Resource Managers Offer Different Approaches to Navigating Climate Change on Public Lands

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In a recent study supported by the North Central CASC, researchers found that federal and state land managers in southwestern Colorado support a variety of different approaches for mitigating climate change impacts on public lands.

A wide river flows in front of a rocky canyon wall dotted with green, scrubby bushes.

Gunnison River flowing through Black Canyon in Gunnison National Park, Colorado. Credit: Alan Cressler, USGS.

(Public domain.)

Many public lands in the United States are concentrated in the mountains and prairies of western states, forming a foundation for the ranching, recreational, and economic fortunes of the region. Yet climate change introduces increasing uncertainty about how to manage these public lands in the future and many existing management strategies may become less effective as climate conditions change. Although a range of adaptation approaches exist, including managing for resistance, resilience, and transformation, many strategies have not yet been widely tested.

In a newly-published article,  North Central CASC supported researchers worked with university and NGO partners to learn how stewards of public lands view ecosystem management in the face of global climate change. They interviewed land managers working in the Upper Gunnison River Basin in southwestern Colorado from a variety of federal and state agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management, the National Parks Service, and the Colorado Forest Service. Through focus groups and individual interviews, the researchers learned how managers believe ecosystems are going to change in the future and how they plan to use different management approaches.

The authors found that managers differed in what they viewed as “best practices” for responding to climate change on public lands. While some were primarily concerned with preserving existing ecosystems based on historical standards, others thought they should play an active role in transforming ecosystems into new species assemblages that will be better able to survive future climate conditions. Individuals also favored different management tools – some believed that existing best practices are sufficient to deal with future ecosystem changes, while others favored new methods, such as assisted migration. Many managers pointed out that numerous problems, such as the spread of forest pests and invasive species, can only be solved by coordinated landscape-level efforts, yet individual land managers are often restricted to working on relatively small scales with limited budgets. However they suggested that small-scale interventions can be used to test management strategies and to protect small populations that can repopulate larger areas in the future. The authors hope that conversations like these can help land managers across different institutions and scales to work together to develop strategies to reduce the impacts of climate change on public lands in the future.

This study is a product of the North Central CASC projects “Building Social and Ecological Resilience to Climate Change in Southwestern Colorado”, Phase 1 and Phase 2.

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