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Climate change is major issue facing public land management

John Leshy

When Congress was debating the Taylor Grazing Act in the 1930s, Sen. Thomas Gore from Oklahoma remarked that the dust blown across the country to Washington, D.C., was the most “tragic and impressive” lobbyist that had entered the capitol.

Now with the West in a drought that tree ring analysis shows is worse than the one that created the Dust Bowl, John Leshy told attendees of Seminars at Steamboat’s fifth talk Monday that dealing with climate change is now one of the biggest obstacles of public land management.

“I was reminded of Sen. Gore’s description as skies over the Capitol were darkened by western fires,” Leshy said. “It brought to mind the quip often mistakenly attributed to Mark Twain that history may not repeat itself, but it rhymes.”



Leshy is a professor emeritus at the University of California, Hastings College of Law in San Francisco and was general counsel for the Interior Department during the Clinton administration. His extensive background in public lands leads him to believe Congress may need to make drastic changes to public land management in the near future, especially as climate keeps changing.

When Leshy is speaking about public lands, he is referring to lands owned by the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service. These lands encompass nearly a third of the country’s landscape and about half of the land in Routt County.

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While public lands are sometimes scorned as political lands or land grabs, Leshy said the term is accurate because the fate of these lands is often decided through the political process. Leshy said nearly all public land decisions have enjoyed support of local communities and elected officials.

Yellowstone was the first National Park established in 1872, but the first boom in public lands didn’t really happen until 1891 when Congress gave the president the power to safeguard public lands, especially those in the West not suitable for farming.

Part of the purpose of creating forest reserves at the time, now called national forests, was to protect the upper aspects of watersheds in the West.

Early Coloradans requested the Forest Service protect all land within 12 miles of the crest of all the mountain ranges in the state. Theodore Roosevelt enjoyed broad support in the West and placed about 7 million acres of forest in Colorado into forest protection.

Since the turn of the 20th century, Leshy said a main focus has been to increase the amount of lands in national ownership to safeguard resources for science, education and public use. But the lands are changing, sometimes losing the qualities they were preserved for.

“A destabilizing climate poses countless tests for public lands. It alters the natural qualities that were a primary reason for holding and protecting these lands,” Leshy said. “The glaciers and Joshua and sequoia trees in the national parks named for them are disappearing.”

Rising seas threaten nearly a third of the nation’s national wildlife refuges, and drought is threatening public lands in parts of the country where they are most prevalent.

“Another challenge is determining the role public lands should play in addressing the primary cause of climate change — greenhouse gas emissions — so as to avoid more catastrophic impacts,” Leshy said.

Fossil fuels extracted from public lands both on and off shore account for about a quarter of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, Leshy said. He said the land’s involvement with fossil fuels make it inevitable that climate concerns will drive decision making on public lands.

Still, Leshy said it is larger global factors, not public land management, that are pushing this trend. An example of this is that in 1980, 12 of the top 25 Fortune 500 companies were in the petroleum business. Now, there is just one.

“Their fate is being dictated by global forces, not by the Biden Administration,” Leshy said.

This is shown by the underwhelming sale of leases in the coastal plane of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that garnered about $14 million in sales, rather than the billions the Trump administration said it would raise, Leshy said. Half of the leases received no bids at all, with most of the bids being submitted by an Alaska state agency at the lowest price.

“Just as the stone age did not end because the world ran out of stones, the petroleum age will not end because the world runs out of oil,” Leshy said.

Because of these trends, Leshy said it is hard to see much of a future for fossil fuels on public lands, even if the current national political tides were to turn.

But Leshy said public land policy can help aid in the transmission away from fossil fuels in a number of ways. Displaced energy workers could be employed to clean up extraction messes left on public lands, something Leshy said Congress is working on.

Public lands can also help meet the market for solar and wind energy production, and land can be used to build a more modern, robust electric grid.

Other uses for public lands like mining, dam building and timber harvesting have already sharply declined, Leshy said. Grazing happens on more than half of public lands in the continental U.S., but this, too, is declining as competition for water resources increases.

Recreation is the significant use for public lands that is increasing, and managing that will be a large focus of the use of public lands going forward, Leshy said

Leshy said, as always, the political process will determine public land policy and how voters respond to the issues facing public lands will shape what they look like in the future. While some say politics taints this process, Keshy said public lands are a political success story.

“For all of its imperfections, our political system has bridged partisan, regional and other divides to produce a result that most Americans today support,” Leshy said. “One could fairly say that public lands represent the best examples of long-term thing the American political system has ever produced.”


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