Land Conservation Seen As Cheapest, Easiest Way To Combat Climate Change | WAMC

Land Conservation Seen As Cheapest, Easiest Way To Combat Climate Change

Apr 12, 2021

The Great Smoky Mountains along the Appalachian Trail
Credit Jim Levulis / WAMC

When it comes to addressing climate change, alternative energy or reducing the use of fossil fuels tend to get the biggest headlines. But some outdoor advocates argue preserving land is the cheapest and easiest way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In January, President Biden signed an executive order designed to address what the White House calls a “climate crisis at home and abroad.” Included in that order is a goal of conserving at least 30 percent of public lands and waters by 2030.

“It’s a target that pulls us ahead a long way,” Locke said. “It’s a milestone, not a destination. I hope it’s a milestone earlier enough so we can turn the corner on frankly the disastrous stuff going on in the world. I know I look happy and smiley, but I’m not unaware that we have some very serious problems out there. Which is why we need to way ramp up the scale of nature conservation. Way ramp up the scale of climate action and recognize that they’re the same problem.”

Charles Chester - Chair of the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Council and Board Chair of Bat Conservation International - on the left, speaks with conservationist Harvey Locke during a recent virtual forum hosted by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.
Credit Jim Levulis / WAMC

Conservationist Harvey Locke says part of the goal can be reached by expanding already protected areas. Locke is the founder of the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative or Y2Y. The non-profit aims to connect and protect an area of the Rocky Mountains from the Yellowstone region north into Canada’s Yukon Territory – a stretch of 2,000 miles. But Locke’s recent comments were made in a virtual forum hosted by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy – the organization charged with protecting and advocating for the famed hiking path on the East Coast of the United States. The A.T., as it’s known, is roughly 2,190 miles long and goes through 14 states including six National Park Service units, eight National Forests and two wildlife refuges.

“I think one thing that is very cool about the Appalachian Trail is it’s a solution already to a problem that we’re recognizing,” Locke said. “You don’t need to create this great vision, you got one. You just need to act on it and do more of it.”

The Conservancy’s 2021-2024 strategic plan calls for protecting an additional 100,000 acres of A.T. lands in three years. Locke detailed three conditions of land use and how conservation can be pursued with them in mind.

“There’s cities and farms, there’s kind of a shared landscape in between the cities and farms where there is some forestry, some human use, some farming, some grazing but a lot less dense smaller towns,” Locke explained. “Then there’s these big, large wild areas that still exist – so in the United States think of Alaska. An intermediate area – think of Yellowstone or Glacier [National Park.] And cities and farms – that’s a lot of the United States. Ohio Valley or the Piedmont on the East Coast. You have to have suites of strategies for each of those. The Appalachian Trail is a classic sort of shared landscape, middle environment, where you’ve got pieces that you can piece together and actually do this classic idea of protected areas with connectivity between them so that you can have all the features and the landscape maintained, you can protect your watersheds.”

Locke, who is a task leader with the International Union for Conservation of Nature, says by protecting natural areas more carbon is prevented from entering the atmosphere, therein reducing the overall effects of climate change. He also says older, untouched forests are more adaptive to changes.

“While fossil fuels are a huge part of the climate problem in terms of what’s going into the sky, the absorption of carbon also needs to go on in intact nature,” Locke said. “The storage of carbon goes in intact nature and in fact destroying intact nature releases carbon to the sky and reduces the absorption capacity. So it’s not just a problem about tailpipe emissions, it’s a problem about the whole carbon cycle. Protecting lots of nature is the best, easiest, cheapest climate strategy we have and we have to reduce those tailpipe emissions. And it’s not one or the other. It’s both now, immediately, fast, hard, protect at least half the world.” 

Sandi Marra, President and CEO of the ATC, recalled the 1921 article by forester and conservationist Benton MacKaye titled An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning. The article is credited with the eventual establishment of the AT.

“He said, ‘The oxygen in the mountain air along the Appalachian skyline is a natural resource and a national resource that radiates to the heavens its enormous health-giving powers with only a fraction of a percent utilized for human rehabilitation,” Marra recited. “Here is a resource that could save thousands of lives.’ At no time do those words ring truer than in 2021 when climate change puts our very lives and the very sources of life – air, water and land – at risk. Building and managing the Appalachian Trail footpath is only a partial fulfillment of Benton MacKaye’s vision. To realize his dream fully, we have to look beyond that footpath.”

Watch the recent virtual forum below: