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Climate Change and the Management of National and State-Owned Land in the United States

Christopher McGrory Klyza

May 2011, English

In this paper, Christopher McGrory Klyza discusses the relationship between the management of federal resource land and climate change. The federal agencies that oversee national land are the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the National Park Service (NPS), and the Forest Service. In 2009 the BLM oversaw 253 million acres of federal land, some of which is managed for multiple use. The land managed by the NPS and the FWS is, however, only for reservation and recreation. Klyza argues that climate change has affected federal land management in five areas: (1) biological diversity; (2) fire regimes; (3) hydrology; (4) carbon sequestration; and (5) energy management.

In terms of biodiversity, climate change can trigger the migration of species to new locations. Thus, the management of areas between reserves to increase the connectivity of the landscape to facilitate the movement of different species has become important. Climate change has also increased the danger of forest fires in some western states. Fighting these fires often costs more than $1 billion a year. Large wildfires also increase carbon emissions. Varying stream flows is another problem. The impacts of this problem on western public land include water shortages, lack of storage capability to adjust for seasonal rain, forest fires, and decreased forage quantity for wildlife and livestock.

Although carbon sequestration on public land increased substantially under a no-harvest management approach, the existing management patterns may increase harvesting back to the levels of the 1980s, which could turn public forests from carbon sinks into carbon sources. More than one-third of U.S. fossil fuel production takes place on federal public land. The federal government could help reduce fossil fuel use by limiting access to this energy source and by encouraging the use of public land to produce renewable energy such as biomass, geothermal, solar, and wind.

Public opinion on the environment and increased interest group mobilization have increased the awareness of federal agencies about the need to modify their land management practices to account for climate change. Yet actual implementation of new practices has been fraught with budgetary and bureaucratic issues. Slow responses from the agencies have been challenged by environmental groups in courts.

State land ownership and management varies across the country. Some states, such as New York, Florida, and Minnesota, have adopted land management or acquisition plans to combat climate change. The biggest challenge for state land management is the fiduciary responsibility of the states to administer school trust land to specifically benefit K–12 schools or universities. Revenues from these programs go to a permanent fund, with returns distributed to the beneficiaries. Arizona earned more than $16 million from its trust land in 2009 through agricultural, grazing, and mineral leasing and sales. Although laws permit the lease and sale of state trust land for conservation purposes, this use must not adversely affect the financial interest of the beneficiaries.

This paper was presented at the Lincoln Institute’s Land Policy Conference of 2010 and is Chapter 16 of the book Climate Change and Land Policies.


Conservation, Environment, Environmental Management, Forest Land, Land Trusts, Water