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Executive Orders for 2014: Dominick DellaSala

Back in November of 2013, President Obama issued an executive order on climate preparedness. Because executive orders circumvent Congress within certain limits, they allow the president to implement action to address climate change and other issues. A few weeks ago I asked some of our authors to create their own executive orders to improve our handling of the environment, and I'll be sharing their responses over the next two weeks.  

When It Comes to the Environment: What Would Obama Do?

by Dominick DellaSala

“Further, recognizing the many benefits the Nation's natural infrastructure provides, agencies shall, where possible, focus on program and policy adjustments that promote the dual goals of greater climate resilience and carbon sequestration, or other reductions to the sources of climate change.” The White House, November 1, 2013

As we enter the home stretch of the Obama White House, conservationists want to know just what would the President really do to be remembered for his environmental legacy? Will he go out a conservation hero the likes of Teddy Roosevelt or leave in a disappointing whimper never to be mentioned as one of the great innovators of public lands conservation? Although we give him credit for his tough stand on climate change, there has been little to cheer about on public lands conservation six years into his administration. To truly make a difference on what is arguably the most pressing environmental and socioeconomic issue of our time (climate change is not just an environmental problem by the way), his climate change policies need to be linked to clearly defined conservation outcomes. Back in 2008, I was part of a team of scientists assembled by the Geos Institute (my employer) and Society for Conservation Biology (I am currently the North America Section President) that briefed the President's transition team on the importance of bold leadership on these issues after the Bush administration's draconian policies. We explained to the team how capping emissions on forestry and other polluting industries operating on public lands (oil and gas drilling, coal extraction to name a few) needed to be a central tenet of the administration's climate change policy. Naturally, I enthusiastically welcomed the language in the President's Climate Action Plan, announced this June and codified in a Presidential Executive Order in November, which included a section on preserving forests to mitigate climate change impacts. But at the same time, I lamented the numerous contradictions, not the least of which is an oil and gas-drilling boom on public lands. Despite the President's bold climate change proclamations, federal agencies have yet to demonstrate that they have the chops to include a conservation-lands agenda in climate change remediation. Instead, the administration's forest carbon agenda is a rehashing of forest thinning to "control" forest fires and converting bug-killed forests in the Rockies into biofuels. Hardly new or innovative, these carbon-emitting practices are antithetical to sound carbon management, as I've demonstrated in my prior posts. If the President truly wants to make a difference on lands conservation viewed in the context of climate change, he needs to start flexing his leadership muscles by setting aside tracts of old-growth forests where carbon is being stored in massive trees, dense foliage, and productive soils. Places like the Tongass rainforest in Alaska store the equivalent of over 90 times the state of Alaska's global warming pollution, and the Pacific Northwest's old-growth forests are storing similar amounts. When these forests are cut down, thinned for bugs or fire concerns, and replanted with tree farms, much (up to half) of the stored carbon is removed from the forest and off-gassed as a global warming pollutant. Because these are wet forests, thinning for fire concerns is not needed. To help make forests and other ecosystems more resilient to climate change, the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) need to protect remaining intact forests and watersheds as blueprints for restoring degraded areas over-run by decades of logging and other land-use stressors (mining, drilling, grazing, ORVs, to name a few). Restoration projects produce jobs, while protecting rainforests provides a sustainable economic engine for fast-growing tourism sectors. Witness how the recent government shutdown had gateway communities up in arms about losing millions of dollars from closed national parks. A network of carbon-wildlife reserves from Alaska to the redwoods would tie up vast quantities of carbon, provide hunting and fishing opportunities in perpetuity, serve as a well spring for clean water, and maintain the quality of life that is attracting new businesses to the wild and scenic West. The forestry sector is also getting off scot-free in the President's plan and a bevy of logging proposals is now headed to Congress that will yield more carbon dioxide pollution than the dirtiest coal-fired power plants that the President is seeking to limit. Changes in forest policies that protect carbon stored in older forests on public lands (what the President can do) and adding a tax on forestry emissions to carbon tax discussions (what Congress can do) would help to pressure one of the more polluting industries to reduce its carbon footprint. Taxed revenues could then be reinvested in retooling lumber mills to accept smaller logs that remove less carbon from the forest and upgrade equipment for energy efficiency. With two years to go, many of us that have worked in conservation for decades while witnessing the good, the bad, and the ugly of contrasting administrations (e.g., Clinton vs. Bush) are asking—what would Obama do?