A long-awaited study on the impacts of climate change on the Colorado Plateau has been released, and conservationists are calling on the Bureau of Land Management to begin using this data in their public lands management decisions. Earthjustice and The Wilderness Society urge the agency to take into account broad changes in climatic conditions, water availability, wildlife habitat and other impacts to land as part of planning processes that underway throughout the plateau.
The Colorado River. Studies predict that the Colorado Plateau will bear the brunt of climate change with impacts more severe than in other parts of the country.
(Kohi Hirano / iStockphoto)
“We hope that the BLM’s climate study marks a turning point in the agency’s approach to how it manages and protects water resources, wildlife habitat, and our last remaining wild areas as our environment grows hotter and drier,” said Earthjustice’s Heidi McIntosh. “With this new climate study, BLM can no longer ignore the need to manage and protect large undeveloped expanses of public land, important wildlife habitat and the water resources that are now degraded by oil and gas development, off-road vehicle use and other activities.”
BLM’s study, the Colorado Plateau Rapid Ecoregional Assessment (REA), is a compilation of information and analyses of current and future conditions across the region. Importantly, the REA will enable BLM to identify and prioritize the most valuable places and resources to protect and determine which human activities are the most destructive as the climate continues to put stress on nature’s ability to adapt to changes.
The REA will also support BLM’s move to a “landscape approach” to planning and land management, a departure from BLM’s traditional methods which focused narrowly on specific projects like drilling proposals, or on smaller planning areas, without examining how its decisions affected adjacent lands, including those managed by other state and federal agencies.
“Climate change is impacting our wild places, and how we care for these places in the short term will have lasting impacts for generations,” said Phil Hanceford at The Wilderness Society. “This study cannot be put on a shelf. Instead, the BLM should use this information to make better decisions about conserving our last remaining wild places while allowing for development activities where it will not affect our unspoiled lands and water resources that are already stretched far too thin.”
The Department of Interior has, since 2001, required the BLM and other land management agencies to consider climate change in its planning, management and decision making. Yet the BLM—the nation’s largest land management agency, responsible for over 250 million acres of public land—has been reluctant to do so, arguing that it lacked relevant scientific data.
The agency’s failure to look carefully at the impacts of climate change and modify its management accordingly has led conservationists, including Earthjustice and The Wilderness Society, to sue BLM to force compliance with the Department’s 2001 order on climate change, as well as with other laws requiring environmental studies in connection with BLM’s planning and management decisions.
Other scientific studies, including those conducted by the U.S. Geologic Survey, predict that the Colorado Plateau will bear the brunt of climate change with impacts more severe than in other parts of the country. These impacts include:
- Significantly reduced overall flows in the Colorado River basin, which sustains both the cities and ecosystems of much of the West;
- Changes in river flows and snowmelt with earlier runoff and water management challenges;
- An overall hotter and drier climate, with more prevalent and hotter wildfires;
- Changes in wildlife habitat as animals move in search of water and more hospitable conditions; extinctions will occur where such conditions are not available;
- Loss of native vegetation as exotic species like cheatgrass outcompete the original species;
- Increased dust storms as soil becomes more fragile, vegetation is lost and soil disturbance from roads, off-road vehicles and oil and gas field increases. Airborne soils more commonly settle on Rocky Mountain snowpack, creating a darker surface and generating more solar energy and leading earlier, faster runoff.
The REA, together with the preexisting studies, should result in a significant change in the way BLM conducts its business.