Op-Ed | Public Lands Are Key to Fighting Climate Change

Tim Whitehouse

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Republished with permission from Common Dreams

Public Lands Are Key to Fighting Climate Change

A new administration must stop this fossil fuel madness and rapidly work to heal our degraded public lands.


If you ask people where greenhouse gases come from, they may say belching power plants, clogged expressways, fracking fields in Pennsylvania, petroleum refineries and petrochemical cancer alleys.

There is another realm that is seldom talked about:

Public lands.

Managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Forest Service and the National Park Service, public lands account for a quarter of the nation’s land area and nearly a quarter of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions through extraction and combustion of fossil fuels.  Conversely, the amount of CO2 sequestered by soils, forests, shrublands, grasslands and agricultural areas on public lands only offsets 15 percent of those emissions.

Those findings came from a first-ever, 2018 report on fossil fuel emissions on public lands by the United States Geological Survey. The report was commissioned by the Obama administration, but released quietly over the 2018 Thanksgiving weekend by the Trump administration.

It’s no surprise that the current administration barely acknowledges the report’s existence, given President Trump’s climate denial. As our climate spins out of control, and despite an oil glut, Trump’s Bureau of Land Management has moved ahead with new lease sales on 200,000 acres just in the four states of Colorado, Wyoming, Nevada, and Montana. Oil companies are still seeking to open an additional 42 million acres through new area plans covering nine Western states and Alaska.

It is all part of the Trump administration’s mantra of “Energy Dominance.”

A new administration must stop this fossil fuel madness and rapidly work to heal our degraded public lands. If we are to have any hope of addressing climate change, public lands must be transformed from carbon sources into sinks with the phasing out of fossil fuel operations and better ranching, agricultural and timber management practices.

For instance, the current practice of leasing Western rangelands for cattle grazing means public lands contribute to methane emissions expelled by the cows, a greenhouse gas far more potent than CO2 in the short term in trapping heat in the atmosphere.

Globally, livestock account for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. In the United States, data from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service suggest that federal lands support around 30 percent of the 94.4 million cattle and calves and 5 million sheep–making public lands grazing a significant contributor to the United States’ total emissions. In addition, grazing of course causes erosion and elimination of native plants, degrading the ability of soil to store carbon. One Utah study found on one tract of public land, BLM permitted six times more carrying capacity of livestock than was sustainable. In 2012, Oregon State University researchers urged removal of livestock from public lands to mitigate climate change.

Better ranching, agricultural and timber management practices will not be enough, however.  We must increase the amount of public lands preserved in their natural condition and allow nature to reclaim them as wild.  The Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Forest Service manage vast swaths of public lands that should be protected as wilderness areas where human impact is minimized to the greatest extent possible.

By focusing on public lands in our climate debate, we will have a better understanding of how interconnected the nation is on climate change, regardless of region. While it is easy to conjure up images of SUV’s spewing fumes along the Northeast Corridor, industrial smokestacks in the Midwest or oil refineries in Richmond, California, the biggest contributor to greenhouse gases via public lands is Wyoming. Alaska is the nation’s leader for storing carbon in the soils and vegetation of public lands, followed by the contiguous West.

The cost of current practices to both the climate and health of Americans is almost incalculable. The U.S. annually collects $3 billion a year in oil and gas royalties from operations on public lands and an additional $26 million from BLM and the Forest Service in grazing fees. That is nothing compared to the more than $1 trillion of social benefits represented in the carbon reduction policies of the Obama administration. That is nothing compared to the benefit of an outdoor recreation industry that could be worth much more than its current $427 billion a year, and it is nothing compared to the incalculable benefits of protecting wildlife and wild places.

What the government gets for mismanaging our public lands is a pitiful pittance, compared to preserving the planet itself.

Tim Whitehouse, Executive Director of PEERTim Whitehouse is the Executive Director of PEER. Among other things, Tim formerly served as an EPA enforcement attorney. 

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