Our public lands are at the forefront of the climate crisis
Increasing and undeniable impacts of climate change are being felt in communities across the country. On public lands in the West, climate change is driving longer and more intense wildfire seasons with more high-severity catastrophic wildfires; decreased snowpack and water retention; drought and its impacts on livelihoods and ecosystems; and the fragmentation and loss of wildlife habitat and migratory corridors. All of these impacts are magnified on our national public lands such as national parks, national forests, and national wildlife refuges.
Unfortunately, historical mismanagement of public lands for extensive resource extraction—including drilling, mining, and clear-cut logging—has contributed to climate change, and sprawling development patterns have further disturbed landscapes and ecosystems upon which we all depend. Previous administrations consistently ignored the threat that climate change poses to public land, even after warnings from scientists within the Interior Department that the consequences of ignoring climate change impacts on public land will be severe. Research from the U.S. Geological Survey found that from 2005 to 2014, fossil fuels extracted from public lands and waters were responsible for nearly a quarter of the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions. Coal burning and methane emissions from oil and gas drilling were especially strong drivers of climate change.
In the face of our global climate crisis, public lands matter more than ever, and updating our public land management policies for the 21st century will be an essential part of the climate solution. There are numerous options for the Interior Department and the U.S. Forest Service to reduce emissions and protect the lands they manage. Key opportunities include prioritizing renewable energy development, rather than drilling and mining, on public lands; balancing renewable energy development with the protection of water resources and wildlife habitat; managing land to maximize its potential to absorb carbon; and ensuring that equitable access to recreation opportunities on our public lands keeps pace with the needs of a growing population. Protecting public lands, such as through national monument designations or permanent mineral withdrawals, is central to both meeting our nation’s emissions reduction goals and to the Biden administration’s America the Beautiful Initiative, which aims to protect 30 percent of public lands and waters by 2030. Westerners have a responsibility to future generations—and to the wildlife with whom we share these landscapes—to ensure that our public lands live up to their climate potential.