A University of Utah law professor urged Congress Tuesday to fight global warming's potential to melt the glaciers in Glacier National Park or wither the Joshua trees in Joshua Tree National Park by expanding the park system or giving its units more legal power to protect against threats coming from nearby lands.
"Laws do not fully protect park lands and resources, and they are decidedly not designed to address the additional challenges associated with climate change," Robert B. Keiter told a field hearing of the House Natural Resources subcommittee on national parks.
The hearing was held at California's Joshua Tree National Monument to draw attention to how some scientists say global warming could kill that park's signature trees, and damage many other national parks.
Keiter, who has researched public land law for 25 years, said in written testimony that the natural areas protected inside national parks "can provide a baseline for understanding and studying how climate change is impacting the natural world." They can also protect endangered species, and plant life can reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
"However, to play these roles effectively in our warming world, the national parks must be fully and adequately protected," but they are not, he said.
For example, he said laws do not compel management of federal lands adjacent to national parks in ways to protect the parks.
"Recent reports indicate that the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) completely disregarded an earlier interagency consultation agreement with the Park Service in order to expedite the sale of extensive oil and gas leases near Arches, Canyonlands and Dinosaur national park units in Utah," he said.
He suggested that Congress could mandate better coordination between public lands agencies and make it enforceable in court. He said if even more legal teeth are needed, "Congress might prohibit intensive development activities on public lands adjacent to national parks unless there is no feasible alternative."
He also said, "To address the risk and uncertainties inherent in climate change, Congress should also consider expanding the national park system to ensure that sufficient space is available to make the adaptations and mitigations that will be required."
He said that could help "restore vital landscapes that encompass critical wildlife migration corridors, sensitive watersheds or other locations that are deemed essential to meeting the climate change challenge."
He said Congress might even consider "adding damage but restorable lands to the national park system" as part of efforts to manage on an ecosystem basis.
John Harja, director of public lands policy coordination for Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., also testified that the Western Governors' Association has already been working on protecting wildlife migration corridors from development or other impediments, and to identify the corridors and threats to them.
Subcommittee Chairman Raul M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., said, "It's hard to imagine Glacier National Park without glaciers, or Joshua Tree National Park without those trees. Yet the evidence is clear that we may be facing just such a future."
He added, "I feel strongly that while our public lands are threatened by climate change, they are also critical in finding solutions to combat climate change."
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