Public Lands

In the United States, one-third of the land is owned by the public and administered by the federal government—namely, the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management. The total area size of public land is roughly 700 million acres (283 million hectares). These areas are protected and managed for different purposes—some, such as designated wilderness areas, are kept pristine and natural because of their inherent beauty, exceptional quality, or unique habitat. Others, such as national parks, are managed in ways to preserve their unique character and also allow tourists (the public) to enjoy them. Other lands are managed for a multitude of different uses for public entertainment and recreation, such as campgrounds that support fishing, hiking, boating, mountain biking, off highway vehicle (OHV) riding, and horseback riding.

These designated areas, however, are susceptible to events influenced by climate variability, such as drought, wildfires, severe storms, and poor air quality. According to the IPCC, global warming may cause an increase in the incidences of drought and wildfire. They also point out that as sea levels rise, public lands in coastal areas will be compromised and eroded and wetlands could become inundated, destroying natural habitat.

The National Park Service has already confirmed that some national parks are already feeling the negative effects of global warming. In Glacier National Park in Montana, many of the glaciers in the park that draw visitors from around the world are currently melting at an accelerated rate. In 1850, the park had 150 glaciers, but because of global warming, today there are only 27 glaciers left. These surviving glaciers are also rapidly shrinking—the largest of the remaining glaciers are only 28 percent of their previous size. Alaska is also experiencing the loss of several glaciers.

Protected areas in Florida, which draw millions of tourists for recreational activities such as scuba diving, are experiencing massive coral bleaching because of rising temperatures of ocean water, which kills the sensitive coral ecosystems. El Niño events have been blamed as the cause of some of these bleaching events.

In 2001, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the National Park Service (NPS), and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA),

The Muir Glacier located in Alaska is an example of the glacier melting that is occurring worldwide as a result of warmer temperatures—the top image was taken in 1941, the bottom in 2004. (William O. Field [top], Bruce F. Molnia [bottom], National Snow and Ice Data Center)

formed a multiagency partnership to create the Climate Change, Wildlife and Wetlands Toolkit for Teachers and Interpreters in a national effort to educate the general public about global warming and the negative effects it will have on the landscape and ecosystems in parks, wildlife refuges, wilderness areas, and other areas reserved and protected for restricted, specific, endemic, and endangered species in the event of climate change if biomes shift poleward with warming temperatures.

In order to further this effort, in 2003, the NPS and EPA created an additional program called Climate Friendly Parks (CFP). Through the efforts of this program, the participating agencies are finding ways to reduce emissions from park activities and also educate the public about potential impacts in the park and what proactive action the government is taking to solve any environmental problems encountered due to the operation of the park. For example, in the past at Zion National Park in Utah, private cars were allowed to travel the routes inside the park to the different geological attractions. It got to the point, however, that thousands of cars per day were navigating the narrow roads between geologic areas in the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, causing not only heavy congestion but also pollution. The NPS then decided to restrict private travel within that extremely popular portion of the park and limit visitation to touring shuttles only.

The nation's national parks offer multiple resources, outdoor recreational activities, breathtaking scenery, and many tourism opportunities. These activities, however, are extremely sensitive to changes in temperature, rainfall, snowstorms, drought, and wildfire. In fact, they are sensitive to any climate variability and change. Within these protected areas, species of wildlife and vegetation have adapted to specific climatic conditions that allowed them to thrive in their respective environment. Some life-form biomes are extremely small and specialized. For instance, a single tree in a rain forest biome can harbor 30,000 different species. Because of this, these specialized biomes face an extremely difficult challenge if their biome is presented with changing conditions due to global warming. In many cases, if the change is too great, the species will not survive because they and/or the biome will be unable to navigate and relocate in time.

Grand Teton National Park provides a home to a great diversity of wildlife and draws millions of visitors. (NPS)

According to the IPCC, the effects of climate change on tourism in a particular area depend in part on whether the tourist activity is summer- or winter-oriented and, for the latter, the elevation of the area and the impact of climate on alternative activities. Therefore, the range of effects on each area will differ depending on the global warming effects at that particular location. As an example, an area today that serves as a ski resort may not have snow in the future, so may have to become a mountain resort used for other activities such as hiking, mountain biking, or horseback riding.

According to the Outdoor Industry Foundation in their August 2006 report, the outdoor recreation industry has a $730 billion impact on the U.S. national economy. They reported, "This amount factors in the amount Americans spend on outdoor trips and gear, the companies that provide that gear and related services, and the companies that support them. The outdoor industry also supports 6.5 million jobs, which amounts to one in 20 U.S. jobs, and generates about $88 billion in federal and state tax revenue while stimulating 8 percent of all consumer spending.

If global warming negatively affects the recreational uses of mountain areas, these changes will have a ripple effect of economic consequences throughout the local, national, and international economy, particularly in business sectors such as the travel industry, the transportation industry, sports equipment industry, food industry, and others related to leisure activities.

Some of the possible effects that will occur in the U.S. on recreation and tourism include:

• Declines in cold-water and cool-water fish habitat may affect recreational fishing.

• Shifts in migratory bird populations may affect recreational opportunities for bird-watchers and wildlife enthusiasts.

• Coastal regions may lose pristine beaches due to sea-level rise.

• Winter recreation (skiing, snowmobiling, ice fishing) is likely to be affected by reduced snowpack and fewer cold days, and costs to maintain these industries will rise.

• Tourism and recreation in Alaska will most likely undergo climate-driven transformation through loss of wetlands and a reduction in habitat for migratory birds.

• Arctic breeding and nesting areas for migration birds will be lost, affecting bird-watching activities.

• Melting permafrost in the Arctic will pose economic damage to structures and other infrastructures to residents there.

Wildfires are another impact as a result of global warming, some of it anthropogenically caused. In a study that appeared in Science, as reported in USA Today on July 7, 2006, not only the number, but the size of large forest fires in the West has grown "suddenly and dramatically" during the past 20 years because of global warming. Since 1987, the wildfire season has become extended 2.5 months longer than it traditionally had because springtime was seeing higher temperatures and winter snowpack was melting faster. With earlier snowmelt, the soil and vegetation dries out sooner, which leads to more fires that burn bigger and longer.

In a study conducted by the University of California-San Diego and the University of Arizona, 1,166 large forest fires were analyzed from 1970 to 2004 on national forest and park land in the western United States. From 1987 to 2004, there were four times as many forest fires and 6.5 times as much land burned as there was from 1970 to 1987.

According to Tom Swetham of Arizona's Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, "Climate is the principal reason. The rising temperatures and dryness due to warming are the main factors in the northern Rockies."

Each year large amounts of federal funding are allocated toward fighting fires on public lands. As global warming continues, this effort is expected to intensify.

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