Climate Change:

Agencies Should Develop Guidance for Addressing the Effects on Federal Land and Water Resources

GAO-07-863: Published: Aug 7, 2007. Publicly Released: Sep 6, 2007.

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Climate change has implications for the vast land and water resources managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Forest Service (FS), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and National Park Service (NPS). These resources generally occur within four ecosystem types: coasts and oceans, forests, fresh waters, and grasslands and shrublands. GAO obtained experts' views on (1) the effects of climate change on federal resources and (2) the challenges managers face in addressing climate change effects on these resources. GAO held a workshop with the National Academies in which 54 scientists, economists, and federal resource managers participated, and conducted 4 case studies.

According to experts at the GAO workshop, federal land and water resources are vulnerable to a wide range of effects from climate change, some of which are already occurring. These effects include, among others, (1) physical effects, such as droughts, floods, glacial melting, and sea level rise; (2) biological effects, such as increases in insect and disease infestations, shifts in species distribution, and changes in the timing of natural events; and (3) economic and social effects, such as adverse impacts on tourism, infrastructure, fishing, and other resource uses. Experts at the GAO workshop also identified several challenges that resource managers face in addressing the observed and potential effects of climate change in their management and planning efforts. In particular, BLM, FS, FWS, NOAA, and NPS have not made climate change a priority, and the agencies' strategic plans do not specifically address climate change. Resource managers focus first on near-term, required activities, leaving less time for addressing longer-term issues such as climate change. In addition, resource managers have limited guidance about whether or how to address climate change and, therefore, are uncertain about what actions, if any, they should take. In general, resource managers lack specific guidance for incorporating climate change into their management actions and planning efforts. Without such guidance, their ability to address climate change and effectively manage resources is constrained. While a broad order developed in January 2001 directed BLM, FWS, and NPS to consider and analyze potential climate change effects in their management plans and activities, the agencies have not yet provided specific direction to managers on how they are to implement the order. A BLM official stated at an April 2007 hearing that BLM is establishing policy and technical committees to address necessary actions and develop guidance to address climate change in agency management practices. FWS and NPS officials said that their agencies have not developed specific guidance but believe that they are operating in a manner consistent with the 2001 order. While NOAA and FS have not provided specific guidance to their resource managers, NOAA officials said that the agency is establishing a working group to determine what actions to take to address climate change effects. FS officials said that FS planning processes are designed to identify and respond to emerging issues such as climate change. Finally, resource managers do not have sufficient site-specific information to plan for and manage the effects of climate change on the federal resources they manage. In particular, the managers lack computational models for local projections of expected changes and detailed inventories and monitoring systems for an adequate baseline understanding of existing local species. Without such information, managers are limited to reacting to already-observed climate change effects on their units, which makes it difficult to plan for future changes.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To better enable federal resource management agencies to take into account the existing and potential future effects of climate change on federal resources, we recommend that the Secretaries of Agriculture, Commerce, and the Interior--in consultation with the Director of FS; the Administrator of NOAA; and the Directors of BLM, FWS, and NPS, respectively--develop clear, written communication to resource managers that explains how managers are expected to address the effects of climate change, identifies how managers are to obtain any site-specific information that may be necessary, and reflects best practices shared among the relevant agencies, while also recognizing the unique missions, objectives, and responsibilities of each agency.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

    Status: Open

    Comments: The Department of Commerce has not yet issued guidance to resource managers.

    Recommendation: To better enable federal resource management agencies to take into account the existing and potential future effects of climate change on federal resources, we recommend that the Secretaries of Agriculture, Commerce, and the Interior--in consultation with the Director of FS; the Administrator of NOAA; and the Directors of BLM, FWS, and NPS, respectively--develop clear, written communication to resource managers that explains how managers are expected to address the effects of climate change, identifies how managers are to obtain any site-specific information that may be necessary, and reflects best practices shared among the relevant agencies, while also recognizing the unique missions, objectives, and responsibilities of each agency.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In April 2008 USDA told us that they have undertaken the following measures in response to our recommendation: (1) The Forest Service has drafted a companion document to its 2007 strategic plan that states how climate change can be taken into consideration in addressing agency priorities that are identified in the plan. These priorities fall into four categories: adaptation, mitigation, bioenergy, and sustainable operations. Actions taken by managers will depend on the conditions at a given location. (2) On February 15, 2008, the Forest Service Chief issued a letter to resource managers naming 16 high priority climate-related actions they are expected to take this year, including development of guidance for the preparation of forest plans and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) documents that take climate change into account. In addition, guidance will be provided to resource managers on how to treat climate change in forest plan revisions, among other things.

    Recommendation: To better enable federal resource management agencies to take into account the existing and potential future effects of climate change on federal resources, we recommend that the Secretaries of Agriculture, Commerce, and the Interior--in consultation with the Director of FS; the Administrator of NOAA; and the Directors of BLM, FWS, and NPS, respectively--develop clear, written communication to resource managers that explains how managers are expected to address the effects of climate change, identifies how managers are to obtain any site-specific information that may be necessary, and reflects best practices shared among the relevant agencies, while also recognizing the unique missions, objectives, and responsibilities of each agency.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In September 2009, the Department of the Interior (DOI), the parent agency for the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service, issued Secretarial Order No. 3289, on Addressing the Impacts of Climate Change on America's Land, Water, and Other Natural and Cultural Resources. Among other things, the order requires each bureau and office of the Department to consider and analyze potential climate change impacts when undertaking long-range planning exercises, setting priorities for scientific research and investigations, developing multi-year management plans, and making major decisions regarding potential use of resources under the Department's purview. Specifically, through the establishment of DOI Climate Science Centers and Landscape Conservation Cooperatives, DOI provides scientific information and information on best management practices to managers in support of adaptation and mitigation efforts on both public and private lands across the U.S. and internationally. The climate science centers in particular will synthesize existing climate change impact data and management strategies and help resource managers put them into action on the ground.

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