Balancing Act Required to Tap Federal Lands' Potential for Climate Mitigation

March 18, 2010

Tim Lucas, (919) 613-8084,, Note to editors: Christopher Galik can be reached for additional comment at (919) 681-7193 or

DURHAM, N.C. – Carbon sequestration and other ecosystem services provided by the approximately 650 million acres of federal public land in the United States could contribute significantly to long-term efforts to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and combat global warming, according to a new Duke University working paper.

But adding new climate objectives to these lands’ already lengthy list of federally managed activities and objectives will require a careful balancing act, the paper’s authors say.

“Lawmakers and land managers who want to tap into the vast climate-mitigation potential of public lands in general, and the nearly 650 million acres of federal lands in particular, need to make sure that any new climate objectives mesh with other mandated uses, including endangered species preservation, recreation, soil and water conservation, grazing, energy and natural resource extraction, and timber harvesting,” says Christopher Galik, research coordinator at Duke’s Climate Change Policy Partnership (CCPP).

“New activities must be merged with the existing institutional and legal frameworks controlling federal land management, and be adaptable to a shifting human environment and changing climatic conditions,” he says.

The paper, “The Role of Public Lands in a Low-Carbon Economy,” is online It is the first of a pair of working papers from the CCPP and Duke’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions on public lands and GHG mitigation.

In this paper, Galik and his co-authors compile the potential for long-term GHG sequestration, renewable energy production and emissions reduction services on federal lands, and identify existing policies and laws that could be used to facilitate and regulate these activities. They identify four overarching issues that policymakers will have to address to maximize public lands’ climate mitigation potential: access and ownership; cost-effectiveness; competing objectives; and regulatory and scientific uncertainty.

The second working paper, expected to be released soon, will focus on the potential for reducing GHG emissions and increasing carbon sequestration through public lands management, as well as policy options for promoting such activity, as desired.

“Ongoing rounds of climate policy debate and development present an opportunity to integrate public lands into comprehensive climate policy,” Galik notes. “But even if the current Congress doesn’t act on climate legislation, other policy vehicles exist. Energy legislation or a public lands omnibus bill would both provide opportunities to address unanswered questions and lingering inefficiencies related to the future of public land management and its role in climate mitigation.”

CCPP is an interdisciplinary partnership of Duke’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, Nicholas School of the Environment and Center on Global Change. CCPP researches carbon-mitigating technology, infrastructure, institutions and systems to inform lawmakers and business leaders as they lay the foundation of a low-carbon economy.

David M. Cooley, junior fellow at the Nicholas Institute, and Joseph Grinnell, a Master of Environmental Management candidate at the Nicholas School, co-wrote the paper with Galik.