Tag Archive | "wilderness"

Climate change and Greater Yellowstone fire regimes

Last week’s issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences  included a compelling article by western fire researcher Tony Westerling and colleagues. The title, “Continued warming could transform Greater Yellowstone fire regimes by mid-21st century,” caught the attention of a lot of blogs and other media outlets.

Westerling and his co-authors modeled changing fire regimes in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem  by looking at past correlations between climate data and the size and occurrence of large fires, then projecting those trends forward to see how often fire could be expected to burn a given area under likely future climate conditions. Today the Greater Yellowstone area is dominated by conifer forests that are characterized by infrequent but severe fires. Every 100-300 years or so, major fires sweep through these ecosystems, killing a large proportion of trees in the affected area and starting the succession process over by providing shade-sensitive species with access to sunlight.

However, this new research suggests that an increase in temperatures of just a few degrees by mid-century could have profound effects both on patterns of fire in the Yellowstone area and on the ecosystems and species found there. All of the modeling results pointed to a more rapid fire cycle, with a given area burning every 30 years or less by 2050. As Westerling et al. point out, this kind of fire regime would also indicate a significant shift from the current mixed conifer forest type to something much different, something more like a dry woodland or unforested ecosystem. Such a complete shift in vegetation would obviously have dire impacts on many of the species that currently inhabit that area.

When we talk about helping ecosystems adapt to climate change, we often tend to imagine – and plan for – a gradual, almost imperceptible shift in conditions over long periods of time. But many scientists have shown that ecological systems can contain hidden transition points, thresholds beyond which rapid, extreme changes  in ecosystem structure and function may be unavoidable and virtually irreversible. Westerling’s paper shows us is in quite vivid terms what ecological thresholds might look like on the ground, and it gives us a frightening glimpse of how soon climate change might start pushing us across these thresholds. How would we go about managing the transition to an unforested Yellowstone?

Posted in Climate Change, Imperiled Wildlife, National Forests, Northern Rockies, Public Lands, UncategorizedComments (0)

“No More Wilderness” bill introduced in Congress

“No More Wilderness” bill introduced in Congress

The Coronado National Forest supports the “sky island” ecosystems of the southwest, some of the most unique and biodiverse areas on our public lands. Portions of the sky islands would be put at risk by this bill.

Companion bills in the House and Senate have been introduced that would strip areas of our public lands currently managed for their wilderness characteristics of their protected status.  If the “Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act of 2011” were to pass, 43 million acres of Inventoried Roadless Areas on Forest Service lands and Wilderness Study Areas throughout our public lands would no longer be protected, including portions of the sky islands in the Coronado National Forest in Arizona.  The bill would also forbid the land management agencies from providing new protections for these “released” areas in the future, effectively preventing them from being designated as permanently protected Wilderness by Congress and opening them up for development.

What’s worse is that the determination of whether a roadless or wilderness area should be stripped of its protections now and into the future would be based on old information without gathering any new data, and with no input from agency experts and scientists or the public.  This means that areas currently providing high quality habitat for wildlife and supporting healthy ecosystems would be exposed to potential development (including timber harvesting, oil and gas drilling, coal mining and more) without any consideration of those natural values.

Supporters of the bill argue that these areas are being managed as “de facto” Wilderness and that “capital W” Wilderness can only be designated by Congress.  While it’s true that only Congress can designate “capital W” Wilderness, they’re missing a lot of important facts in this argument:

First, the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service both have multiple use mandates, which support activities like energy development BUT ALSO give these agencies authority to manage for wilderness characteristics and things like wildlife habitat and biodiversity.  This means that these agencies have plenty of authority for designating areas as roadless or wilderness study and managing them for these resources as a precursor to suggesting that Congress make a “capital W” Wilderness designation.

Second, this argument places the needs of industry ahead of the needs of the public who are, after all, the owners of our public lands.  They characterize these areas as being “locked up” from development instead of recognizing that these areas are open to the public for all kinds of valuable uses that are consistent with BLM and Forest Service missions, including recreation and supporting our national heritage of biodiversity and wildlife.  These uses also support our local economies through tourism, the recreation industry, and ecosystem services (like clean water).

Instead of focusing on developing smart policies that balance the many demands on our public lands, like efforts to direct development onto the already degraded areas on our public lands, this bill would open up the most spectacular pieces of our national heritage to development and could have devastating impacts on the wildlife that take refuge in these protected areas.

Posted in National Forests, Public LandsComments (0)


Wild Lands for Wildlife

A new order from Secretary Salazar of the Department of the Interior creates a “Wild Lands” system for the BLM to preserve lands with wilderness characteristics while they await potential designation by Congress as Wilderness Areas.  This is not a new idea, but replaces a similar system that was in place until the Bush Administration got rid of it in 2003.

Pronghorn depend on public lands throughout the west for survival.

Protecting “Wild Lands” is especially important for wildlife because Wilderness Areas provide a stronghold for many of the most iconic species on our public lands, including sage grouse, bison, and pronghorn.  With more than 41 million acres of public land leased to oil and gas companies for drilling (and that’s in addition to heavy-duty mining activity and hundreds of thousands of acres of potential renewable energy development), it is necessary that the DOI hold true to its multi-use mission and provide for wilderness, wildlife habitat, and recreation as well.

Lands with wilderness characteristics spur billions of dollars in spending by outdoor enthusiasts of all types throughout the country, and these economic benefits show that a smart, effective system for preserving lands with wilderness characteristics will be a key factor in protecting both wildlife and the businesses supported by our wildlife resources.  Development levels on our public lands are skyrocketing, and Secretary Salazar’s order is an attempt at balancing out that development with a smart wilderness protection system.

We support the policy, along with 40 other groups signed onto a conservation community letter addressed to the House Natural Resources Committee.  We “believe this fundamental tool for the protection of our public lands should be supported by the Congress and encourage the members of this committee to show its support for public process on the issue of the wild character of our public lands.”

Someone needs to stand up to exaggerated attacks from Republicans on Capitol Hill, which came to a head yesterday in a hearing of the House Natural Resources committee on the Wild Lands policy.  Opposition to the policy has referred to it as a “war on the west,” accusing BLM of a land grab away from industry.  This view, however, ignores the fact that less than 30% of the millions of acres of BLM lands leased to oil and gas companies are actually being used by industry, and that a much smaller fraction has ever been subject to BLM wilderness policy.  It also ignores the $730 billion spent on outdoor recreation every year, which Black Diamond Equipment CEO Peter Metcalfe noted in his testimony before the committee, where he also discussed America’s wilderness and wild lands as the base upon which the US outdoor recreation industry is built.

Posted in Public LandsComments (0)

dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.