As delegates meet in Paris in the next few weeks to consider ways of reducing human-caused climate change, one topic that is unlikely to get much focus is the contribution that protected areas make in mitigating human-caused GHG emissions.

Parks, wilderness areas, and other nature reserves are generally off-limits to development and exploitation from livestock grazing, logging, oil and gas development, coal mining, and large commercial endeavors.

All of these activities in one way or another contribute to global climate change. Livestock release massive amounts of methane as a consequence of rumen digestion, plus the cutting of forests for pasture creation also releases CO2 to the atmosphere.  Methane, in particular, is far more effective at trapping heat than CO2, particularly in the first couple of decades, so a reduction in livestock offers one of the best ways to immediately affect global climates.

Most of the carbon in grasslands is stored in roots below ground. Grazing can interfere with the capture and transfer of carbon to the soil. The best way to keep carbon in the ground is to reduce the harmful impacts of livestock grazing.  Degraded rangelands leak carbon, thus protecting lands from the ravages of livestock indirectly stores more carbon in grassland ecosystem.  Consuming less beef and dairy may be one of the most effective ways to cut human impacts, not only on CO2/methane production, but many other negative effects as well like killing of predators.

Logging by removing forest cover, and compacting soils also frees up CO2 into the atmosphere. Even burnt forests store carbon since the majority of what burns in fires is the fine fuels like small branches and needles. The snags that are left as well as the roots in the ground all hold considerable carbon resources. And growing forests, particularly old growth forests, capture and store a considerable amount of carbon.

Oil and gas development along with coal has obvious CO2 impacts. Burning these fossil fuels releases immense amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. In addition, some energy development such as fracking and tar sands mining are also responsible for significant leakage of methane/carbon into the atmosphere. So leaving these fossil fuels in the ground helps to reduce the carbon input.

Large commercial developments of any sort, also displaces the natural vegetation, thus increases the carbon footprint.

There is yet another value to protecting lands as parks, wilderness and other reserves. It forces society to confront limits. In fact, perhaps one of the biggest benefits of protected areas is that it teaches self-discipline and the idea that we must set aside human desires so that other life forms can survive.

Expanding our global base of protected areas is therefore one of the best things that can be done to reduce global change. And parks/wilderness has many benefits, but particularly for the world’s poor who will suffer disproportionately from climate change. For instance, parks/wildlands reserves help to preserve watersheds critical for providing clean water for humanity as well as other lifeforms.

Parks and other wildlands reserves are among the most successful ways of ensuring protection of native biodiversity and ecological function. And they provide a refuge from which forests, grasslands, and native wildlife can recover, expand outward, and restore the Earth.

Rewilding or restoring previously degraded and exploited landscapes also offers tremendous opportunities for reversing climate change. The reforestation that has occurred in New England by the abandonment of marginal farms, as well as the failure of wheat farming and ranching in the West, are two examples of regions for significant rewilding opportunity.

Of course, none of these efforts will reverse climate change in the long run unless we reduce the human population. But as we work towards that goal rewilding the Earth and protecting those areas that are still ecologically intact offers a positive vision and antidote for reducing human-caused climate change.

About The Author

George Wuerthner

George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide with a degree in wildlife biology

One Response to Wildlands Protection Antidote to Global Climate Change

  1. Dean Malencik says:

    Mountain Bikers want access to wilderness areas. The fight comes from all sides. This mountain biking group has become a real pain and will destroy the Wilderness Act.


December 2015


‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

~ Edward Abbey

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