As a westerner who loves hiking and the outdoors, I take comfort in the fact that approximately one-fifth of the U.S. landmass is dedicated as public lands. Utah’s public lands span approximately 63% of the state. I visualize our vast, pristine wilderness areas as refuges for plant and wildlife habitats to thrive while under the protection of our government’s federal and state agencies.
I was shocked to learn nothing could be further from the truth.
Data recently released by The Wilderness Society confirm that drilling and mining on American public lands sizably contribute to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. If you collected all public lands in the U.S., and made them into their own country, they would rank fifth in the world for fossil fuel emissions, just behind Russia.
But wait, I argue with myself, aren’t our forests masters at sequestering carbon, at removing greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere and storing them into the ground? Aren’t the forests of our public lands part of the solution?
With research, I found that a single acre of mature forest can absorb 2.5 tons of CO2 and release 4 tons of oxygen annually. But here’s the disheartening data: Nearly 4.5 times more carbon is being emitted from our public lands than they can absorb naturally, according to the Center for American Progress.
The report stated “The extraction of coal, oil, and natural gas from public lands — and their subsequent combustion in power plants, vehicles, and other energy-consuming activities — is the primary cause of this imbalance.”
I slowly let that information sink in.
Then I encounter another disappointment: Our forests are exhibiting a high level of tree mortality and die-back events. On a recent hiking trip, I expected take-your-breath-away views at the top of a mountain vista. Instead, the panorama was hundreds of acres of dead beetle-killed trees. A warming climate exacerbates prolonged droughts, devastating forest fires and exploding beetle populations.
As our forests increasingly become victims of climate change, they also contribute to it. Forests are losing their stellar carbon absorption abilities. Wildlife habitat on our public lands can’t adopt as quickly as the climate is changing. I wonder to myself if my own Homo sapiens species can adapt to this uncertain future.
Looking for solutions, I turn to Shelley Silbert, executive director of Great Old Broads for Wilderness, a women-led organization that spawns grassroots volunteers to educate and protect our public lands.
She emphasized, “We can’t allow fossil fuel corporations to shift costs of climate disruption to society while they reap profits from our public lands.”
Silbert speaks of the power in educating our legislators and letting them know you care about carbon pollution on our public lands and how it impacts climate change, especially when clean energy alternatives already exist.
She added, “Public lands, and our voices to protect them, are critical to democracy. These are America’s lands, and we have a say in what happens to them.”
Susan Atkinson, Durango, Colo., is a member of the Citizens Climate Lobby.