Climate change is a bit like the weather: Everybody talks about it, but few can do anything to change it.
That’s the take-away from a federal Government Accountability Office report on how public land managers have tried to protect their resources from increasing temperatures, decreasing water supplies, wildfires and loss of habitat.
While it found the agencies were good at planning for changes on their lands, they weren’t specifically required to consider climate change as a factor.
“In 2007, no one was doing anything,” said Jennifer Donohue, a spokeswoman for Montana Sen. Max Baucus, who’s proposing legislation to make the agencies work together and help state governments get involved. “Now some agencies are out there doing good things, but we need to coordinate it.”
Baucus and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., introduced S. 1202 on Thursday to make the five agencies cooperate on adaptation-specific policies. Doing so would not only improve those public lands, but protect the multi-billion-dollar community economies that depend on them.
“Outdoor recreation supports 64,000 Montana jobs each year,” Baucus said in an email. “One in five Montana jobs is tied to agriculture, and our timber industry is critical to western communities – every single one of those jobs depends on maintaining our healthy, wide-open spaces, forests and waterways. This bill gives local communities the tools they need to protect Montana’s outdoor jobs and streamlines federal bureaucracy to make sure we have a smart, coordinated plan in place moving forward.”
The GAO study looked at five sites representing the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Bureau of Land Management. Together, the five agencies oversee about 245 million acres of public land.
The sites were, respectively: Glacier National Park, Alaska’s Chugach National Forest, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, California’s San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge, and Arizona’s Kingman Field office. All but San Pablo Bay were also visited in a 2007 study.
Glacier Park officials in 2007 were not addressing climate change “because they had not received explicit National Park Service guidance or funding,” the report noted. That has improved, although the report said park policies often don’t specifically address climate change adaptations.
“For example,” the report stated, “a park manager said the management plan guides the park’s natural resource management activities, such as monitoring wildlife population trends, invasive species and wildfires, which park managers also consider to be climate change adaptation-related activities.“
But while plans and training exercises were taking place, NPS officials told the report authors their efforts were stunted by funding drops.
“Specifically, the official said the (Climate Change Response) Program received approximately $10 million in both fiscal years 2010 and 2011, but it received approximately $3 million in fiscal year 2012… A senior park service official said with less funding, inventory and monitoring program officials are not able to collect data as frequently, which affects the data’s reliability. As a result, the official said the data’s usefulness in helping park managers draw conclusions related to climate change has been limited.“
One funding problem in Glacier Park involved spruce budworm infestations. The report noted the insect usually works in three-year cycles, but recent warming trends have lengthened those to between seven and 15 years.
“As a result, hundreds of forested acres of Glacier National Park have been weakened, which could increase their susceptibility to fire,” the report noted. But funding shortages have prevented monitoring the infestations and developing a risk-management plan.
“This bill will provide some direction – it won’t just be changing terms,” said Dave Dittloff of the National Wildlife Federation in Missoula. “A lot of what needs to be done to help critters and plants is good conservation work, regardless of climate-change labels.”
But getting the agencies on the same page is important, Dittloff added. For instance, a grizzly bear wandering through the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex could touch the jurisdictions of the National Park Service, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Fish and Wildlife Service – as well as Montana’s Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks and Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
“This bill is about making sure that’s all being managed as one coordinated system, particularly since some of the critters inside are going to need to move,” Dittloff said. “We need to allow them to move regardless of agency boundaries.”
In addition to the agency management directive, the bill would make climate change projects a specific qualifier in grant programs for state and tribal land managers. If states create climate adaptation plans, they would have greater access to State and Tribal Wildlife grants, Costal Zone Management Act grants and Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program funding.
In Montana, State and Tribal Wildlife grants provided about $1 million in 2012 to state agencies such as FWP. Tribal governments got another $200,000 that year for wildlife projects.
In a letter to Baucus and Whitehorse, the GAO report authors said managing public lands with the assumption that climate would stay the same as it’s been in the past no longer worked.
“In 2013, we added climate change to our list of high-risk areas because it poses significant financial risks to the federal government,” the authors wrote. “One of the areas where the federal government’s fiscal exposure is expected to increase is in its role as the manager of large amounts of land and other natural resources.”