California may lead the nation’s global warming efforts, but report shows we can’t rest yet

Sierra Nevada Mountains. Photo by Clinton Steeds, Courtesy Flickr Creative Commons.

This week’s White House release of a climate change impacts report reinforces a familiar message for Californians: Our state is undergoing rapid changes to our cities and farms, our mountains and deserts. The Golden State must continue to respond to global warming because the consequences are so severe.

Fortunately, all is not gloom and doom. California is ahead of the nation because it took the first important step three years ago by passing the landmark global warming legislation – Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006.

Although this policy, also known as Assembly Bill 32, produced the nation’s most sweeping action to cut the emissions of heat-trapping gases, it is not nearly enough to prevent the potentially devastating impacts to our environment. A recent report by the California Environmental Protection Agency highlights the changes that are already occurring in California that represent serious threats to the health, environment, and economy of the state and its residents.

  • Average annual temperatures have risen approximately 1.5º F since mid-century
  • Spring snowmelt runoff from the Sierra Nevada has declined by 10% over the last century
  • Approximately half of the small mammals surveyed (e.g., Bushy-tailed woodrat, Pika, and Alpine chipmunk,) in Yosemite National Park are found at different elevational ranges compared to earlier in the century.
  • Tree deaths in the Sierra Nevada have increased an average of 3% per year since 1983
  • Spring and fall arrivals of some migratory birds like Wilson’s Warblers are changing
  • Oxygen concentrations have decreased by between 10 to 30% in California ocean waters since 1984
  • The lower edge of the conifer-dominated forests of the Sierra Nevada has been retreating upslope over the past 60 years

Climate change is clearly underway and could be life-altering if drastic action is not taken immediately. The risks to California and the nation from global warming are significant and require an extensive and sustained commitment to reducing heat-trapping pollution and protecting our natural resources and communities that rely on them.

The Obama Administration’s report — Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States — provides a bleak view of California’s future if immediate action is not taken: water supplies will become increasingly scarce; drought, wildfire, and invasive species will transform the landscape; the frequency of flooding will increase risks to people, ecosystems, and infrastructure; and tourism and recreation opportunities are likely to suffer.

What we’re doing to head off the worst impacts

The California-Nevada Region of The Wilderness Society is working diligently on several fronts to address climate change by promoting practices that will help remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere (mitigation) and by pursuing strategies that avoid the adverse effects of past and future climate change (adaptation). Vital federal lands in California offer an excellent opportunity to meet some of these challenges.

Federal lands comprise over 42% of the land base in California and include some of the most undisturbed landscapes in the state. Nearly 50% of California’s forest land is in public ownership and comprises a significant source of stored carbon.

Improving forest health

Pika. Photo by William C. Gladish.The Wilderness Society is working with the US Forest Service on their Forest Plan Revision process to promote management actions that maintain the existing carbon pools and improve the health of forests. We are strongly advocating for prescribed burning, road removal, reduced logging and tougher controls on invasive species to boost forest resiliency to a changing climate. Healthy forests capture more carbon from the atmosphere and provide a source for the long-term storage of that carbon. Additionally, forest ecosystems that are resilient (return to prior condition after disturbance) tend to be more productive and maintain higher levels of native plant and animal biodiversity.

Helping ecosystems and species adapt

In addition to our work on the Forest Plan Revision process we are pursuing several opportunities to obtain permanent protection of federal public lands through a wilderness designation. The establishment of landscape-scale protected areas that provide connectivity between landscapes is a basic element of conservation planning and is essential for fostering ecosystem resiliency.

Habitat fragmentation has serious implications for species that need to relocate to new areas under a changing climate, and this problem is often compounded by the topographically diverse nature of California’s wild spaces. By protecting large unfragmented landscapes with a wilderness designation, a mix of elevational, topographic and biological diversity can be incorporated. This federal protection can also reduce the impact of other human-caused stresses (e.g., invasive species, pollution, fire, watershed degradation), and it improves the chances that natural ecosystems will adjust to a changing climate.

The Wilderness Society is currently working to secure wilderness protection for several of these critical areas, including:

  • About 30,000 acres of the San Gabriel mountain range and more than 60 miles of rivers in the Angeles National Forest. This forest, bordering metro Los Angeles, provides more than one-third of the region’s water.
  • About 22,000 acres of rugged canyons and mountains in northern San Diego County. Home to more than a dozen endangered and rare species, it is close to the city of San Diego

Additionally, The Wilderness Society’s California Off-Road Vehicle Initiative is providing a powerful response to the serious threat that off-road vehicle use poses to sensitive California landscapes. The physical footprint of the routes and trails used by off-road vehicles cause habitat degradation and fragmentation that negatively impacts wildlife species, becoming critical barriers to migration and reducing the capabilities of these species to adjust to the impacts of global warming.

Sierra Nevada Mountains. Photo by Clinton Steeds, Courtesy Flickr Creative Commons.
Pika. Photo by William C. Gladish.