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Baucus, Whitehouse Act to Protect Tourism, Recreation Jobs from Climate Change

Senators’ Bill Provides Climate Adaptation Tools Called for in GAO Report

Washington, DC – As rising sea levels, more severe storms, raging wildfires and prolonged droughts continue to increase, U.S. Senators Max Baucus (D-MT) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) today introduced legislation to provide local communities with better tools to prepare for extreme weather and require federal agencies to work more efficiently by implementing a single coordinated strategy for protecting, restoring, and conserving the natural resources that American tourism and recreation jobs and local economies depend on.

The bill, the Safeguarding America’s Future and the Environment (SAFE) Act (S. 1202), comes on the heels of a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that notes “recreation and tourism generate billions of dollars for regional economies through activities such as fishing, hunting, skiing, hiking, and diving and some of these economic benefits could be reduced or lost as a result of the impacts from climate change.”  The report highlights the need for additional tools provided in Baucus’ and Whitehouse’ SAFE Act, including grant funding for local communities and a central clearinghouse for climate science, so communities and agencies don’t have to reinvent the wheel and have access to a single source for good science.

“Outdoor heritage is part of who we are in Montana, and taking smart steps to protect our outdoor way of life from increased wildfires, prolonged drought and reduced snowpack is just plain commonsense,” Baucus said. “Outdoor recreation supports 64,000 Montana jobs each year, one in five Montana jobs is tied to agriculture, and our timber industry is critical to western communities – every single one of those jobs depends on maintaining our healthy wide open spaces, forests and waterways. This bill gives local communities the tools they need to protect Montana’s outdoor jobs and streamlines federal bureaucracy to make sure we have a smart, coordinated plan in place moving forward.”

“America’s natural resources are the pride of our country and we should be actively protecting them in the face of a changing climate.  Rhode Island is already seeing warmer waters in Narragansett Bay, more severe coastal storms, and beach erosion worsened by rising sea levels,” said Whitehouse, a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and co-chair of the Bicameral Task Force on Climate Change.  “This bill will help Rhode Island and other states by requiring the federal government to wake up to the consequences of climate change and take action to protect vulnerable and valuable resources.”

The SAFE Act would specifically require federal agencies that manage natural resources to adopt climate change adaptation plans that are consistent with the National Fish, Wildlife, and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy, released by the Administration this year.  This coordinated approach will reduce costs by preventing redundancies and by directing investment toward the most effective resiliency measures.

Natural resource management options can include promoting resistance, encouraging resilience and even facilitating transformation of one ecosystem to another.  Yet managers are often constrained by their agency’s mission, laws and regulations. The SAFE Act seeks to put all climate adaptation tools and approaches, including state, local, and stakeholder participation on the table by making it a requirement of the federal agencies.

The GAO report Baucus and Whitehouse released in conjunction with today’s bill is entitled “Climate Change: Various Adaptation Efforts Are Under Way at Key Natural Resource Management Agencies.”  The report explains that America’s environment and associated resources will likely be damaged by climate change, including “increases in air and water temperatures, wildfires, and drought; forests stressed by drought becoming more vulnerable to insect infestations; rising sea levels; and reduced snow cover and retreating glaciers.” GAO previously noted the Federal Government’s exposure to climate change, due to its role as the manager of vast lands and natural resources, represents a high fiscal risk. 

The report examines efforts to incorporate climate change adaptation by five key federal agencies that manage our natural resources: the Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Bureau of Land Management.

GAO reports that while these agencies are generally authorized to plan for any changes in resource conditions, they are not specifically required to address climate change adaptation.  While four of the agencies have established or implemented climate change strategies, GAO found that to-date BLM has not established a strategy for addressing the effects of climate change on the 245 million acres of lands they manage. GAO found several instances where adaptation efforts are successfully being coordinated across these agencies and has previously reported that government-wide collaboration could advance efforts to adapt to climate change.

For example, the Fish and Wildlife Service may revise how it prioritizes where to purchase conservation easements from landowners based on projected changes in habitat of species like elk and trumpeter swans.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has supported “BleachWatch,” a network of volunteers who monitor seasonal coral reef bleaching caused by climate change at national marine sanctuaries.

GAO also specifically examined Glacier National Park in Montana, where climate change is expected to cause the disappearance of glaciers by 2030.

GAO found that managers in Glacier are seeing other effects as well, such as longer western spruce budworm infestation periods.  Budworm infestations in the park, which normally last three years, now last seven to 15 years because of warmer temperatures.  Longer infestations weaken the forest and increase its susceptibility to fire.  Major fire seasons reduce park visitation.  In an average year tourists inject $100 million into the local economy, supporting 1,400 jobs and 18 percent of the core economy.

Managers at Glacier are monitoring the abundance and distribution of plants and animals in the park, including mapping the effects of glacial melt on alpine vegetation in collaboration with the U.S. Geological Survey.

Baucus and Whitehouse’ SAFE ACT  has garnered broad support from sportsmen, outdoor industry, and conservation groups, including the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, Defenders of Wildlife, the National Parks Conservation Association, Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Wildlife Federation, the Outdoor Alliance, and Trout Unlimited.

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