Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

How US Public Lands Can Help Save the Climate and Ourselves

Climate change is an existential threat to the human species. The rapid decarbonization of the economy of the United States and of the world is our only chance of maintaining the climate that we generally know and love.

Efforts to address climate change can be sorted into two major categories: (1) mitigation (emitting less carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and removing the excess) to minimize global warming, and (2) adaptation (implementing measures to adjust to climate change) to somewhat cope with global warming. Here we consider the roles that US public lands can play in mitigation, and we suggest that some grand bargains may be in order to serve the highest good of preserving the public land values that depend upon the climate.

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Utility-scale solar power development on public land obviates any other use. Source: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Roles the Public Lands Can Play in Mitigation—and the Problem with One of Them

The nation’s public lands can play three major roles in climate change mitigation:

1.    Keeping fossil fuels safely in the ground.

2.    Storing and sequestering atmospheric carbon back into vegetation and soils.

3.    Providing sites for carbon-free energy production.

The first two roles can make huge contributions to mitigating climate change and are compatible with the conservation of public lands. The last role could provide significant mitigation but is diametrically in opposition to conservation.

1. Keeping fossil fuels safely in the ground.

The only rational thing to do with the massive amounts of coal, oil, and gas owned by the federal government is to keep the rest safely in the ground. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) has introduced the Keep It in the Ground Act in the Senate, along with seven cosponsors (alas, his Oregon colleague and fellow Democrat, Senator Ron Wyden, is not yet among them). Representative Jared Huffman (D-2nd-CA) has introduced companion legislation in the House of Representatives with twenty-four cosponsors (including Representative Earl Blumenauer, D-3rd-OR; go, Earl, go!). A previous Public Lands Blog post addressed keeping it in the ground. Today, because of fossil fuel exploitation, the federal public lands are emitting 4.5 times the carbon they are sequestering.

2. Sequestering and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide back into vegetation and soils.

While carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel burning are the primary driver of climate change, deforestation—both historic and present—has been a comparable climate changer.Ending logging on federal public lands could reduce US greenhouse gas emissions 1.5 percent. It would also be very beneficial for biological diversity, watershed integrity, and compatible recreation. Additional carbon could be migrated from the atmosphere to public grasslands, deserts, and wetlands, both in vegetation and soils.

3. Providing sites for carbon-free energy production.

Our public lands should provide goods and services that the private sector is unable or unwilling to provide. Public lands could provide three major kinds of carbon-free energy, two of which (wind- and solar-generated electricity) are renewable and one of which (geothermal-generated electricity) is just carbon-free. (Historically, the optimal rates of economic exploitation of geothermal resources for electricity have exceeded the capacity of the earth to replace the lost heat, eventually depleting the geothermal field.)

The problem with all three kinds of energy generation on federal public lands is that they are in conflict with most, if not all, other statutory multiple use values (“including, but not limited to, recreation, range, timber, minerals, watershed, wildlife and fish, and natural scenic, scientific and historical values”) of public lands. A geothermal power plant or a solar panel farm is a use of the public lands that is as industrialized as it can get. Other multiple use values are totally foregone. A cluster of wind towers is damaging to most multiple uses, save for livestock grazing. While either desert tortoises or photovoltaic panels can live in the California desert, it’s generally one or the other. Photovoltaic panels are the ultimate habitat generalists in that they can live on nearly any roof, while wildlife cannot. Because such energy developments—even if climatically helpful—are damaging to the mandated purposes of public lands, they should not be allowed on federal public lands.

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One of 22 comparable geothermal power plants at the Geysers Complex in California. Source: Wikipedia

How Decarbonizing at Scale Might be Accomplished

Decarbonizing our energy sources—and rapidly enough to avoid the worst that climate change can bring—must be done, and it can be done by implementing existing technologies at scale. For example, if every suitable rooftop in the United States were bedecked with photovoltaic panels, such could meet 39 percent of current US electricity demand. Much of the rest of the electricity we currently use can come from wind farms sited on farms. As farm crops are crummy wildlife habitat already, siting a wind tower in a field of corn or soybeans in the Midwest is far better than on native vegetation in the wild West. By the same token, utility-scale solar (huge arrays mounted on the ground, not roofs) is best sited on private lands.

But it must be said that adding to the challenge of providing enough carbon-free electricity is that we must electrify most of our transportation fleet with even more renewable electricity. While farm-raised liquid biofuels have a role, electrification is a superior path toward sustainability and rationality. Perhaps balancing out the increased electricity demand of electric vehicles, we can take much greater advantage of opportunities in energy efficiency than we already have. Contrary to conventional wisdom that says energy efficiency has diminishing returns as one invests more in it, the fact is that energy efficiency generates expanding returns as one invests more in it.

It may be the case that to fully and adequately decarbonize the US economy, industrialized renewable energy facilities will be need to be sited on lands that are now public. If we don’t keep the climate close to what we have known and loved, much of what we have known and loved on and about public lands will be lost.

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Due to economies of scale, the large wind power turbines you have seen before are not what you will see . Source: Vox

The Need for the Conservation Community to Find a Better Path

When it comes to renewable energy projects on the nation’s public lands, the conservation community should choose neither the course of total opposition nor of total accommodation. Total opposition helps neither the climate nor the public land values that depend upon the climate. Total accommodation helps the climate but harms the public land values we seek to conserve and restore for this and future generations. It doesn’t make any difference to sage grouse whether their habitat is destroyed by industrial production of green electrons from renewable energy development or brown electrons from fossil fuel development. The public lands conservation community should choose a middle/third path that allows the large-scale industrial production of the renewable energy resources we will need to fully decarbonize but doesn’t come at the expense of public lands resources.

Impossible, you say? Nay, I say, it is possible. There are public lands that have high value for renewable energy production and low value for conservation and other public values. Conservationists should proactively seek to make deals with renewable energy developers that result in both the renewable energy resource being expanded and the public lands resource being maintained, if not improved and expanded. Such deals will need the acquiescence of the federal government, generally affirmed, blessed, memorialized, enforced, and secured through specific acts of Congress. 

The public lands conservation community can and does throw sand in the gears of energy developments on federal public lands and must continue to do so in all cases of fossil fuel production—but not in all cases of renewable fuel production. Sometimes, our sand-in-the-gears activism results only in the delay—or at best the tweaking of—but not the prevention of the industrial development.

It would be better for public lands conservationists to proactively support renewable energy development on low-conservation-value, high-renewable-energy-potential public lands, contingent upon a couple of things. First, the low-conservation-value public lands would have to be sold to the developer and the monies received by the federal government would have to go to acquire other public lands of at least equal, if not higher, conservation value. Second, the conservation protections on and near the newly acquired public lands would have to be significantly elevated.

Renewable energy developers would be receptive to this approach because it would let them get their projects done in less time (pronounced as “with less money”). To make it happen, these developers would be willing to spend money—to buy replacement public lands and to mitigate the environmental damage done by their renewable energy developments (for example, by buying out federal grazing permits, mining claims, mining leases, and the like to offset site-specific damage).

Elected officials from local to national love such win-win situations. They call them “two-fers,” being able to please at least two if not more constituencies with one action.

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Looking east from atop Steens Mountain. Source: BLM via Wikipedia

An Example of a Grand Bargain

While not energy-related, here is an example of a grand bargain, where conservationists made a deal with some devils that resulted in a very high net gain for public lands conservation. I (then as a consultant to the Wilderness Society) was a principal on the conservation side of this grand bargain, which was hailed by most, but not quite all (see below), of the public lands conservation community.

Late in President Bill Clinton’s second term, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt informed the Oregon congressional delegation that if they didn’t legislatively act to protect the Steens Mountain area in southeast Oregon before Clinton left office, Clinton would proclaim the area a national monument. On one side were most of the locals in Harney County, led by livestock barons who owned large ranches that held permits to graze vast amounts of federal public lands. On the other side were the conservationists, who represented most Oregonians, most Americans, most recreationists, and all future generations.

Many negotiations were attempted and failed, but the clock was ticking. The cattle barons’ worst fears of the consequences of a national monument, were greater than the best hopes of the conservation community for a national monument, so both sides were incentivized to come to a deal. Under the auspices of the offices of Senator Wyden and Representative Greg Walden (R-2nd-OR), two enviros (of which I was one) holed up with two cattle barons and struck a deal that became the Steens Mountain Act of 2000. (See my detailed explanation and analysis, prepared for the Western Governors’ Association, here).

A few conservation organizations opposed the Steens deal because it resulted in a net loss of federal public lands. Most conservation organizations supported it because the deal was significantly better than the status quo or what we thought we could get with a national monument.

The protections afforded by the Steens Mountain Act included

• a 1,148,158-acre mineral withdrawal, within which is a

• 496,135-acre cooperative management and protection area, within which is a

• 174,744-acre wilderness, within which is a

• 99,859-acre livestock-free zone, and also

• 28.65 miles of national wild and scenic rivers, and

• the first ever Redband Trout Reserve (which required removal of a dam).

The complex land exchanges necessary to facilitate these conservation gains resulted in a net loss of 85,788 acres of public lands. Nonetheless, the resulting configuration and the habitat and scenic quality of the overall land was a net gain for conservation, the public, and the taxpayer. For example, after the legislation passed, the total acreage of the wilderness resource (designated wilderness and remaining wilderness study areas) in the area increased by 33,830 acres.

Besides consulting with fellow conservationists on the Steens deal, I also consulted with the bighorn sheep, greater sage-grouse, and redband trout. All gave the okay to the deal, as it was good for them. If those species are helped, it is very likely most other species are too.

Proceed with Reckless Caution in Pursuit of Grand Bargains

Conservationists are generally some of the most conservative people I know. It is more in our nature to defend our goal rather than to score goals. However, every political gain has a political cost. We just have to make sure that the gains far outweigh the costs 

A conservation mantra (embodied in the Council of Environmental Quality regulations implementing the National Environmental Policy Act) in dealing with development is to first attempt to avoid, then to minimize, and finally to mitigate any environmental impacts. Such is always the best policy. Rather than limiting ourselves to the micro and at the margin, the public lands conservation community must go for the macro and at the core.

Any grand bargain must and will be fact-based and will include trade-offs. The perils of inaction are often greater than those of action. To save the earth, sometimes one has to rise above principle.

  The Steens Mountain Cooperative Mangement and Protection Area. Not shown is a comparably sized area immediately to the east that was also withdrawn from mineral exploitation, which, among other threats eliminated, precludes geothermal power plants at Mickey, Alvord, Borax and other hot springs.  Source:  Bureau of Land Management

The Steens Mountain Cooperative Mangement and Protection Area. Not shown is a comparably sized area immediately to the east that was also withdrawn from mineral exploitation, which, among other threats eliminated, precludes geothermal power plants at Mickey, Alvord, Borax and other hot springs. Source: Bureau of Land Management