This opinion editorial was published in Roll Call.
In 1850, the estimated number of glaciers in what would become Glacier National Park was 150; today, it is 26. The Joshua trees in Joshua Tree National Park are dying. Our national parks require and deserve attention from Congress and the Obama administration. We must take strong and swift action to combat climate change on federal lands, or these parks and others like them will need new names.
Forests, wildlife refuges, national parks and other federally owned lands represent a 650-million-acre front in the battle against global climate change, but federal land management agencies have yet to take up the fight in earnest. Climate change, 100 years of fire suppression and a severe drought have combined to turn the American West into a tinderbox. The number of fires has quadrupled, their severity has increased and the annual cost to fight them has skyrocketed.
Warming temperatures have allowed bark beetles to thrive in unnaturally dense forests, killing trees and creating dangerous fuel loads that increase the number of devastating, high-intensity fires. It will only get worse. By 2100, much of the West is predicted to be 8 degrees warmer than the 1971-2000 average.
Warmer temperatures in spring cause earlier snow melt, leading to flooding, glacial melting and rising sea levels, followed by longer droughts and more severe wildfires. The Chugach National Forest (Alaska), Everglades National Park (Florida) and the California Desert Conservation Area, to name just a few, provide a record of these impacts and laboratories for exploring solutions. Capitalizing on these opportunities, however, will require significant work.
Step one: Reverse the Bush administration’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy on climate research. A 16-month investigation by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee found that “the Bush Administration has engaged in a systematic effort to manipulate climate change science and mislead policymakers and the public about the dangers of global warming.”
The mountains, forests, deserts and seashores owned by the American people are leading indicators of climate change, which the Bush administration edited, redacted, whitewashed, downplayed or ignored for years. Rigorous, well-funded climate research conducted on federal land, with results that are shared openly with policymakers and the public, must be a central feature of the Obama administration’s efforts to fight climate change.
Step two: Acknowledge that converting pristine wilderness and desert into fossil energy production facilities is, to use a technical term, dumb. “Drill, baby, drill” is insightful policy — for the 19th century. Today, we recognize that the utility of our public lands for fossil energy production is dwarfed by their value as natural, open spaces.
Ecosystems in their natural state, free from man-made stresses of pollution and fragmentation, lessen the impacts of climate change and adapt to them more easily once they occur. Undeveloped coastal areas buffer damage done by extreme weather while wilderness and forests provide refuge for threatened and endangered species. Fossil energy production robs our lands of these preventive, adaptive tools while increasing pollution and failing to guarantee cheap gas.
Once we have mastered our defense, we can switch to offense. Putting our public lands to work combating climate change will require a fundamental shift in management. Inertia, myopia and lack of money result in federal land managers required to focus on short-term goals while merely being allowed to engage in long-term planning.
As a result, land management plans designed to maintain the status quo take one step forward while climate change forces us two steps back. We cannot wait; we must begin making land management decisions based on our best guess about what the future holds. This will require land managers to risk being wrong — something they are often legally and politically prevented from doing.
Public lands should also be used for public education. Our public lands are ideal classrooms for learning about climate change and dedicated federal land managers could be fantastic teachers. Each year, tens of millions of people signal their interest and curiosity just by visiting.
Finally, land managers and their agencies must set aside turf wars and start working together. Managing a forest to combat climate change is pointless if it is not coordinated with the neighboring national park, the state land within the forest, the water users at both ends of the river that runs through it and the townsfolk nearby. There are current laws, such as the National Environmental Policy Act, designed to make such coordination and public involvement possible, but their promise has never been fully realized.
The gap between what we know about climate change and what our actions accomplished widened over the last eight years. Filling that leadership void will be a significant challenge and an important opportunity for the new administration. The consequences of continuing to fail to act could be severe; there just aren’t that many good names for national parks.