
Beach accesses and hiking trails that already exist can’t be easily — or cheaply — moved at random to accommodate new concerns. But where erosion or landslides have damaged parks, planners are now looking at ways to incorporate what they know about climate impacts. In some cases, a trail might be rerouted instead of just repaired.
No real certainty
At Fort Stevens, outside Hammond, park rangers track changing sand conditions and there has been a push to try to bring more battery-powered equipment on board. The park is experimenting with its first electric-powered riding mower. If it’s possible to go with a smaller-sized vehicle or something electric-powered, in general, “we do that where historically we may have bought gas,” said park manager Justin Parker.
Park managers still face one big problem, though. There is no real certainty about exactly how or when climate change will hit any given area within a park. Impacts can vary between even neighboring sites based on any number of conditions: The presence or absence of streams, or old, slow-moving landslides. Sharp, steep cliffs versus an area that transitions into soft dunes.
The state has tried to get ahead of recreation trends and demographic information. When it comes to the impacts of climate change, however, park managers find they may have to wait and see what actually happens at a park first.
At Arcadia Beach, it took park staff some time before they realized they really couldn’t go back and repair the same access, cross their fingers and hope the next winter would be calmer.
The waiting, Cox said, “flies in the face of everything that we want to do.”