Guest Opinion: Public lands our last defense against climate change
Extreme weather events have increased over the past decade as a result of climate change. Western Colorado has been particularly impacted by serious drought, decreased snowpack, and heightened frequency of wildfire.
Extreme weather negatively affects valuable agricultural yield, the recreation economy, and puts Coloradans’ health and livelihoods in danger.
Fortunately, we have had the political foresight to protect open spaces in America that house biological diversity, forests that act as carbon sinks and act as a barometer for a changing climate.
In many ways, public lands combat climate change. We should lend our lands, celebrated on Public Lands Day today, a hand and fight for their protection.
Low snowpack and drought
This year the Western Slope experienced particularly low snowpack, marking the worst winter since 2012, which means a shortage of runoff and big trouble for water jurisdictions that rely on it. Agricultural communities on the Western Slope will suffer the repercussions in the form of drought and a limited water supply for irrigation.
Drought in 2012 forced hay buyers to take their business as far north as Montana and Idaho because hay prices tripled. Cattle ranchers in the Southwest are already worried about access to hay and pastureland. Some have even sold off their herds.
Low snowpack in Colorado is manifesting in exceptional drought conditions. With these extremely dry conditions, multiple fires have broken out in southwestern Colorado since April 1. The area is now under Stage 1 fire restrictions, which forbid building any kind of fire, campfire, or stove fire, the use of chainsaws and smoking.
The U.S. Global Change Research Program’s National Climate Assessment found that climate change and warming temperatures exacerbate drought and insect infestations, like Colorado’s Pine Beetle. This makes our state especially vulnerable to larger and more frequent wildfires. In fact, the likelihood of forest fire has nearly doubled as a result of human caused climate change between 1984 and 2015.
Coloradans are already suffering the consequences of wildfires. The 117 wildfires between Pueblo and Colorado Springs burned 4,000 acres. High winds and low humidity grew the fire beyond the county’s control. The fire destroyed at least 23 homes, marking a devastating start to Colorado’s fire season.
Wildfires in Colorado can contaminate already scarce water supplies, present public health risk, and cost millions of dollars in suppression. For example, the Hayman fire of 2002 exposed 1.8 million people to poor air quality. Poor air quality puts the 343,000 Coloradans with asthma at significant health risk. The fire cost 39 million dollars in fire suppression alone.
Fire suppression costs are only increasing with anthropogenic climate change and gobbling up the Forest Service’s budget, a majority of which was previously allocated to programs like recreation, heritage and wilderness. This inhibits the agency’s ability to provide recreational opportunities on National Forest Service lands, which hurts the outdoor industry and the thousands of jobs it provides local economies.
The outdoor industry
Extreme weather is a detriment to the booming outdoor industry which generates $2.19 billion in Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District annually. Ski resorts have and will continue to cut seasons short because of low snowpack.
For example Hesperus ski area relies totally on natural snow and their season did not even last a month. Fishing and rafting industries suffer as a result of low- stream slow, which also limits migration corridors for fish and makes whitewater rapids in some areas inaccessible.
Public lands and climate change
According to an assessment by the North American Intergovernmental Committee on Cooperation for Wilderness and Protected Areas Conservation, public lands actually combat climate change on several fronts.
Public lands and their forests and grasslands store atmospheric carbon dioxide. Deforestation is a main contributor to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere — there are less trees to act as carbon sinks. Protecting forests from logging and maintaining protections for forests on public lands is important in combating climate change.
Public lands also act as a sanctuary for biological diversity and protect ecosystem services. They provide valuable connected migration corridors for wildlife whose habitat might shift due to a global warming.
Protected lands can also act as a benchmark against which scientists can measure change in species’ and ecosystems responses to a changing climate. The better understood these responses, the better communities can adapt to a changing climate. Public lands allow a space for people to connect with nature and can act as a catalyst for environmental action in the public.
Protecting public lands is thus an incredibly important piece of the climate change puzzle. Unfortunately, the Trump administration aims to reduce protections for national monuments across the country and has already shrunk two Utah monuments, opening these lands up to the very industries driving climate change. Coloradans overwhelmingly oppose reducing protections for national monuments. Colorado’s congressional representatives should reflect this sentiment in Washington and oppose reductions to public lands, as well as calling for more ambitious climate action.
Real people on the Western Slope already feel the real effects of climate change on their health, on their wallet, and on the way they use the outdoors. Colorado communities will continue to be ravaged by extreme weather events unless our elected officials take action to protect spaces that alleviate climate change.
Emily Struzenberg is climate organizer at Environment Colorado Research and Policy Center, a statewide 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to protecting air, water and open spaces.