Saving America's Great Outdoors

Jackson, WY -- You have to express thanks after spending three days in this magic valley, with the stunning views of the Teton Range soaring out of the sagebrush.  It's a wildlife heaven; saw hundreds of pronghorn  this particular trip.  But if you look a bit further, it's clear that this iconic place is still wild precisely because it is so fragile, and that we are putting a level of stress on this  landscape and wildlife that they have not evolved to handle.

Moose populations are down -- probably because of drought reducing the nutritional value of the willow browse they depend on.  As long as drought is periodic, not continual, the browse will bounce back, and then so will moose populations.  But the other big change -- the initial stages of a massive die-off of pine trees -- is a more alarming signal.  Trees are succumbing to beetle infestation at an unprecedented rate -- not only here in Wyoming, but all up and down the interior west from British Columbia to New Mexico. There have been local epidemics before -- but never a continental one.  We don't know as much as we need to about the complicated biology of the problem.  But the core cause is clearly warmer winters, giving the beetles a chance to survive longer in larger numbers, producing a massive population explosion.  Add to that drought-stricken trees -- another companion of warmer winters -- and the table is set for tree death at the 70-90% level over much of the Mountain West.

And these die offs are resulting not from the catastrophic climate change we may yet unleash, but from the much more modest climate disruption already underway.  It's going to be essential, even if we curb our waste of carbon in time, to manage our landscapes in an entirely new way -- one which respects the fact that extreme weather is going to be more common, and climate less stable.  We will have to recognize that animal and plant species are going to need room to roam. We'll need to manage landscapes for resilience, for their ability to evolve with changing climate.  Fortunately the Obama Administration has opened the doors, and hopefully the ears, of federal land management agencies to this imperative.

The Departments of Interior, Agriculture, EPA and Council on Environmental Quality have just completed a nationwide listening tour, and the Sierra Club has submitted a comprehensive plan for how America's wild lands need to be nutured in a climate changing world.  In an accompanying news release, the Club's current executive director, Michael Brune, wrote, "Today, America's wild legacy faces its biggest challenge. Global warming is stressing wildlife like grizzly bears and lynx and threatening habitat with forest fires and drought. Fortunately, our leaders can take steps to protect our public lands and wildlife from the worst impacts of climate change."

The Sierra Club's recommendations focus on protecting public lands and wildlife from the worst impacts of climate change. Part of this effort includes limiting outside stresses like irresponsible oil and gas development, off-road vehicle abuse, and logging, which will make it even harder for wildlife to survive global warming. The Sierra Club plan also recommends identifying and protecting key corridors that allow wildlife to migrate and adapt to changing habitat.