Climate Change In the West: What It Means for Utah Wilderness

Climate change is affecting the health of our public lands.  Already we are seeing an overall increase in temperatures, and scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey predict an increase of 4-6 degrees celsius during this century.

Dust storm caused by extensive ORV use in the Factory Butte area.

What does this mean for Utah wilderness lands?  According to the U.S. Geological Survey and others, we can expect:

  • Hotter, drier conditions
  • Larger and hotter wildfires
  • Riparian areas and other water resources stretched to the limits, or gone altogether
  • The spread of non-native invasive plants which burn easily and hotter than natives
  • Stressed wildlife and shrinking habitat, due in large part to loss of water and native plants
  • Large dust storms let loose by drier, more fragile soils
  • Airborne dust settling on snowpack, resulting in increased solar warming and quicker runoff
  • Increased pollution from particulate matter
  • A shift from the present pinyon-juniper woodlands to grasslands

It’s not a hopeless situation, though, and there are measures we can take now to prevent the worst of these outcomes.  The best strategy for protecting our public lands and making them as resilient as possible to these effects is by protecting the integrity of undisturbed native landscapes.  Here in Utah, our best defense against a warming climate is to minimize ground disturbance by:

  • Cutting back on roads and ORV trails that churn the soil and introduce cheat grass and other non-native plants.
  • Protecting streams and water resources from engine oils, sedimentation and erosion.
  • Minimizing the development of oil and gas fields; not only do these areas create industrial-level carbon emissions, they come with their own network of roads, pipelines, and drilling pads that disturb thousands of acres of native soils.

SUWA has pursued these goals for decades now, but the specter of climate change makes protecting our wild landscapes even more urgent. With this in mind, we’re working to develop expertise on climate change and its effects on public lands, and we’re urging the Bureau of Land Management to take climate change into account in its policies and decisions.

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