Public Lands: A Bridge to the Future

This feature was first published in the 2009 Wilderness Magazine. To receive the annual magazine and quarterly newsletters from The Wilderness Society, become a member today!

This article linking public lands, wildlife and climate change was written by Doreen Cubie of Awendaw, South Carolina, who also writes for National Wildlife and Audubon.

By Doreen Cubie

For many wildlife species, the odds of survival were already long enough, with species disappearing at a high rate. Changes in the climate are making those odds even longer. Can our national forests, wildlife refuges, and parks and other such areas help these creatures hang on?

“Keeping our public lands wild is the most effective and least expensive thing we can do to give wildlife the time and space they need to adapt,” says Wendy Loya, an ecologist for The Wilderness Society in Anchorage. “Some changes will push species to the edge.” According to Loya, wilderness gives species the opportunity to make adjustments. For instance, global warming may cause plants to flower before their pollinators emerge. “In large wildlands,” says Loya, “there is a greater chance these species will find the right conditions to re-synchronize their life cycles.”

To illustrate the make-or-break importance of public land management choices, she points to Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge. This sanctuary sprawls across the northeastern interior of Alaska, featuring an intricate mosaic of more than 20,000 shallow lakes, numerous bogs, and many meandering and braided streams. Caribou, grizzly and black bear, wolves, and moose call the refuge home. Salmon migrate as far as 2,000 miles up the Yukon River to spawn within its borders. Trumpeter swans, Pacific loons, and over a dozen species of ducks nest in its wetlands.

But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was considering a swap of refuge lands for property owned by the Doyon Corporation, which wants to drill for oil and gas across more than 200,000 acres. “It would have fragmented the refuge, essentially breaking it in two,” says Loya. In addition, this drilling, which uses large quantities of water, might have altered the hydrology of the refuge. “It would have increased the drying that is already occurring as a result of global warming,” says Loya, further depleting many of the lakes that dot the refuge. “If we lost the lowland lakes, it would be bad news for the birds.” The Wilderness Society, Gwich’in and Yukon River tribes, and others fought the proposal, and in July 2009 the agency decided to reject the deal.

Pika. Photo by Jason C. Vaclavek.For some animals, like the pika, a diminutive relative of the rabbit that lives in high-alpine habitat in the West, it may already be too late. Pikas are running out of room as the increase in temperatures drives them higher and higher.

But many species can be saved. “That’s why wilderness is so critical,” says Loya. It provides corridors, giving animals and even plants, the ability to move to more suitable habitat. Landscape connectivity is important everywhere, but is especially so in the fragmented public lands of the East. “Wildland protection and restoration of healthy ecosystems is the number-one thing we can do right now to help all of the inhabitants of our planet adapt to climate change.”

Another important role for the public lands is to store carbon. Large, mature forests, prairies, and tundra rely on greenhouse gases for their growth and therefore reduce quantities in the air. A 2008 report by Loya and Wilderness Society resource economist Ann Ingerson found that not only did public forests sequester more carbon than private forests, but reserved lands, such as designated wilderness areas and national parks, where logging is prohibited, typically hold the most carbon of all.

The carbon-storage role of mature forests, especially old-growth forests, has only recently been documented. Dr. Tom DeLuca, senior forest ecologist with The Wilderness Society, along with University of Montana graduate student Sarah Bisbing, investigated ancient forests in western Montana. They learned that old-growth stands store approximately three times more carbon than nearby second-growth woodlands.

Old growth in Tongass National Forest, Alaska. Courtesy Sitka Conservation Society.For many years, says Beverly Law, a professor of global change and forest science at Oregon State University, conventional wisdom held that forests more than 150 years old were carbon-neutral, giving off as much carbon as they take up from the atmosphere. “This was based on a study done in the 1960s,” says Law, “but those researchers studied a single plantation forest over a ten-year period. A lot of us have realized for some time that this was wrong, but we waited until we had the data to support it.” Last year, in the prestigious scientific journal, Nature, Law and her coauthors documented that old-growth forests continue to sequester carbon. “Old-growth forests accumulate carbon for centuries and contain large quantities of it,” says Law.

In another study, published during the summer of 2009, several forestry professors at Oregon State University, including Law, discovered that the potential of Pacific Northwest forests to store additional carbon is among the highest in the world. After analyzing data from 15,000 plots in Oregon and northern California over a 20-year period, the scientists determined that allowing all of the forest stands in the region to increase in age by 50 years would increase their potential to store carbon by 15 percent.

Forests in other parts of the United States also have the potential to be carbon sinks, places that accumulate and hold carbon for an indefinite period. Ecologists at McGill University and the University of Wisconsin recently found that temperate forests in eastern North America are sequestering only part of their historic carbon potential.

“Carbon is stored in the trunk, branches, and roots of trees, and also in the residue around them on the forest floor,” says David Moulton, who helped create the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming in the U.S. House of Representatives and now serves as director of climate policy for The Wilderness Society. “If you leave a mature forest alone, it can store huge amounts of carbon. Our forests may act as a bridge to a future when we will have cleaner energy. But we cannot carbon-sink our way out of global warming,” cautions Moulton. “Stopping emissions is the only long-term solution.”

That is the goal of the climate and energy bill (H.R. 2454) passed in June by the U.S. House of Representatives. This legislation faces an uphill battle in the Senate, where it must get 60 votes to pass. “We simply cannot afford to delay action any longer,” Moulton stresses.

Curtailing harmful emissions is also critical to the survival of healthy ecosystems and wildlife. Climate change is already triggering more forest fires and more droughts. It is also enabling spruce beetles and other insects to expand their range and damage forests that lack defense mechanisms. Glaciers are melting. Beaches and coastlines are eroding. More severe storms, including hurricanes, are likely to be in our future. And temperatures are rising. In Maine and New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest, biologists have recorded an average temperature increase of four degrees during the winter months. This translates into less snow and more rain, with potentially disastrous consequences for everything from balsam fir to brook trout.

In addition, Ingerson points out, “The loss of forests, grasslands, and wetlands creates emissions, so expanding the public land base and concentrating development in already settled areas can help prevent greenhouse gas emissions just as effectively as insulating homes and installing solar panels.” Deforestation accounts for about 20 percent of global emissions.

The national forests and other natural treasures that we have inherited have made our lives richer in many ways. If we allow them to help us fend off disastrous changes in the Earth’s climate — a role not foreseen when earlier leaders began protecting these places — it would be the biggest payoff yet.

Beaver Creek, Alaska. Courtesy USFWS.
Pacific Loon. Courtesy USFWS.
Trumpeter swans. Courtesy NPS.
Bear. Courtesy USFWS.
Pika. Photo by Jason C. Vaclavek.
Old growth in Tongass National Forest, Alaska. Courtesy Sitka Conservation Society.
Walrus. Courtesy USFWS.
Beluga whales. Photo by Laura Morse, Courtesy NOAA Fisheries.
Ice seal. Courtesy USFWS.