Can our fractured government come together for the sake of nature? (Spoiler alert: yes)
America’s public lands are a haven for adrenaline junkies: there’s no shortage of cliffs, rivers, caves, or other natural wonders to satisfy that thrill-seeking itch. Even if you’re not the outdoorsy type, you can, at the very least, exercise your cortisol limits over on Capitol Hill. At times, finding common ground in the current political landscape can seem as daunting as scaling El Cap.
Climate change issues also present a steep challenge. The Trump Administration has, time and again, ignored clear observable evidence of climate change impacts and continues to cast doubt about the degree to which humans are a contributing factor. What’s said in the Oval Office doesn’t have to be the end-all be-all, however. Now that Democrats have taken control over the House, that conversation can be steered in a positive direction.
The House Committee on Natural Resources, for one, has dedicated the entire month of February to climate change discussions.
The Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands’ hearing examined the impacts of climate change and adaptation opportunities. This could have been just another hearing in which Democrats’ call for climate action falls on deaf ears. But, in an unexpected turn of events, many Republicans on the subcommittee shared their sense of urgency.
Naturally, this sentiment wasn’t shared equally. On one end of the spectrum we’ve got Rob Bishop (R-UT), who largely dismissed the hearing as a “publicity stunt” for the Democratic-helmed Green New Deal. But on the other end, there’s John Curtis (R-UT), who not only regrets the stereotype that “Republicans hate the environment and Democrats are alarmists” but also believes neither to be true.
Other Republicans at the hearing sat closer to Curtis’ end of the spectrum than Bishop’s. Despite having called the climate issue a vehicle to “push a radically progressive agenda,” ranking member Don Young (R-AK) acknowledges the importance of the hearing, admitting that increased wildfires — one impact of climate change — contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and release particulate matter into the air.
There’s also Representative Bruce Westerman (R-AR), who came to the hearing having done a bit of homework. Rather than the latest “research” from climate denial think tanks such as the Heartland Institute, Westerman shared graphs pulled from Global Resources and the Environment, a graduate-level textbook published last summer by Cambridge University Press.
These efforts on the part of Republicans signal a real shift towards more meaningful discussions about climate change. Focusing on these members, rather than the divisive rhetoric of their colleagues, will be key to developing bipartisan legislation. Once we’re on the same page about climate change, we can begin exploring the ways to address it.
One place we can start right now is figuring out how to reduce wildfire risks. Both Democrats and Republicans agree that a hands-off approach is absolutely out of the question. A history of fire suppression in fire-prone areas has led to the build-up of woody debris, which, when combined with hotter, drier weather, and a spark from, say, a faulty power line, can result in unprecedented fires.
The best available science says that adaptive management — strategies that increase an ecosystem’s capacity to withstand and recover from shifting fire regimes — better promotes the longevity of our natural resources. And just as no two forests stands are exactly the same, neither should their adaptation practices.
One practice favored by Republicans is harvesting timber. While this strategy wouldn’t fly in our National Parks (such activities are illegal), it’s fair game in our National Forests, which must be managed for “multiple uses”: from hiking and fishing to the “sustained yield” of products like timber.
Given that Alaska is home to the largest tracks of National Forest land, it’s easy to understand why Representative Don Young is so eager to expand logging. In his opening testimony, he lamented the loss of trees due to poor management, saying that it’s also led to the loss of 6,000 high-paying middle-class timber jobs.
Those are some serious figures, but that doesn’t mean we should be logging trees to no end. According to one of the hearing’s witnesses, Dr. Lara Hansen, Executive Director and Chief Scientist of the non-profit EcoAdapt, we need to manage lands with an awareness that the climate is changing to maximize our rate of return. In her opening testimony, she notes this will be realized as “access to clean air, clean and plentiful water, flood control, wildlife, improved mental health, spiritual activities, recreational enjoyment, and long-term jobs.”
In addition to climate impacts, how will logging impact the returns on ecosystem services? What are the costs of the side-effects like increased flood risk and erosion? While timber is a significant part of the Alaskan economy, it’s not the only revenue source. Recreation, too, plays a huge role in people’s livelihoods. How would increasing timber harvest impact the communities dependent on ecotourism?
So many questions. Finding the best solutions hinges on the cooperation of all parties, and that means listening to all options, carefully considering all evidence, and weighing out the best strategy.
It’s not going to be easy, but it certainly isn’t impossible.