Washington State Parks Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment

Full Title

Preparing Washington State Parks for Climate Impacts: A Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment for Washington State Parks

Project Overview

The Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission manages some of Washington’s most valued water bodies, diverse landscapes, and historical properties. The State Parks system includes 125 developed parks, including marine parks, historical parks, heritage sites, interpretive centers, and more than 700 historic properties. The agency also manages significant areas of wetland and riparian habitat, evergreen forest, beaches, rivers, lakes and approximately 500 miles of recreational trails. State Parks provides Washingtonians with the opportunity to connect with the State’s diverse natural and cultural heritage sites and to engage in recreational and educational activities. The ability of State Parks to preserve Washington’s diverse landscapes and continue to serve as a conduit of outdoor recreation and education is vital to the agency’s mission.

Preparation for the impacts of climate change has become critical as the agency strives to create and sustain a healthy parks system. Parks has already experienced many climate related issues which will be exacerbated by climate change. For example:

  • Winter flooding has resulted in campsite closures at Potlatch, Belfair, Twanoh, Ocean City, Twin Harbors, and Grayland Beach state parks.
  • Low snowpack years, such as the 2014-2015 winter, have resulted in lower Sno-Park permit sales and snowmobile registrations.
  • Wildfires have caused temporary park closures and have damaged park infrastructure. Washington’s record breaking 2015 fire season resulted in a five-week closure of Alta Lake State Park and damaged large swaths of forested park land.
  • In the Northwest Region, the beach and cabins at Cama Beach State Park frequently flood during annual King Tides.

Understanding how climate change may affect State Parks’ properties, facilities, operations, and state-wide programs is critical for ensuring State Parks continued ability to provide “memorable recreational and educational experiences.” Concerns about the effects of climate change impacts led the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission to pass a resolution in 2015 directing the agency to develop a climate change preparedness plan.

As an initial step toward developing that plan, the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission contracted with the University of Washington Climate Impacts Group (CIG) to conduct a climate change vulnerability assessment for State Parks’ properties, facilities, operations, and state-wide programs. Understanding the impacts of climate change on State Parks is a necessary foundation for reducing climate risks, protecting Parks’ investments, and ensuring continued program success.

This vulnerability assessment combines published literature and data with the expert knowledge of Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission staff and CIG. To begin the assessment, CIG prepared summaries of projected climate change impacts relevant to State Parks from existing literature and data sets (available in Appendix B). CIG then convened four workshops with State Parks staff to assess the implications of climate change impacts on each of the Parks’ three regions (Northwest, Southwest, and Eastern) and on statewide programs (Planning, Stewardship, and Winter Recreation) (Figure 1). Workshop participants were asked to rate their ability to adjust to projected climate impacts and to rate the expected consequences of the impacts to their mission and responsibilities

Figure 1. Washington State Parks regions. Purple areas show the locations of parks within each region. Darker shading indicates tribal reservations and lighter shading indicates national parks and national forests. Figure source: R. Norheim, UW Climate Impacts Group.

The results from these workshops indicate that the State Parks system is expected to be affected by climate change through a variety of pathways. Over the course of the three regional and statewide workshops four primary climate drivers that are expected to affect State Parks emerged:

  • Changes in precipitation and streamflow. As temperatures across Washington State continue to rise, a greater fraction of winter precipitation will fall as rain rather than snow, resulting in higher winter streamflows, and lower summer streamflows. The most frequently discussed concerns during project workshops were the potential for more erosion, landslides, washouts, flooding, heavy precipitation events, and stormwater management issues. These impacts may block or limit access to parks, damage infrastructure or facilities, and may require relocation of facilities and campgrounds in low-lying areas.
  • Changes in snowpack. The Washington Cascades and Olympic Mountains contain the highest fraction of “warm snow”, or snow falling within a few degrees of freezing (32°F), in the continental United States (Mote et al. 2008). As a result, warming winter temperatures associated with climate change are projected to reduce snowpack accumulation and shorten Washington’s snow season. These changes are likely to lead to a drop in Sno-Park permit purchases and snowmobile registrations over time. Lower sales would affect annual revenue for the Winter Recreation Program and may reduce emergency budget reserves, leaving the program more vulnerable to year-to-year variability in snowpack and funding.
  • Changes in ecosystem health and vegetation disturbance. Warming temperatures, declining summer precipitation, and declining snowpack will stress trees and vegetation in ways that are expected to change the prevalence and location of insect and disease damage, increase annual area burned, and increase the area and intensity of droughts (Snover et al. 2013, Mauger et al. 2015). Increased wildfire activity is expected to result in more campsite cancellations, more frequent park closures, costly repairs to damaged infrastructure, reduced air quality due to smoke, and diversion of staff and resources. Additionally, damage from insects and disease would exacerbate existing forest health issues in many parks, potentially increasing tree fall impacts on park operations.
  • Sea level rise and related impacts. Sea level is projected to continue rising in Washington State throughout the 21st century. Higher tides and storm surge, erosion, and permanent inundation of low-lying areas are expected to increasingly disrupt or limit access to park beaches and facilities. Relocating low-lying facilities and campsites to higher areas will only be possible if suitable areas exist within a park. Additionally, managing erosion issues is an ongoing and costly challenge for State Parks with few permanent solutions.

The workshops with agency staff also revealed five cross-cutting programmatic issues and concerns that are common across climate change impacts, regions, and statewide programs. These findings include:

  • Siting park infrastructure. Climate change impacts are likely to affect the design and siting of park facilities. At coastal parks, sea level rise and increased erosion may influence relocation of parking lots, bathroom facilities, and may cause reconsideration of stairway, roads, and trail location. At river parks, increased heavy rain events and larger floods are likely to influence facility siting and design, stormwater management, culverts, bridges, and flood protection.
  • Park access. Visitor access to parks or specific park amenities (e.g., beachfront, hiking trails) could be blocked more frequently due to climate change impacts. Flooding from sea level rise and storm surge, erosion, landslides, changes in tree health, and wildfire can each prevent access to parks, campsites, trails or beaches for short or long periods. Changes in the location or prevalence of disease or insects can compromise tree health, resulting in more downed or at-risk trees, which can lead to trail, campground or other facility closures.
  • Water Features. Warming temperatures will increase demand for water features such as rivers, lakes, beaches, and boating facilities. These features are likely to experience more use and may require enhanced management for maintenance and public safety. Additionally, warming water temperatures will likely result in increased algal blooms, increased Vibrio outbreaks, and reduced water quality that may result in the closure of designated swimming areas.
  • Park Visits and Revenue. Climate change impacts could have a range of negative and positive effects on visitation and revenue and will likely vary by park. If river flooding, erosion or tree health concerns lead to campground or trail closures, revenue from user fees are likely to decline. However, warmer summer temperatures may increase summer visitation at western Washington parks, particularly at popular parks and/or parks with water features. A longer warm dry season could increase visitation in the shoulder seasons (Spring and Fall) causing earlier openings and later closing for seasonal parks. This is likely to increase revenues, but will also involve heavier use and increased costs for operations and maintenance of parking lots, trails, amenities, and facilities such as restrooms and septic systems.
  • Historic structures and archeological sites. State Parks manages a wide range of historic structures and geologic and cultural sites that could be compromised by climate change impacts. Sea level rise, flooding, erosion, wildfire, and landslides may put more historic facilities in harm’s way, requiring Parks to move, protect, or abandon facilities.

In addition to highlighting climate change impacts that are anticipated to create new challenges for State Parks and exacerbate existing threats, this assessment revealed that many State Parks staff are already adjusting to climate change-related impacts such as sea level rise and changes in snowpack, flood risk, wildfire risk, tree health, and water supply reliability. However, responses are typically implemented by individual initiative, and staff noted that gaining approval for infrastructure and design approaches beyond the regulatory and budgetary minimum can be difficult. Climate change is expected to exacerbate the impacts and consequences that currently confront managers. Staff participating in this assessment indicated support for a proactive approach to addressing the increasing pace and scale of climate change impacts.

The assessment findings also revealed that each region, and in some cases each park, experiences climate change impacts uniquely. For example, sea level rise is a key concern for many coastal parks since it contributes to erosion, loss of beach area, inundation of coastal structures, and damage to coastal infrastructure such as roads, parking lots, trails, and stairs. In contrast, eastern Washington parks are more likely to be affected by tree health issues, reduced water access, wildfire, and extreme heat. The effects of climate change on a given park will be specific to the park setting, its features, and the geographically specific expression of climate change impacts. While this assessment provides a qualitative indication of expected impacts, these results should be validated at the park level.

Key Personnel (* indicates CIG personnel or CIG Affiliate)

Lara Whitely Binder, University of Washington*

Harriet Morgan, University of Washington*

Dan Siemann, University of Washington*

Key Collaborators

Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission


Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission

Download the Report

PDF available here


Whitely Binder, L., H. Morgan, and D. Siemann. 2017. Preparing Washington State Parks for Climate Impacts: A Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment for Washington State Parks. A collaboration of the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission and the University of Washington Climate Impacts Group. Seattle, WA. https://doi.org/10.7915/CIG6B27QV

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