Climate Change and Public Lands
by Allen H. Olson
Climate change is not only real, it is affecting us now. Efforts to curb CO2 and methane emissions to date may have slowed the rate of change but have been unable to reverse it, and temperatures continue to rise. On April 29th, hundreds of thousands of people marched in Washington, DC and in other cities to protest the Trump administration’s actions to dismantle US climate change programs. Whether the administration listened is doubtful, and things are likely to get worse before they get better.
The effects of global warming are all around us – major reductions in the arctic and antarctic ice sheets, significant rises in sea level, catastrophic weather events including both drought and floods, an ever longer fire season, famine in Africa, and extinction of species. In New Mexico, warmer temperatures have accelerated the rate at which bark beetles kill off trees and forests, and already tenuous water supplies are threatened by reduced snow packs and by a newly described phenomenon called “flash drought.”
Climate change is not just a matter of aesthetics. Climate change causes economic harm and reduces the well being of people. Efforts to slow climate change must continue, but now we must also face the challenge of survival in a harsher environment. Resilience will be key to future prosperity.
In New Mexico and many other states, public lands can help provide resilience. The loss of public lands will have the opposite effect.
Public lands are currently leased for mineral extraction and for grazing of livestock. They are also a major source of recreation for hikers, horseback riders, hunters, fishermen, skiers, and tourists who come to see their spectacular vistas. Without the dollars expended by recreational users, New Mexico would be a much poorer place.
However, the most important benefits provided by public lands are none of the above. The most important benefits are the moderating effects large tracts of undeveloped land have on climate and on water resources. Open land absorbs and dissipates heat, and its vegetation sequesters carbon from the air. Open land is a carbon sink, which offsets carbon emissions. Developed areas, on the other hand, are net producers of CO2 and concentrate heat in pavement and buildings.
Public lands collect snow and rain water and slow its discharge into rivers and streams providing a more consistent, useful flow for homes, industry and agriculture and helping to prevent destructive flash flooding. Public land also acts as a buffer to private development, pushing that development into existing built up areas and reducing inefficient, carbon producing urban sprawl.
The resiliency provided by public lands must be maximized by careful management. Mineral exaction must be stringently regulated, and the extraction of fossil fuels banned altogether. It makes no sense to use public land to increase the carbon emissions that threaten to destroy us. Livestock grazing must also be regulated. Overgrazing both reduces vegetation necessary for carbon sequestration and causes erosion and flooding that waste soil and water resources. Some areas should not be grazed at all.
Recreation on public lands should be encouraged to increase local revenue but also to generate support for protecting public lands. This means spending adequate sums to keep trails open and to build facilities that allow people better access to public lands with the caveat that wilderness areas should remain remote.
The resiliency provided by public lands can only occur if they remain public. No private concern, no matter how benevolent, can be trusted to put all the public benefits of public lands ahead of its own profit interests. Any attempts by the Trump administration to transfer public lands to private interests, or to allow individuals and companies to lease public lands at low rents and with little regulation, must be steadfastly opposed. People should also urge their representatives to secure adequate funding for federal and state land management agencies. Nothing less than our future is at stake.
Allen H. Olson
Institute of Agricultural Law & Climate Change
PO Box 14
Cerrillos, NM 87010