Conservation for a Cooler Planet- Land&People
Like many people these days, you are probably thinking about ways to slow climate change. Television, newspapers, and the Web offer plenty of advice about how to reduce greenhouse gases and cool the planet: more energy-efficient homes and cars; cleaner power from the wind and the sun; and reducing the use of fuels that produce a lot of carbon dioxide, such as coal and oil.
But you may have heard less about some other ways to address the problem of climate change: plant a tree (or better yet, a lot of them); build parks and greenways; conserve watersheds, natural lands, and wildlife habitat.
"As people began looking for climate change solutions, the natural question for conservation groups was: 'What's land got to do with it?'" says Jad Daley, director of the Climate Conservation Program at The Trust for Public Land. "What we discovered is that land conservation can help in many ways. Conservation can help reduce the emissions that cause climate change, and it can protect people and animals from the impacts of changes that are already under way."
National leaders are beginning to understand this. Federal land and wildlife agencies are forming policies to address climate change. And Congress is considering conservation measures—particularly conserving natural lands and protecting wildlife habitat—for inclusion in climate legislation. In outlining its own climate program, TPL identified three broad areas in which conservation can help address climate change. "Now," says Jad Daley, "we are looking at specific ways we can maximize the climate benefits from our work." Here are a few examples of how conservation can help to build a cooler future.
Conserving natural lands to absorb and store carbon dioxide
In northeastern Louisiana, TPL has been planting trees that will absorb more than 3 million tons of CO2 over the next 70 years. That's like taking 626,000 cars and light trucks off the road for a year. The trees are being planted on land that was cleared decades ago for farming and that is now being added to Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge. The project has many goals, one of which is to create new habitat for the endangered Louisiana black bear. But because carbon absorption can be predicted and audited, some funds for the work are coming from energy companies that hope to claim the carbon credits in any future cap-andtrade carbon market.
"Trees grow relatively quickly here, so we get good carbon numbers that make it financially viable to sell carbon credits," says TPL project manager Don Morrow, who is now working to replicate the model at Bayou Teche National Wildlife Refuge near Franklin, Louisiana, and elsewhere across the Southeast.
Forests and other natural lands play a crucial role in keeping CO2 out of the atmosphere, with forests alone absorbing 15 percent of the CO2 generated in the United States every year. According to the U.S. EPA, that number could rise to 25 percent if forests are protected from development and managed to increase carbon absorption and storage, a process known as "sequestration." Sequestering carbon removes it from the atmosphere as surely as does preventing its release from a tailpipe or smokestack.
Conservationists, nonprofits, legislators, government agencies, and businesses across the nation are asking how forests and other natural lands might become part of long-range climate solutions.
"TPL is creating a new GIS mapping tool to identify lands with the greatest potential to absorb carbon in the landscapes where we work," says Jad Daley. "This will help us target projects to areas with the highest potential for sequestering carbon." Such focus areas could include, in addition to the forests of the Southeast, the northern Sierra Nevada of California, the Midwest's Northwoods region, and New England's northern forest.
To ensure that this important work gains support in the nation's capital, TPL and the American Forest Foundation in 2008 cofounded the Forest Climate Working Group. This diverse coalition drawn from the forest products industry, conservation and wildlife groups, foresters, private forest owners, academics, and carbon finance groups has led efforts to include private forest conservation funding measures—ranging from offset markets to traditional conservation programs—in national climate legislation.
Conserving landscapes that help humans and wildlife adjust to climate change
In spring, the angler's fancy turns to Eastern brook trout, the region's only native trout and one of the loveliest of nature's creatures. But each year, cold-water-loving "brookies" are getting harder to find as their habitat shrinks, and continuing climate change is just going to make that worse. Within the 7.2-million-acre watershed of the Connecticut River—which encompasses much of western New England—agencies and conservation groups, including Trout Unlimited and TPL, are working to map and protect habitat where the species can survive as waters warm. This work also holds an additional climate-adaptation benefit, since this and other forested watersheds will safeguard human water supplies as rainfall patterns shift. To date, TPL has helped protect nearly 200,000 acres in the watershed.
And the Connecticut River Valley is only one of the places where such work is going on. Across the country, climate shifts already under way will provide dramatic challenges for humans and wildlife, even given the most ambitious plans to stem the tide. In some regions, drought will threaten overstretched human water supplies; other places will be at risk of flooding from increased rain or violent storms, as warming oceans create more volatile weather.
A list of lands that should be conserved to help human communities adapt to climate change includes river valleys and streamside forests, which can slow flooding and keep human settlement out of the path of floods, and watersheds, which protect supplies of clean, drinkable water and vulnerable coasts threatened by storms. For wildlife, the challenge is to protect lands into which species will need to move as their current habitats warm.
Along the Gulf Coast, TPL has been working with the state of Louisiana and other conservation groups to restore wetland forests that offer the first defense against storms such as Hurricane Katrina. Already we have lost 1.2 million acres of Gulf Coast wetlands, vital habitat for fish and wildlife—particularly migratory songbirds—and a buffer against storms. "Cleared salt marsh doesn't stop the wind," says TPL's Don Morrow, "but if you put trees into the equation, all that changes. Trees do stop the wind and soak up the storm surge."
In Montana, TPL and The Nature Conservancy are winding up what may be the nation's most important climate adaptation project for wildlife. At 320,000 acres, the Montana Legacy Project encompasses the Crown of the Continent, the most intact ecosystem remaining in the lower 48 states. Remarkably, every species identified by the Lewis and Clark Expedition in the early 19th century is still present in this region along the Continental Divide. "The area has incredible diversity," says TPL Montana state director Deb Love, "including range of gradient, elevation, slope, and habitat type. This provides a remarkable capacity for plants and animals to find places to thrive."
In all, TPL has identified a dozen "adaptation landscapes" where the organization has a history of success and where well-defined conservation action is needed to protect natural resources, human communities, and wildlife habitat from the effects of climate change. These include New Jersey's Barnegat Bay watershed, the Chesapeake Bay, California's northern Sierra Nevada, the Colorado Plateau, and the Midwest's Northwoods, where TPL is working with the U.S. Forest Service to design a new climate plan to target the highest-priority lands for adaptation.
Using parks, trails, and greenways to create compact, cooler, more energy-efficient, and less auto-dependent cities and towns
Our cities also hold a key piece of the climate puzzle. A third of all the CO2 emitted in the United States comes from transportation, and most of that from cars and trucks. Improving vehicle mileage is one way to decrease those emissions, but another is to reduce vehicle miles traveled by getting people out of their cars. Public transportation helps, as do trails and greenways like those TPL has helped build in Baltimore, Boston, Chattanooga, and other communities nationwide.
A study by the International Institute for Environment and Development found that per-capita emission of greenhouse gases in New York City was less than a third of the national average, in part because people can walk or use public transportation between home and school, work, or shopping. One comprehensive study found that urban design can reduce per-capita vehicle miles traveled by up to 40 percent. Denser communities also require less energy for heating and air conditioning, because buildings are closer together.
Many planners agree that building smarter and denser communities must be part of any global warming solution. And one key to creating such communities is the generous distribution of parks, greenways, and trails—not only for alternative transportation but also to serve as communal backyards for residents, making cities places where people really want to live. "The energy efficiency of cities represents one of mankind's best hopes for slowing global warming," says Peter Harnik, director of TPL's Center for City Park Excellence. "Cities are successful only if residents and visitors find them appealing. To have appeal and attraction, a city must have a great park system."
Natural parks—especially wooded ones—also cool the air in their immediate vicinity and absorb small amounts of CO2.
Some cities clearly recognize these climate benefits. For example, Salt Lake City's Climate Action Plan recommends the acquisition of land for urban forests and support for biking and other alternative transportation by building trails and greenways. TPL's Conservation Finance team recently helped further the effort by working to plan and pass bond measures that generated more than $50 million for parks, trails, and other recreational land in Salt Lake County.
TPL is supporting its partner cities in their efforts to become climate-smart. TPL's Conservation Vision team will help cities develop a climate plan that includes a strong role for parks, greenways, and other natural areas. Then TPL project staff will work with the city to complete land transactions and park projects that will implement those plans.
Many Solutions Needed
Climate change is a complex problem that has taken decades to develop. Concerted action on many fronts will be required to begin to check the momentum of our warming climate. New clean energy sources are essential, as is the development of energy-efficient buildings and transportation. It's also important to take advantage of the planet's built-in climate regulating capacities, by promoting land conservation measures that help reduce greenhouse gases and respond to climate changes in progress. The new infrastructure— including green infrastructure—emerging from all these efforts will lay the groundwork for a cooler, cleaner world.
William Poole is the editor of both Land&People and LandNotes, a TPL conservation blog.