President Biden today issued an Executive Order outlining a broad and ambitious policy to tackle the climate crisis. It contains plenty of ambitious provisions, couched within an all-hands-on-deck approach to climate change, which will commit every federal bureau and department to doing its part to slow or even reverse the unfolding climate catastrophe. Decisive action is long overdue: Scientists set the atmospheric carbon dioxide threshold at 350 parts per million (ppm) to prevent major climate-related impacts to people and ecosystems, and we have blown past that threshold and atmospheric CO2 now stands at 415 ppm. The new Executive Order is going to mean major change for the American West, and for western public lands in particular, offering some unambiguously positive conservation outcomes, as well as some complexities that will require careful navigation through the briar patch to achieve positive results for lands, wildlife, and communities.

The Order points out, “America’s farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners have an important role to play in combating the climate crisis and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, by sequestering carbon in soils, grasses, trees, and other vegetation and sourcing sustainable bioproducts and fuels.” On private lands, with intensive management, plowing compost or even manure into soils can result in near-term carbon inputs, and to the extent that perennial crops replace annual crops, or are mixed in, long-term deposits could be made to soil carbon banks.

On western public lands, plowing in soil additives would be impossible without destroying native plant communities (which would harm, not help, carbon sequestration), but there are other ways that changing agricultural practices could increase soil carbon. Most obvious is to pare down excessive levels of livestock grazing to the point where native perennial grasses, soil crusts, and shrubs can thrive. The heavy levels of livestock grazing all too typical on federally managed lands today have been destroying long-lived perennial grasses for more than a century, fueling the spread of a highly flammable annual weed called cheatgrass. Cheatgrass dies each year, giving up its carbon, and perhaps worse yet it burns readily when dead and dry, and the resulting fires wipe out long-lived shrubs that are essential not just for sequestering carbon but for habitat for sage grouse and other wildlife. The cheatgrass infestations that follow overgrazing turn deserts and steppes that are major carbon immobilizers – better even than forests because the carbon is underground, where it doesn’t burn off periodically – into landscapes that are hemorrhaging carbon into the atmosphere.

Thus, reducing livestock stocking rates below thresholds where long-term damage occurs needs to be a core part of the Biden climate policy for western lands.

The Biden approach to fossil fuels is an unambiguous victory for the environment. It eliminates taxpayer subsidies for the wealthiest (and dirtiest) industry on the planet, fossil fuel production. It puts a pause on leasing for oil, gas, and coal, each of which are dirty fuels that cause climate-disrupting spikes in atmospheric carbon. When it comes to implementing these policies, it will be essential for the Biden team to be as aggressive as possible, because the oil and gas industry has already banked up an enormous surplus of unused oil and gas leases, and pre-approved permission to drill tens of thousands of wells, which will cause major spikes in drilling and fracking for decades to come, even if new leases and permits are prohibited entirely, right away.

The Biden approach rightly positions renewable energy as the replacement for fossil fuels. This makes sense from a practical economic standpoint in addition to an environmental one – if we keep burning coal, oil, and gas without developing the renewables to replace them, they will run out before long, ushering in a new Dark Ages characterized by a scarcity of power for transportation, lighting, and warmth. If we have to shift to renewables anyway, why not do it now and spare ourselves further damage to the climate, and the agriculture and natural communities of plants, wildlife, and ocean life that depend on it?

But no one wants wind farms and solar arrays everywhere, because that would add the industrial impacts of utility-scale renewables to the problems that wellfields and coal mines that already fragment wildlife habitats and disrupt migration corridors, ruin the recreation values on public lands, and fuel the ongoing biodiversity crisis. The Biden policy seems to recognize this, stating that the doubling of renewable energy would proceed in the context of “ensuring robust protection for our lands, waters, and biodiversity.” For large-scale renewable projects, siting is the key to ensuring that renewable energy is a net benefit for the environment, and spatial analyses have already been ventured for Wyoming, Montana, and Oregon to show which areas need to be protected from renewable development, and which areas have the fewest identified conflicts. Other states would benefit from such analyses to promote a well-thought-out approach to renewables development.

But if the Biden administration wants a win-win solution to renewable energy development without harming sensitive lands and wildlife, distributed renewable development is clearly the way to go. The Justice40 Initiative, which highlights “investments in the areas of clean energy and energy efficiency” and makes its debut in this Executive Order, might just be the place where this climate solution could really shine, by installing inexpensive (or, better yet, free) rooftop solar to underserved communities, slashing their utility bills. Some 40 percent of the nation’s energy needs could be supplied by rooftop solar alone, and if parking lots were outfitted with photovoltaic awnings to shade and shelter the cars, the administration might be able to hit all its renewable targets without blighting public lands with a single industrial-scale project.

The Biden administration will also be taking input from conservationists and locals on the best way to decrease fire risk. The good news is, we already have some solid answers on that front. Federal agencies should halt efforts to log and graze their way to fire reductions, failed policies with miserable track records stretching back more than a century. Instead, we must cease this war against nature that we have no hope of winning, and instead focus on fire-proofing our own communities with “firewise” methods that create defensible space, subdivisions sited away from fire risk, and fire-resistant homes.

Perhaps the biggest win for the West in the Biden climate policy is the “30×30” initiative, which commits to protecting 30 percent of the nation’s lands and waters by the year 2030. This goal grew out of the proposal by world-famous ecologist E.O. Wilson to set aside half the Earth for nature, as a hedge against the extinction crisis. Natural, fully-functioning ecosystems are the key here: If done right, we could have a flourishing of native species that secures the future of rare plants and wildlife, rendering the crisis-management approach to endangered species unnecessary. By establishing large reserves of protected land, interconnected with corridors so plants and wildlife can migrate freely and shift naturally in response to a changing climate, this policy could create resilience in native ecosystems, and help us share the planet with all our fellow life forms in a way that is mutually beneficial for all.

We applaud the bold vision of the budding Biden administration, and its commitment to make environmental conservation a national priority for the first time in half a century. The Biden blueprint offers a roadmap to a better future, a future in which we have the opportunity to re-write our relationship with the natural world, to make that relationship healthy again. We stand ready to supply the knowledge and experience we have gained in advancing conservation priorities, both as an individual organization of dedicated professionals, and as a broader conservation community, to create a better nation with sustainable lifestyles, equitable opportunities, and richer quality of life for all.

Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and serves as Executive Director with Western Watersheds Project, which works to protect and restore wildlife and watersheds across the American West.

 
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Erik Molvar

17 Responses to Biden climate policy could bring positive change to the West: Here’s how

  1. avatar Nancy Ostlie says:

    I am seriously concerned about the language in Biden’s executive order: “to collect input from Tribes, farmers, ranchers, forest owners, conservation groups, firefighters, and other stakeholders on how to best use Department of Agriculture programs, funding and financing capacities, and other authorities, and how to encourage the voluntary adoption of climate-smart agricultural and forestry practices that decrease wildfire risk fueled by climate change..” In Montana, ‘stakeholders’ in collaboratives dominated by county commissioners and timber interests prescribe logging to address catastrophic wildfire risk. See https://www.montanaforestactionplan.org/pages/priority-areas This political plan is not based on science, which shows that with drought and extreme weather conditions (wind) there is nothing that will stop wildfire. The ‘conservation groups’ that rubber-stamped the plan even said in public comments, ‘we can’t log our way out of the wildfire problem’ and said the model used by MFAP was inadequate. Still, they approved the plan to log 3.8 million acres in Montana. And they are not focused on the wild land urban interface (WUI) which would be reasonable.
    The Biden plan needs to be informed by real science, and until the Forest Service will look at independent sources like the Montana Climate Assessment, we cannot trust the agencies. And I don’t trust the ‘conservation groups’ that are usually recruited to these collaboratives. Contact me directly with inquiries.

  2. avatar Isabel Cohen says:

    This article says it all! Thank heavens for some logical safeguards to protect our planet now and forever! Thank you President Biden for caring for the planet!!!

  3. Personally I am feeling so much more positive about the future of our pubic lands and forests and the welfare of wildlife with Biden in charge. The previous administration only cared about money and profits; this administration authentically cares about the future of our planet and it’s genuine welfare. There is certainly more hope for me now.

  4. avatar Travis Bitters says:

    Grazing in the West is misunderstood. Not enough space to explain it here, but to the honest in heart I ask that you research the beneficial role of pastoralism in human history. Towns in the intermountain West have existed this long because we live in harmony with adjoining public lands — we are not tourist that visit for a week then go back to the city. We ranch, farm, collect firewood, eat pine nuts, hunt and fish here — We like it when you come and enjoy these lands too. Please stop trying to make public lands only for recreation, please become informed about sustainable yield industry. Please resist the rhetoric that public lands are being ruined by the locals. Read more, talk more.

  5. avatar Ida Lupine says:

    But no one wants wind farms and solar arrays everywhere, because that would add the industrial impacts of utility-scale renewables to the problems that wellfields and coal mines that already fragment wildlife habitats and disrupt migration corridors, ruin the recreation values on public lands, and fuel the ongoing biodiversity crisis.

    This is my worry, especially with the loss of jobs from the oil and gas industry. It’s a sacrilege to me to see millions of rooftops unused for solar. Parking lots, warehouses, schools, shopping malls, etc.

  6. avatar Ida Lupine says:

    Some 40 percent of the nation’s energy needs could be supplied by rooftop solar alone, and if parking lots were outfitted with photovoltaic awnings to shade and shelter the cars, the administration might be able to hit all its renewable targets without blighting public lands with a single industrial-scale project.

    This is just such a beautiful idea.

    I just hope profit doesn’t take precedence in the decision making, just as it does with other energy, but thoughtful and ethical land use. The pipeline plans where they did not at first build around aquifers was shocking to me.

  7. avatar Lyn McCormick says:

    Erik, what can we do about the massive wind farm projects requiring overhead transmission lines to transport energy from Southern WY thru NW Colorado to serve Las Vegas and So. CA. Can we get a moratorium on these massive scale projects until there is better storage and transportation technology ? Afterall, PacificCorp’s failure to do the maintenance on the power lines in CA. is responsible for the largest fire in CA.history

  8. avatar Nancy says:

    Re: oil jobs

    • avatar Maggie Frazier says:

      How about that – a truth teller!!!

    • avatar Mark L says:

      I had to kind of chuckle when that guy was talking about jobs going ‘extinct’. Jobs don’t go extinct, species do. Hell, in 1890 there were hundreds of people shoveling horse manure for a living…cause there were horses on most streets. Where are those jobs now? The point is, humans can adapt and find new jobs…you can’t teach a woodpecker to fish or a turtle to make bread. Jobs are dependent on the technology in existence at the time we are living. We can change jobs, but those old jobs aren’t ‘extinct’ and the people doing them are threatened because they are not shown a reasonable path to self productivity

  9. avatar rastadoggie says:

    The massive pipelines and powerlines trashing incredibly scenic, often otherwise pristine and remote, landscapes of the west need our attention and are breaking my heart. This needs to be on the radar screen of projects, past and future and mitigated the hell out of. Thank you, Lyn, for bringing this up!

  10. avatar Beeline says:

    “….encourage the voluntary adoption of climate-smart agricultural and forestry practices…..”

    Nancy made a very good point. The above kind of language constitutes ‘nice-nice’ wishful thinking. It will not result in sufficient change.

    Does anyone really think that “stake holders” are going to give up logging, grazing, herbicide spraying projects, prairie dog assassination, predator killing and all the rest of the anti-life activity being carried out on public lands?

    I do not see any bold vision on the part of the new administration. They are plotting a course back to “normal” and “normal” will not get the job done.

  11. avatar Ida Lupine says:

    Do they really think that a switch-over, job-for-job is possible?

    Isn’t more large-scale wind and solar needed to match the efficiency of oil and gas, and that means more digging up and destroying the landscapes, and displacing (otherwise known as ‘relocating’) or even outright killing of wildlife such as birds, prairie dogs and tortoises as has been done?

    I think that more details are needed.

  12. avatar Ida Lupine says:

    ^^make that desert tortoises. Our deserts are not simply wastelands for us to do with what we will.

  13. avatar Ida Lupine says:

    I worry that the only way to employ people is going to be massive industrial wind and solar! The plan seems vague to me. We can see how ‘voluntary’ has worked out with sage grouse protections.

    For example, Nantucket Sound has been the subject of the building of a massive wind farm and is Federal waters. There are only 400 or so right whales left in the world, and these waters are their feeding grounds. How much interference by human activity can these poor animals take before they go extinct?

    His administration needs a “Science Team” for climate and wildlife as well as for covid.

  14. avatar Ida Lupine says:

    I was curious what anyone from Montana out there thinks about this. Not being from Montana of course, I don’t know a lot about her:

    https://missoulian.com/news/state-and-regional/fwps-williams-moves-to-dc/article_b0af4192-db9b-5c8e-8fe8-09841663cf45.html

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‎"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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