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Wildlands Protection: an Antidote for Climate Change

As delegates meet in Paris in the next few weeks to consider ways of reducing human-caused climate change, one topic that is unlikely to get much focus is the contribution that protected natural areas make in mitigating human-caused greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Parks, wilderness areas, and other nature reserves are generally off limits to development and exploitation from livestock grazing, logging, oil and gas development, coal mining, and large commercial endeavors.

All of these activities in one way or another contribute to global climate change. Livestock release massive amounts of methane as a consequence of rumen digestion, plus the logging of forests for pasture creation also releases CO2 to the atmosphere.

Most of the carbon in grasslands is stored in roots below ground. Grazing can interfere with the capture and transfer of carbon to the soil. The best way to keep carbon in the ground is to reduce the detrimental impacts of livestock grazing.  Degraded rangelands leak carbon, thus protecting lands from the ravages of livestock indirectly stores more carbon in grassland ecosystem.

By removing forest cover, and compacting soils, logging also frees up CO2 into the atmosphere. Even burnt forests store carbon, since the majority of what burns in fires is the fine fuels like small branches and needles. The snags that are left as well as the roots in the ground all hold considerable carbon resources. And growing forests, particularly old growth forests, capture and store a considerable amount of carbon.

Oil and gas development along with coal has obvious CO2 impacts. Burning these fossil fuels releases immense amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. In addition, some energy development, such as fracking and tar sands mining, are also responsible for significant leakage of methane/carbon into the atmosphere. So leaving these fossil fuels in the ground helps to reduce the carbon input.

Large commercial developments of any sort also displace the natural vegetation, thus increasing the carbon footprint.

There is yet another value to protecting lands as parks, wilderness and other reserves. It forces society to confront limits. In fact, perhaps one of the biggest benefits of protected areas is that it teaches self-discipline and the idea that we must set aside human desires so that other life forms can survive.

Expanding our global base of protected areas is therefore one of the best things that can be done to combat global change. And parks/wilderness has many benefits, but particularly for the world’s poor who will suffer disproportionately from climate change. For instance, parks/wildlands reserves help to preserve watersheds critical for providing clean water for humanity as well as other lifeform.

Parks and other wildlands reserves are among the most successful way of ensuring protection of native biodiversity and ecological function. And they provide a refugia from which forests, grasslands, and native wildlife can recover, expand outward, and restore the Earth.

Rewilding, or restoring previously degraded and exploited landscapes, also offers tremendous opportunities for reversing climate change. The reforestation that has occurred in New England by the abandonment of marginal farms as well as the failure of wheat farming and ranching in the West are two examples of regions for significant rewilding opportunity.

Rewilding the Earth and protecting those areas that are still ecologically intact offers a positive vision and anecdote for reducing human-caused climate change.

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George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.

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