Natural Resources Democrats are working to fight the climate crisis. In this series, we’ll share the climate solutions we’ve proposed and offer insights on how they’ll help save our planet.
Climate change is wreaking havoc on our planet. The United States needs to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide and methane, to slow and stop the climate crisis. Reducing our greenhouse gas footprint is the biggest and most consequential step we can take to respond to the climate crisis.
There are lots of important and feasible ways to do that. But we shouldn’t lose sight of all the other ways we need to respond to a rapidly worsening climate. We can’t reduce emissions everywhere at all times. Climate change is already having a serious impact on many places across the country. We’ve all seen the headlines about increasing droughts, wildfires, and dying wildlife. Our politics need to reflect the need — and great potential — for natural systems to sequester carbon, and to adapt and become more resilient to the climate changes we know we can’t prevent.
The best available science shows that when we protect natural areas — particularly areas that currently have little development — we don’t just save nice places to look at. We protect important ecosystems that support wildlife and increase resiliency to climate change by maintaining clean water and clean air. Scientists have called on national governments around the world to protect 30 percent of natural areas on land by 2030 to help stem the effects of climate change.
At the Natural Resources Committee, the Democratic majority takes the climate crisis and conserving our public lands seriously. At one of our very first hearings this Congress, we heard testimony from leading experts about the impacts climate change is having on our public lands and what steps we can take to prevent them. We’ve listened to the people by passing bills out of the House of Representatives that protect Chaco Canyon and Colorado public lands from oil and gas drilling and that withdraw lands around the Grand Canyon from new mineral development.
Now we’re working to designate roughly 1.3 million acres of public lands across the country as wilderness. The collection of bills the Committee passed on Nov. 20 help protect our most undeveloped natural areas and support public lands’ role in solving the climate crisis. As we’re about to discuss in a bit more detail, wilderness areas will be critical for our country as we try to maintain our way of life through the climate struggles ahead.
First, we need to talk about what will happen if we do nothing. Then we’ll talk about how the Committee is tackling the problem.
Public lands are both a significant contributor to and a high-profile casualty of climate change. The U.S. Geological Survey reported in November 2018 that public lands contribute nearly 25 percent of all U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, largely due to the tremendous amount of coal still mined on federal lands. These same public lands are among the hardest-hit victims of climate change, with significant changes occurring at extraordinary rates in a variety of federally protected ecosystems.
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The only comprehensive analysis to date of all 417 National Park Service (NPS) sites found that from 1895 to 2010, the mean annual temperature experienced across the park system increased at double the rate for the U.S. as a whole. The same analysis found that precipitation declined across national park areas at four times the rate it declined across the rest of the United States. These changes were led by parks in Alaska (temperature and precipitation change), Hawaii (precipitation change) and the Southwest (precipitation change).
Research suggests that in future “high emissions” scenarios, 100 percent of the land managed by NPS would experience a mean annual temperature increase greater than 2° Celsius, which we know would be hard for many species to survive through adaptation. This is especially true for species confined to specific ranges, such as within national park boundaries. Our parks will experience the full brunt of climate change, and without action at the federal level, there is good reason to believe they will be unable to respond.
We have already seen changes to park ecosystems as a result of these quickly intensifying climatic changes. Scientists have documented impacts on mammal communities in Yosemite National Park; tree and bird species in the Sierra Nevada Mountains; sea-level rise “at rates of up to 37 cm per century in 19 national parks along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts”; and the “doubling of tree mortality between 1955 and 2007” across national parks in the Western United States. In the near future, climate change could very well melt the glaciers in Glacier National Park or deprive Joshua Tree National Park of its namesake species.
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These outcomes impact entire ecosystems and the human communities that rely on them. Forest scientists, including those at the U.S. Forest Service, have found that climate change and associated increases in temperature are the leading factor causing the larger and more destructive wildfires we’ve seen recently on national forest lands. These trends will only worsen as days get warmer and soil moisture decreases. Western communities from Alaska to Colorado will suffer from heightened drought conditions as the precipitation and snowpack they rely on for their water and power becomes less reliable.
Federal public lands should be seen as a key component of adapting to our new climate reality. They already capture nearly 4 percent of all U.S. emissions, and they’re getting more attention in the national conversation about emissions mitigation and transitioning to cleaner energy sources. Public lands are a crucial component of the climate adaptation conversation.
In a comprehensive look at what public lands mean to our overall environment — and to us as people — the multi-national North American Committee on Cooperation for Wilderness and Protected Areas Conservation (NAWPA) found a few years ago that protected areas play six key roles in responding to climate change:
- Protecting Biodiversity
- Protecting Ecosystem Services, including clean air and clean water
- Connecting Landscapes to improve wildlife corridors
- Capturing and Storing Carbon
- Building Knowledge and Understanding, by providing space for scientific research of climate impacts
- Inspiring People to care about the natural world and the impacts of climate change
These six key factors, developed by senior officials at land management agencies in the United States, Mexico, and Canada, give us good criteria to consider in making policy and responding to the climate crisis. Among the key takeaways:
- Public lands provide opportunities to protect biodiversity and to preserve ecosystems. By protecting these places and helping them adapt to the impacts of climate change, we protect the services these areas provide to human communities.
- Conservation lands help store and filter water, so our communities have clean water to drink. These lands also help prevent floodwaters from increasingly significant rainfall events associated with climate change.
- Conservation lands protect pollinators which are key to human agricultural production. Global forests are some of the most effective tools we have for capturing and storing climate warming emissions.
These and the many other services provided by protected lands provide $125 trillion per year in global economic value. These values aren’t easily captured by accounting measures designed for normal goods and services — but they’re essential to our daily lives. If you prefer to think in dollars and cents, consider this: Because of the loss of protected space globally, we are losing somewhere between $4.3 trillion and $20.2 trillion annually in ecosystem services values.
The United States is hardly immune to this global loss in protected areas. Only 12 percent of U.S. lands are protected from human development, half of which are in Alaska, and the pace of new protections has slowed almost to a stop. Some studies even suggest that America is losing a football field’s worth of natural area to development every 30 seconds.
These concerning trends are only made worse by the Trump administration’s recent push to open protected public lands to new destructive uses. From the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments to Chaco Culture National Historical Park, and many more places besides, this administration has put tens of million acres of public lands at risk of exploitation that we can’t reverse. If we want to get serious about responding to climate change, we need to change course.
The Democrats on this Committee want to reverse these trends and conserve the lands and waters on which Americans rely. In his recent work, the famed ecologist E. O. Wilson recommends that half the planet be protected as natural areas.
Scientists around the globe have echoed that call and added a sense of urgency, setting a minimum bar of protecting 30 percent of the land surface of the planet by 2030 in order to keep the Earth habitable for future generations of human and non-human species.
That call is starting to be heard in Congress. Two influential senators recently introduced legislation to set a 30 by 30 goal for the United States. We’ve been working since the beginning of the 116th Congress to meet these goals by protecting public lands across the nation.
As we’ve seen from NAWPA and others, protecting wild places is key to supporting human communities and responding to climate change. These lands provide important services that human and non-human communities rely on.
Natural areas are helpful for preserving biodiversity, but they don’t work as well if they don’t have real limits on human development, such as those afforded under the Wilderness Act (the standard for “protected areas” in the NAWPA study). Recognizing wild places and protecting them accordingly has benefits that go well beyond the boundaries of the legally protected lands themselves. Conserving nature helps protect our food supply, keeps our air clean, and ensures abundant clean water.
The enactment of The Wilderness Act made the United States the first country in the world to codify wilderness into law and to provide mechanisms for its designation. Congress passed this historic law with a nearly unanimous vote in response to concerns about a growing human population and what it would mean for increased development.
Not all public lands are designated as wilderness. We apply other layers of protection to some public lands, such as by creating national parks or national monuments. When we establish wilderness, it’s to indicate special areas almost entirely unimpacted by human development — lands that reflect the “state of nature.”
Wilderness area designations withdraw these lands from development, like energy extraction and timber harvesting, and from damaging uses like grazing and motorized vehicle use. Contrary to what anti-environment spokespeople like to say, wilderness designations do not cut off the public from our public lands. You’re more than welcome to camp, hike, swim, canoe, fish, cross-country ski, and simply appreciate the wonders of unimpacted nature in these special places.
In the United States today, there are 803 wilderness areas in 44 states and Puerto Rico. In total, these designated areas protect 111,365,114 acres of public land — providing a one-of-a-kind experience for all Americans to experience true wilderness.
These lands are also some of the most effective at achieving our climate adaptation and mitigation goals. Wilderness researchers have shown that these special areas have significant benefits for recreation, passive use, scientific study, biodiversity, off-site property values, ecological services, and public education. Nearby communities succeed when these places are protected. These highly intact ecosystems are good for the environment, the climate, our communities, and the economy.
Democrats on the Natural Resources Committee have worked hard in the 116th Congress to expand conservation on our public lands. We can make conservation part of the climate change solution. Here are just a few highlights from our work so far.
The first hearing of the 116th Congress hosted by the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands focused on climate change and public lands by examining the impacts and adaptation opportunities.
On Oct. 30 and 31, the House of Representatives passed bills — originally considered by the Natural Resources Committee — to protect public lands around the Grand Canyon, around Chaco Canyon, and across the State of Colorado, offering new protections to roughly 1.8 million acres of our public land from mining, drilling, and other destructive uses.
- H.R. 823, the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy (CORE) Act by Rep. Joe Neguse, protects approximately 400,000 acres of public land in Colorado. Of the total, more than half the acreage is in the form of federal mineral withdrawals, approximately 73,000 acres are new wilderness areas, and nearly 80,000 acres are protected as recreation, wildlife conservation, and special management areas. This bill provides permanent protections for Colorado’s clean air, clean water, wildlife, and local communities while bolstering the state’s rapidly growing outdoor recreation economy.
- H.R. 1373, the Grand Canyon Centennial Protection Act by Chair Raúl M. Grijalva, permanently prohibits new mining claims on approximately 1 million acres of public lands around Grand Canyon National Park. These protections would preserve the sole source of drinking water for many tribal communities, protect the Colorado River watershed from mining impacts, and safeguard an iconic landscape that underpins the regional economy.
- H.R. 2181, the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act by Rep. Ben Ray Luján, withdraws public lands within a 10-mile buffer zone around Chaco Culture National Historical Park. This bill protects an important ancestral site for Puebloan and other Native American communities, prevents damage to cultural and archaeological resources in the region, and safeguards local communities from the toxic impacts of oil and gas development.
On Sept. 11, the House passed two bills that prevent oil and gas leasing along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, protecting America’s oceans and coastal communities from the dangerous impacts of offshore oil and gas development. The Trump administration has fought to open more than 90 percent of America’s oceans to oil and gas development. We’re standing with coastal communities to protect our oceans and local economies.
- H.R. 205, the Protecting and Securing Florida’s Coastline Act by Rep Francis Rooney and Rep. Kathy Castor, places a permanent ban on oil and gas leasing in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. The existing moratorium on leasing in the eastern Gulf is set to expire in 2022. This bill would protect the tourism, outdoor recreation, and fishing economies up and down the Gulf coast that depend on healthy marine and coastal resources and ensure that drilling does not compromise America’s military readiness.
- H.R. 1941, the Coastal and Marine Economies Protection Act by Rep. Joe Cunningham, permanently bans oil and gas leasing on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. This protects local economies from the risk of oil spills and helps coastal states decrease their reliance on fossil fuels.
On Sept. 12, the House passed Rep. Jared Huffman’s bill protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil and gas extraction. The Arctic Refuge is one of the wildest places left in the entire United States, spanning millions of acres on the North Slope of Alaska.
The Trump administration wants to open these lands to dangerous new drilling. but Committee Democrats stood with the local Gwich’in tribe to protect the Refuge’s unique wildlife — including caribou, polar bears, and hundreds of other species — and sacred tribal land.
- H.R. 1146, the Arctic Cultural and Coastal Plain Protection Act (Rep. Huffman), repeals a provision of the 2017 Republican tax bill, H.R. 1, that opened the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development. This bill protects the Arctic Refuge’s 1.5 million-acre coastal plain, considered the “biological heart” of the region, from the detrimental impacts of oil and gas development — preserving important denning habitat for polar bears, calving ground for caribou, and habitat for over 200 species of migratory birds. This bill ensures that our nation’s greatest wild place is protected for the benefit of current and future generations.
On Nov. 19, the Natural Resources Committee marked up four major new wilderness bills in the Natural Resources Committee, protecting roughly 1.3 million acres of public land in California and Colorado.
- H.R. 2199, the Central Coast Heritage Protection Act by Rep. Judy Chu, protects approximately 250,000 acres of public land in Southern California as wilderness. The bill would also add 159 river miles to the National Wild and Scenic River System and study the creation of a new 400-mile long scenic trail. The protections proposed by H.R. 2199 would protect clean water, encourage multiple-use recreational opportunities, and safeguard critical wildlife habitats and unique ecosystems.
- H.R. 2215, the San Gabriel Mountains Foothills and Rivers Protection Act by Rep. Ted Lieu, would expand the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument and designate more than 30,000 acres of wilderness areas and 45.5 miles of protected rivers in Southern California. These protections would improve the accessibility and ecological connectivity of the San Gabriel watershed, connecting one of the country’s most park-poor regions to nearby public lands and safeguarding clean drinking water supplies for Los Angeles County.
- H.R. 2250, the Northwest California Wilderness, Recreation, and Working Forests Act by Rep. Jared Huffman, designates new wilderness areas, wild and scenic rivers, and recreation and conservation areas, and also creates a watershed restoration designation for 730,000 acres of public land in Northern California. The measure would protect clean water, safeguard critical wildlife habitats, and increase wildfire resiliency in Northern California.
- H.R. 2546, the Colorado Wilderness Act of 2019 by Rep. Diana DeGette, protects approximately 600,000 acres of public land in Colorado by designating 30 wilderness areas and designating two new potential wilderness areas. Wilderness designations help address climate change, protect pristine wildlife habitats, preserve clean water resources, and enhance opportunities for outdoor recreation.
On Nov. 13, the Committee held a hearing on Roadless Areas in Tongass National Forest. The Tongass is the largest intact temperate rainforest in the United States and one of our largest remaining carbon sinks. The Trump administration is trying to roll back protections in this protected place for the benefit of a few corporate allies against the wishes of local tribes, recreationalists, and conservationists. The Committee is highlighting voices they’re ignoring and fighting to protect one of the most important landscapes in our fight against climate change.
On June 19 we approved permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). LWCF is one of America’s most successful conservation programs, protecting high-value habitats, watersheds, and carbon sinks across the country since 1965. This bill ensures that LWCF receives the permanent funding it deserves and guarantees that the $900 million collected in the LWCF account every year goes towards projects on the ground. LWCF supports hundreds of conservation efforts around the country, allowing us to conserve and protect the public land that is so important in our fight against climate change.
We’ll keep fighting to conserve the landscapes and habitats Americans love and our communities rely on.
We hope you’ll join us in our fight to #ProtectWildPlaces.