President Biden today issued an Executive Order outlining a broad and ambitious policy to tackle the climate crisis. It contains plenty of ambitious provisions, couched within an all-hands-on-deck approach to climate change, which will commit every federal bureau and department to doing its part to slow or even reverse the unfolding climate catastrophe. Decisive action is long overdue: Scientists set the atmospheric carbon dioxide threshold at 350 parts per million (ppm) to prevent major climate-related impacts to people and ecosystems, and we have blown past that threshold and atmospheric CO2 now stands at 415 ppm. The new Executive Order is going to mean major change for the American West, and for western public lands in particular, offering some unambiguously positive conservation outcomes, as well as some complexities that will require careful navigation through the briar patch to achieve positive results for lands, wildlife, and communities.
The Order points out, “America’s farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners have an important role to play in combating the climate crisis and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, by sequestering carbon in soils, grasses, trees, and other vegetation and sourcing sustainable bioproducts and fuels.” On private lands, with intensive management, plowing compost or even manure into soils can result in near-term carbon inputs, and to the extent that perennial crops replace annual crops, or are mixed in, long-term deposits could be made to soil carbon banks.
On western public lands, plowing in soil additives would be impossible without destroying native plant communities (which would harm, not help, carbon sequestration), but there are other ways that changing agricultural practices could increase soil carbon. Most obvious is to pare down excessive levels of livestock grazing to the point where native perennial grasses, soil crusts, and shrubs can thrive. The heavy levels of livestock grazing all too typical on federally managed lands today have been destroying long-lived perennial grasses for more than a century, fueling the spread of a highly flammable annual weed called cheatgrass. Cheatgrass dies each year, giving up its carbon, and perhaps worse yet it burns readily when dead and dry, and the resulting fires wipe out long-lived shrubs that are essential not just for sequestering carbon but for habitat for sage grouse and other wildlife. The cheatgrass infestations that follow overgrazing turn deserts and steppes that are major carbon immobilizers – better even than forests because the carbon is underground, where it doesn’t burn off periodically – into landscapes that are hemorrhaging carbon into the atmosphere.
Thus, reducing livestock stocking rates below thresholds where long-term damage occurs needs to be a core part of the Biden climate policy for western lands.
The Biden approach to fossil fuels is an unambiguous victory for the environment. It eliminates taxpayer subsidies for the wealthiest (and dirtiest) industry on the planet, fossil fuel production. It puts a pause on leasing for oil, gas, and coal, each of which are dirty fuels that cause climate-disrupting spikes in atmospheric carbon. When it comes to implementing these policies, it will be essential for the Biden team to be as aggressive as possible, because the oil and gas industry has already banked up an enormous surplus of unused oil and gas leases, and pre-approved permission to drill tens of thousands of wells, which will cause major spikes in drilling and fracking for decades to come, even if new leases and permits are prohibited entirely, right away.
The Biden approach rightly positions renewable energy as the replacement for fossil fuels. This makes sense from a practical economic standpoint in addition to an environmental one – if we keep burning coal, oil, and gas without developing the renewables to replace them, they will run out before long, ushering in a new Dark Ages characterized by a scarcity of power for transportation, lighting, and warmth. If we have to shift to renewables anyway, why not do it now and spare ourselves further damage to the climate, and the agriculture and natural communities of plants, wildlife, and ocean life that depend on it?
But no one wants wind farms and solar arrays everywhere, because that would add the industrial impacts of utility-scale renewables to the problems that wellfields and coal mines that already fragment wildlife habitats and disrupt migration corridors, ruin the recreation values on public lands, and fuel the ongoing biodiversity crisis. The Biden policy seems to recognize this, stating that the doubling of renewable energy would proceed in the context of “ensuring robust protection for our lands, waters, and biodiversity.” For large-scale renewable projects, siting is the key to ensuring that renewable energy is a net benefit for the environment, and spatial analyses have already been ventured for Wyoming, Montana, and Oregon to show which areas need to be protected from renewable development, and which areas have the fewest identified conflicts. Other states would benefit from such analyses to promote a well-thought-out approach to renewables development.
But if the Biden administration wants a win-win solution to renewable energy development without harming sensitive lands and wildlife, distributed renewable development is clearly the way to go. The Justice40 Initiative, which highlights “investments in the areas of clean energy and energy efficiency” and makes its debut in this Executive Order, might just be the place where this climate solution could really shine, by installing inexpensive (or, better yet, free) rooftop solar to underserved communities, slashing their utility bills. Some 40 percent of the nation’s energy needs could be supplied by rooftop solar alone, and if parking lots were outfitted with photovoltaic awnings to shade and shelter the cars, the administration might be able to hit all its renewable targets without blighting public lands with a single industrial-scale project.
The Biden administration will also be taking input from conservationists and locals on the best way to decrease fire risk. The good news is, we already have some solid answers on that front. Federal agencies should halt efforts to log and graze their way to fire reductions, failed policies with miserable track records stretching back more than a century. Instead, we must cease this war against nature that we have no hope of winning, and instead focus on fire-proofing our own communities with “firewise” methods that create defensible space, subdivisions sited away from fire risk, and fire-resistant homes.
Perhaps the biggest win for the West in the Biden climate policy is the “30×30” initiative, which commits to protecting 30 percent of the nation’s lands and waters by the year 2030. This goal grew out of the proposal by world-famous ecologist E.O. Wilson to set aside half the Earth for nature, as a hedge against the extinction crisis. Natural, fully-functioning ecosystems are the key here: If done right, we could have a flourishing of native species that secures the future of rare plants and wildlife, rendering the crisis-management approach to endangered species unnecessary. By establishing large reservesof protected land, interconnected with corridors so plants and wildlife can migrate freely and shift naturally in response to a changing climate, this policy could create resilience in native ecosystems, and help us share the planet with all our fellow life forms in a way that is mutually beneficial for all.
We applaud the bold vision of the budding Biden administration, and its commitment to make environmental conservation a national priority for the first time in half a century. The Biden blueprint offers a roadmap to a better future, a future in which we have the opportunity to re-write our relationship with the natural world, to make that relationship healthy again. We stand ready to supply the knowledge and experience we have gained in advancing conservation priorities, both as an individual organization of dedicated professionals, and as a broader conservation community, to create a better nation with sustainable lifestyles, equitable opportunities, and richer quality of life for all.