How Public Lands Can Survive Political Headwinds
Change in political administrations can be traumatic, particularly if your candidate didn’t win. Elections have consequences that can impact your livelihood, and policy uncertainties can be troubling. As an active participant and investor in forestry projects over many years, The Climate Trust has a singular perspective on the potential impact upcoming policy changes may have on carbon sequestration on federally owned land. As we approach the first 50 days of President Trump’s time in office, we have been exploring realistic approaches for preserving precious forest sequestration benefits.
In 2016 we heard much about America’s iconic National Parks as part of the 100-year birthday celebration of the National Park Service, however, there is also much to be said about the older sibling of this entity—the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Forest System (NFS). The NFS was created by the Land Revision Act in 1891 and is 126 years old this year.
The U.S Forest Service manages the National Forest System that consists of 154 national forests and 20 national grasslands covering 193 million acres. The U.S. Forest Service is the largest natural resources research organization in the world, with a mission to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. A colorful description of the agency was offered by Gifford Pinchot, first Chief of the Forest Service, “National Forest land is managed to provide the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people in the long run.”
National Forests reside in 42 states and these spaces are expansive, comprising 30 percent of all federal land, and 8.5 percent of the total land area in the U.S. Alaska has the most national forestland with nearly 22 million acres, followed by California (20.8 million acres) and Idaho (20.4 million acres). Two general forest types comprise the National Forest System: eastern forests (generally acquired by the federal government after being logged several times while in the private domain) and forests west of the Great Plains that have largely been held by the federal government since the settling of the American West. Most of the four million acres of national grasslands are east of the Rocky Mountains, ranging from the badlands of North Dakota to north-central Texas, with three more west of the Rockies in Oregon, Idaho, and California.
In the early days, during President Theodore Roosevelt’s tenure, there was great federal land expansion that doubled forest reserve acreage. Congress responded by limiting the President’s ability to proclaim new reserves. Illustrating that the role of government has been a political issue for over a century. Certainly, national policies dictate how public lands and wilderness designated within these lands are used, maintained, and preserved. Today, the U.S. Forest Service is a multiple use agency that must abide by the Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act of 1960. Meaning, that unlike the National Park Service that focuses mainly on park preservation, the Forest Service must manage for diverse interests such as conservation, timber harvesting, livestock grazing, wildlife, and recreation. Extraction of natural resources is permitted in the National Forest System creating conflicts over logging, mining, endangered species, and related economic and environmental issues.
The Forest Service has identified four major threats to the health of the Nation’s Forests and Grasslands.
Fire and Fuels—Catastrophic fires, particularly in the western U.S., have devastated some national forests. In short, the lack of active management to remove small trees and brush can limit open stands of big, healthy trees that have traditionally existed. It is essential for this fire fuel to be removed to avoid large scale, excessively hot fires that destroy the nutrients in the soil. A Forest Service report in 2015 estimated that within a decade the agency will spend approximately two-thirds of its budget to battle fires. This means mission-critical programs that can help prevent fires, such as forest restoration and landscape management, will suffer—creating a dangerous cycle where the problem gets exponentially worse over time.
Invasive Species—Non-native flora and fauna have invaded millions of acres of the National Forest System. The invaders cause massive disruption in the function of ecosystems, reducing biodiversity, and degrading ecosystems’ health. The final impact of invasive species in the U.S. is estimated at $138 billion per year in economic damages and associated control cost.
Loss of Open Space—Populations near national forest and grasslands are rising and outpacing growth in other parts of the U.S. From 1990-2010 it is estimated that populations living within 50 miles of NFS lands increased by 36%, from about 112 million to 153 million, and this trend is expected to continue. Numerous impacts associated with increased housing and populations near public lands have been reported, including the blockage of public access points to trails by development. Creation of new unplanned access points and housing growth also have impacts on wildlife habitat and water quality, as well as increased risk of fire damage, and illegal use of NFS lands adjacent to private properties.
Unmanaged Recreation—There has been a phenomenal increase in the use of NFS lands for many recreational activities. The recent advances in motor vehicle technology has rapidly expanded the use of off-highway vehicles and put pressure on the Forest Service’s ability to provide opportunities desired by the public, while sustaining NFS lands and resources.
U.S. forests currently serve as a carbon sink, offsetting approximately 10-20 percent of U.S. emissions from burning fossil fuels each year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and other government researchers have concluded that the pervasive threats that face forestlands, including climate change, may ultimately affect the ability of U.S. forests to continue to store and sequester carbon. A plan to execute forest health treatments at larger scales that meaningfully reduce threats is required to address the vital sequestration role that NFS lands have in the global carbon cycle.
The Trump Administration has already begun the push for a smaller government. Those involved in the environmental protection business have suggested that this reduction will result in the sale of federal land to the states. Conservatives counter that the western states, where the majority of NFS lands reside, currently have a heavy burden due to federal land ownership within their state, and local control would result in better land management. Conversely, environmental advocates believe the cash strapped local governments are likely to simply sell the land to the highest bidder, and buyers will develop these properties to exploit minerals or build new commercial developments, degrading local environmental quality. Indeed, there have been a few new rule and legislative proposals over the past few months that make it easier for the government to sell public land.
One strategy to ensure NFS managed lands are maintained in the public trust and for the enjoyment of all Americans, may lie in the valuation of these natural assets. For instance, identifying the means to generate capital to improve the health of forest ecosystems on public lands through environmental crediting. Such an approach would involve paying for sustainable timber management practices on federal land.
The California Air Resources Board, which manages the largest compliance carbon offset program in the U.S., does not allow forest projects on federally owned land, presumably due to difficulties enforcing California state law on federally owned property. However, it is conceivable that forest projects on federal land may become eligible someday if approved via the federal legislature. Although this is admittedly a long shot now, a systematic and spatial method of assigning value to natural land could certainly drive future policy and serve as a mechanism to protect federal forests.
In 2012, the Climate Action Reserve (CAR), a voluntary carbon market registry, developed a white paper on Forest Offset Projects on Federal Lands. Their findings indicated that the existing CAR forest protocol could indeed be applied to federal lands; however there may be issues with the transfer of property rights to private parties that must be addressed. The American Carbon Registry, another leading voluntary registry, has reported reforestation projects on two NFS properties. One is the fire damaged San Juan National Forest in Colorado, and the second is California’s Angeles National Forest. Both projects used carbon funds from corporations to pay for tree planting.
Related to this work, The National Forest Foundation which was chartered by Congress in 1993 to restore and enhance our national forests and grasslands, created a Carbon Capital Fund. The purpose of the fund is to use voluntary carbon markets to help restore damaged lands, and demonstrate the value of our national forests in a larger climate change strategy.
The Habitat Institute has also developed an innovative method to define natural values that can be applied to forestland—dubbed Combined Habitat Assessment Protocols (CHAP). CHAP was originally conceived of for transportation project mitigation, and was later improved in collaboration with 11 different agencies including the U.S. Forest Service. It is an accounting tool for measuring habitat quality as an indicator of the overall ecological integrity of a site. CHAP essentially delivers a spatial assessment of both impacts and enhancements that can be used in the planning and regulatory process.
Additionally, the practice of mitigation banking has progressed over the years to now include wetlands, streams, and endangered species. There are now several good examples of forest conservation protecting drinking water supplies and other watershed services. The Forest Service estimates that within the next 25 years more than 11 percent (about 44.2 million acres) of the private forests in the contiguous U.S. will be at risk for conversion to developed uses. Conversion increases landscape fragmentation and decreases ecosystem function, significantly impairing watershed health and the multiple ecosystem services forests provide. This means managing the threats to NFS land will take on additional importance, including protecting drinking water sources for millions of Americans.
Quantifiable evaluation approaches such as carbon, habitat, water quality, and other protocols will allow financial value to be assigned to forests including those under NFS management. Valuing these properties beyond their commercial timber, and attracting funding sources for associated sustainable management and restoration, could be the key to paying for healthy forest systems under the NFS.
There is an expanding list of corporations with sustainability programs that address water, carbon emissions, and other social issues that could be tapped as critical sources of capital to this end. These public-private partnerships are the best way to address the perpetual lack of money for forest services present to some extent under all political administrations, and should be expanded to make sure these vital lands say in the public trust. These strategic partnerships will give our public lands a fighting chance to survive the ever-changing carousel of political regimes and continue providing benefits for all.
Image credit: Flickr/Bureau of Land Management Oregon and Washington