OSI: The Duke Foundation has invested millions of dollars around the country in State Wildlife Action Plans (SWAPs). How does Duke view SWAPs as a significant tool for conservation in general, and as a significant tool for combating climate change?
Mark: The reason we’re funding SWAPs is that we’re running out of time in this country to secure an adequate base of land and water to maintain our wildlife heritage. There are a lot of different people who care about conservation and there is a lot of money being spent on conservation, but we need to all be sharing a plan, so that our various activities can add up to a biologically coherent whole.
Kim: Could you talk a little about why SWAPs are being done at the state level and not at the federal level?
Mark: Probably with the advent of the Republican Congress in 1994, we entered a period in federal policy circles in which federal responsibilities were devolved to the states for implementation. I think the environmental community had been very successful working at the federal level and was somewhat resistant to the move for the federal government to hand off the implementation of federal programs to state agencies. Our view was that that was not necessarily a negative, particularly when you looked around and saw that the real leadership on climate change policy, for instance, was happening at the state level. Having the states be the principal architects of the menu of activities that we need to maintain our wildlife and identifying the most important areas and then striving to protect them was not seen as negative. It seemed like an opportunity.
Kim: By and large, have the states responded well to the federal enabling legislation that led to SWAPs?
Mark: I would say overall, yes, the states have stepped up. All of the states did produce a State Wildlife Action Plan. They’re variable. Anytime that you do 50 versions of the same thing you’re going to have some variability. Some of the SWAPs are state of the art. By and large, I think the states did step up and made a bonafide effort to identify what needs to be done in their state to maintain their wildlife heritage. Some of the best, by the way—and I’m thinking of OSI—are in New England. I’m thinking of New Hampshire and Massachusetts. You guys also work in the southern Appalachians, and Tennessee’s and North Carolina’s are among the best as well.
Kim: Can you extrapolate any generalities—is it states that have previously had an interest in land conservation?
Mark: No, I couldn’t. In fact, I was surprised that some of the southern states, for instance, did some of the best jobs of identifying areas that need to be protected that are currently in private ownership. I think the reason that happened is that the south has traditionally been rural and had a strong outdoor tradition. I think places like North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee—they have seen the impact of land conversion and sprawl development, disproportionably in recent years. The fact that they were very aggressive and did a very high quality job of identifying areas that need to be protected is because they see the landscape melting away.
OSI: Let’s talk for a minute about SWAPs, land conservation and climate change. How do SWAPs support resilience?
Mark: I think we have to step back and realize that if climate change were not an issue, there are still pretty good scientific studies that indicate about a third of our plant and animal species are at risk of being lost over the next several decades to centuries, simply due to the loss of habitat, to intensive land development. So a third of our wildlife heritage was at risk before climate change came along. There are studies on the global scale that suggest about a third of species are at risk due to climate change. I haven’t seen a study that compares those, to tell us what degree of overlap is there. But we can’t walk away from doing land conservation even if climate were to be stabilized, and it’s not going to be stabilized for a long time.
So we really have to deal with two major threats now. The SWAPs, as they stand now, are meant to address the first problem: the loss of habitat to intensive development. And we all recognize that the states are going to have to revise those plans to reflect climate change.
There was legislation considered in the Senate earlier this year that would establish a cap and trade program to regulate carbon dioxide by selling permits, basically, that could be traded, and it had a provision that would have used some of the revenues from those permits to help wildlife adapt to climate change. A fair amount of that money was slated to go to the state wildlife agencies for implementing their State Wildlife Action Plans once they had been revised to take account of climate change. So I think people are recognizing two things there: 1) climate needs to be factored in, and 2) SWAPs are a great tool to bring that information together and figure out what we do need to do, now that the climate is changing.
OSI: What sort of shifts should we see, policy-wise, as we adapt to a changing climate and a changing world?
Mark: I think the first thing is that our society doesn’t have an integrated, organized way of measuring the changes that are already beginning to happen on the land and in the water. We do have the National Weather Service, so we can get some forecasts for what the weather is going to be. Some of the climate change legislation has talked about starting a National Climate Service that would work out over years and decades to try and give us a sense of what weather would be doing over longer periods of time.
There’s still no talk of having any form of biological forecasting service that could really understand where things are now—are they abundant? are they increasing, are they decreasing?—and then be able to put out a network of sensors—and I mean that figuratively, not literally—just the way the Weather Service relies on stations and buoys to measure the changes in temperature and precipitation.
We have a lot of researchers, we have a lot of people out there keeping track of what’s going on with nature, but we don’t have the equivalent to that in government that could pull that all together and make sense of this for people.
So, talking about policies for conservation under climate change—it’s almost as if you were practicing medicine without a stethoscope. I think that really needs to be front and center, as we transition to giving much more attention to climate change in terms of conservation policy. We need an instrument with which to monitor the patient, and we don’t have it.
We need a way of measuring what’s happening to the fauna and flora. Just like we have a way of measuring what’s happening to the weather, or when it’s going to be high tide or it’s going to be low tide. We have a way of measuring the health of the economy. We have nothing like that for the vast array of species that make up our world.
Kim: There’s 650 million acres in this country that’s owned by the federal government. They’re managed for many things now, but none of them are managed for resilience, climate change, adaptation—for how we might think about using the public estate to preserve flora and fauna. It’s something we could do now, relatively painlessly, to rethink the match and plans for the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the parks, wildlife refuges, everything.
Mark: That’s a great point. Not only are the SWAPs going to have to be revised in terms of climate change, but all those federal land management and resource management plans will be too. And it would be really great if this time around they all talked with each other.
Kim: There’s something in the neighborhood of 400 million acres of forestland in the east, most of which is private. There are a lot of tax breaks out there for forestry and forest management. We could make it a public policy that the tax breaks are conditioned to sustainable management of the land, and I would define that as continuity of flora and fauna habitat. Effectively the tax rate just got lowered from 35 percent to 15 percent for timberland owners, and that’s a big break. It seems to me that maybe we could attach some conditions on that break.
Mark: If you look at the SWAPs, it looks like about 12 percent of the land area of the United States not currently protected would need to be put into protected status, and that if you took 30 years to do that, with 3 percent inflation each year, you’d need about $360 billion dollars if you buy the easements and you’d need just shy of a trillion dollars if you buy the deeds.
If you annualize that, and let’s just talk about the easements, that’s about $12 billion a year. The Duke Foundation has sponsored research that shows about $7.1 billion in annual expenditures by federal and state government. There’s probably another $1.5 $2 billion being spent by local and state governments that’s coming off bond measures and ballot initiatives. So we’re spending $8 or $9 billion a year in this country on land conservation, and we need $12 billion for habitat. We just launched a project that will go into several states to see what percentage of the existing conservation funding is going to the areas identified by the SWAPs.
OSI: Can land conservation realistically undo any of the damage done by climate change? Is it a drop in the bucket or is it part of a real solution?
Mark: Conversion of natural vegetation, for whatever purpose, is accounting for about 25 percent of greenhouse gas emissions currently. And a lot of this is tropical forests, but not all. If you could stop the conversion of natural vegetation you’d make a huge dent in our emissions of carbon dioxide. So, clearly, land use is a big part of the climate change puzzle. Now, can you realistically stop tropical forest deforestation completely? Probably not, but how much can you slow it? I would say that this whole field is still emergent because there’s so much information and so many different scenarios. One doesn’t really know what to believe. But it’s clear that land use right now is a huge part of the problem. That implies that if you add policies to affect those land uses, it could be a big part of the solution.
Kim: As one leading scientist says, it’s not about climate change, it’s about climate weirding. You have all these bizarre weather conditions, and think about extreme storms as one component of that. You only have to think about what’s happened in the southeast with the drought, in the northwest with successive years of drought and then plenty, in the northeast where you've had these torrential storms. In the Catskills, which is the watershed for New York City, you’ve had three 100-year storms in five years. This is just weird stuff. The more stress you put on the watersheds, the less reliable your water supply and water quality is, and that’s a stress on public health.
So, when conservationists talk about the need for more resilient landscapes in climate change discussions, it’s not just an abstract concept about plants and animals. There are public health benefits. There are obviously buffering elements. Prior to Katrina, Louisiana had lost wetlands the total acreage of which approximated the size of Rhode Island. Had those wetlands been in place, Katrina wouldn’t have been as damaging, because the wetlands would have slowed the surge. That too is land use.
OSI: But it doesn’t seem like we hear that much about land conservation in the climate change discussion.
Mark: I think it’s an under-reported portion of the debate. Where it comes in mostly is that the specter of climate change has been so much about sea level rise—and obviously that means the loss of land—and drought, and that probably will affect more land use in the long run than almost anything else.
Kim: I think, among policy makers and among the conservation community and an informed public in general, there is more awareness about land use and the need for smart land use. New York City has done terrific work in its watershed. Atlanta is doing interesting work in its watershed. In the southern Appalachians, North Carolina is spending a lot of money to control watersheds and drainage areas. Five years ago you wouldn’t have heard about the land component. Now, at least land use is seen as a critical component not just of carbon sequestration through forest management and reforestation. Land use is recognized as a means of ensuring biological corridors, water quality and quantity, and home-grown recreation. It’s central to how human and natural societies react to climate change.
OSI: What can we do to keep that momentum going?
Mark: I think part of it is that the major environmental groups so far have focused mainly on emissions and mitigation of emissions, and that’s what the policy debate has been primarily about. But we’re seeing more organizations who are taking a more serious interest in the natural resource and land use aspects of it and I think part of the solution is helping to keep them in the debate and keep talking about them.