Climate change programs in federal land management agencies are quietly carrying on, even amid Trump administration hostility to such action.
The connection between public lands and solving climate change recently came up as a campaign issue in the 2020 presidential race. But that work is already happening, albeit on a smaller and quieter scale.
Employees at the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are continuing to take training courses on climate change mitigation, collect climate data, and participate in climate change and lands protection collaborations, among other efforts.
They’re doing so in far-flung offices in ways that don’t attract the attention of Trump administration officials in Washington, said Kit Muller, who was the BLM’s strategic planner at the agency’s headquarters until he retired in 2018.
“The state level and the field level, people have their heads down,” Muller said. “They’re continuing to do stuff, but they’re just not talking about it.”
Those who work on climate change in federal land management agencies are able to to so because “the federal government is massive,” said Daniel Kreeger, executive director of the Association of Climate Change Officers.
“I don’t know that this administration knows where to look for all that stuff,” Kreeger said.
Newly confirmed Interior Secretary David Bernhardt told the Senate in March that regulating greenhouse gas emissions isn’t an Interior Department responsibility.
But Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, whose agency includes the Forest Service, has said the impacts of climate change are managed the same, regardless of their cause.
The issue came to the forefront April 15, when Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) announced that she supports public lands protection and, if elected as president in 2020, would make it a priority to use public lands to mitigate climate change.
Using public lands to solve climate change was a focus of the National Park Service’s ongoing Climate Change Response Program, formed in 2009 by the Obama administration, which created numerous climate programs across the federal government.
But the Trump administration has been hostile to climate action. It has taken steps to remove the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement, proposed undoing the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, and aggressively pushed for oil and gas leasing and development on public lands.
President Donald Trump said in November that he doesn’t believe the conclusion of the administration’s National Climate Assessment that climate change could be extremely damaging to the U.S. economy.
While some climate programs in the federal lands management agencies are carrying on, many have been dismantled or downsized.
Adaptation, Budget Cuts
Among those are a network of climate adaptation science centers, which the Interior Department said April 3 would be realigned and restructured, and reduced from eight centers to four.
There has been bipartisan pushback in Congress against some of the Trump administration’s environmental program cuts.
Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), a member of the House Appropriations subcommittee overseeing Interior spending, said in March that White House officials know Congress isn’t going to go along with some of the proposed deep cuts to environmental programs.
The National Park Service climate program isn’t mentioned in any of the Trump administration’s annual budget requests for Interior. But its employees work for a park service program called Natural Resource Stewardship, which the administration targeted for a 2.5 percent budget cut in fiscal 2020 compared to fiscal 2018. The budget has been relatively flat since 2016.
The program is part of a collaboration among the three other lands management agencies, as well as Canadian and Mexican parks officials called the Committee on Cooperation for Wilderness and Protected Areas Conservation, or NAWPA. The group aims to conserve landscapes at the “continental scale.”
The committee released a report in 2012 promoting the idea that the 640 million acres of U.S. national parks, forests and other public lands, plus park lands in Canada and Mexico, add up to a natural solution to climate change because they are a storehouse for carbon dioxide, a repository of biological diversity, and a living laboratory for scientists.
NAWPA is administered by the Wild Foundation, a nonprofit organization that aims to protect wilderness areas.
The federal climate change response programs that were active in NAWPA are still intact, but “where the challenges lie with the agencies, there’s not a lot of support for new initiatives because they lack that official leadership at the top. Things continue to move forward quietly underneath,” said Amy Lewis, vice president of the Wild Foundation.
Today, NAWPA is focusing on enhancing “connectivity between conservation areas,” and working with indigenous organizations to conserve natural and cultural heritage, among other efforts, Interior spokeswoman Molly Block said.
The U.S. Forest Service also remains “engaged” in NAWPA, spokeswoman Babete Anderson said.
Climate Change Strategies
The Association of Climate Change Officers provides training to National Park Service employees to help them “discover how to better incorporate climate change strategies into planning and operations,” according to the service’s Climate Change Response Program April email newsletter.
Bloomberg is listed as an organizational member of the association, but is no longer active, the association’s Kreeger said.
“The fact is, almost everything Interior is responsible for is affected by climate change,” said Joel Clement, who served as Interior’s director of policy analysis until July 2017. He blew the whistle after being reassigned, saying he believed the move was retaliation for speaking out about the dangers climate change poses to Alaska Native communities.
“A lot of the work that the agencies do is inherently related to and affected by climate change,” Clement said. “You don’t necessarily need to be saying the words ‘climate change’ to work on it. That’s what a lot of the staff are doing now.”
Kreeger said hundreds of federal employees have completed the association’s climate training, and are able to “operationalize” strategies to mitigate climate change within their agencies—so long as knowledge of those efforts doesn’t rise to the Interior secretary’s office.
Perdue’s statements supporting acting on the impacts of climate change give Forest Service employees some cover, Kreeger said.
“Those sorts of statements give latitude for people within the agency, where there’s some latitude on resilience,” he said.
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