As legislative and administrative solutions to climate change are being debated in Washington, DC, I encourage Congress and the Biden administration to step back and consider the larger challenge so that we accurately define the problem and can intelligently craft solutions to achieve our goals.
The big picture is our need for ecological sustainability, of which climate change is just one of four dimensions. The three other key legs of the ecological sustainability stool in the United States include controlling invasive species; managing range and forest lands; and striking the right balance between extensive and intensive food production. Addressing global temperature alone is not enough to achieve ecological sustainability. Unless we take a comprehensive approach to all four of these challenges, we will lose the ecosystems that feed us, keep us healthy, and provide the natural resources we depend on for our physical and psychological well-being.
Invasive species are organisms that are nonnative to a particular ecosystem and whose introduction poses economic, environmental, or physical harm to human health. They cost the U.S. economy in excess of $130 billion per year and are at least partially responsible for the status of more than 42 percent of the organisms on the country’s endangered species list. Some of the highest-profile invasive species are sea lamprey in the Great Lakes, kudzu in the Southeast, and Burmese pythons in Florida. The Biden administration should pursue a four-pronged defense-in-depth strategy on invasive species:
• Implement a more rigorous, but not draconian, regulatory and port-of-entry inspection system to keep invasive species out of the country.
• Create an effective monitoring network, coupled with a rapid response capability, to quickly detect and eliminate invasive species populations that leak through ports of entry before they can establish a firm foothold in the countryside.
• Target control efforts to deal with widespread invasive species so as to protect our most valuable ecological and economic resources.
• Conduct an aggressive applied-research program to create breakthrough solutions to more cost-effectively deal with invasive species that have already become widely established.
The most dramatic manifestation of our historically inadequate management of our range and forest lands is the ever-increasing threat to lives, air quality, property, and ecosystems from wildland fire. The summer fire season is now a year-round fire threat. The intensity, size, duration, and frequency of wildland fires continue to worsen.
To save lives, property, and our range and forest ecosystems, the Biden administration should
• aggressively reduce the buildup of fuels in our forests and rangelands that is the result of decades of misconception that all fire needs to be extinguished, even in ecosystems where, for millennia, small, infrequent fires have played a constructive ecological role;
• achieve better coordination across all levels of government between the programs focused on invasive vegetation control and the programs focused on fuels reduction, since they often use the same practices in the same geographies;
• increase investment in the post-fire rehabilitation of fire-damaged areas to avoid recreating the situations that lead to catastrophic fire; and
• incentivize state and local governments to make it harder for builders to irresponsibly site new houses in the middle of fire-prone forests.
Finally, we need to appreciate that the industrialization of agriculture has brought the expanded use of machines, technology, infrastructure, and chemicals that allow us to dramatically increase per-acre yields so that more food is produced in a smaller area using less water and more land is left in a natural condition. Aquaculture similarly holds out promise that wild fish stocks may not be as overfished in the future as in the past.
There are ecological tradeoffs between modern intensive agriculture and the growing interest in more-natural foods. Less-intensive food production means more land cleared and waters fished and therefore less opportunity for fish and wildlife conservation. This reality needs to be thoughtfully considered if the country is to achieve the Biden administration’s goal of keeping 30 percent of our land area in a natural state.
Only a holistic approach that addresses climate change, invasive species, forest and rangeland management, and a thoughtful approach to agricultural production will allow us to achieve ecological sustainability for generations of Americans to come.
Scott Cameron, a former acting assistant secretary for policy, management, and budget at the U.S. Department of the Interior and a former principal with the National Invasive Species Council, is a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration.