The report examines: (1) steps key Federal natural resource management agencies -- Forest Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, and Bureau of Land Management -- have taken since 2007 to address adaptation; and (2) how these agencies have collaborated at the national level on adaptation since 2007. GAO analyzed the agencies' climate change adaptation guidance and planning documents and interviewed agency officials. GAO also visited one field location for each agency, selected using a "non-probability approach, so the results are not generalizable to all of the agencies' field locations."
GAO found that since 2007, the Forest Service, NOAA, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service have taken steps to establish strategic directions for addressing climate change adaptation. For example, the Forest Service developed a strategic framework document that established climate change adaptation as a central agency priority and another document, known as "the roadmap," which identified actions that national forest managers were taking or could take to implement the direction outlined in the framework, including re-vegetating ecosystems that had been affected by fire with plant species that are better adapted to current and future climates. These four agencies have also developed guidance, training, and other tools for managers to use in adapting to climate change. For example, the National Park Service is developing guidance for park-based climate change adaptation plans that includes steps such as identifying conservation targets and conducting vulnerability assessments. The Bureau of Land Management has not established a strategic direction for addressing climate change impacts but is planning to develop a high-level climate change adaptation strategy by the end of the summer 2013. In addition, GAO visited one field location within each agency and found that managers at four of the five locations have taken steps to address climate change adaptation. For example:
- Chugach National Forest managers have begun an assessment of the vulnerability to climate change of key resources to help set priorities and identify adaptation actions. For example, the vulnerability assessment will include information on how changes in climate are likely to affect snow cover and salmon populations, as well as an analysis of how these projected changes may affect residents in the region who rely on snow-based tourism and salmon for their livelihoods.
- Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary managers are beginning to assess whether parts of their management plan should be revised to address climate change adaptation and have taken actions to protect marine resources, such as coral reefs, from climate change impacts. For example, the sanctuary is collaborating with local stakeholders to develop systems and techniques to grow coral and other reef species for replanting in depleted reef systems.
- However, GAO indicated that managers at the Bureau of Land Management's Kingman Resource Area, which manages its lands for livestock grazing and other uses, have not taken steps to address climate change adaptation and are awaiting agency direction.
The Federal natural resource management agencies GAO reviewed are collaborating on climate change adaptation. For example, agencies are collaborating through landscape conservation cooperatives, comprising public and private organizations working to define shared goals and provide science for conservation planning, among other things. In addition, agencies have collaborated in developing national strategies for addressing climate change adaptation in the federal government. For example, the Fish and Wildlife Service, NOAA, and others collaborated on a strategy, released in March 2013, for addressing climate change adaptation in managing fish, wildlife, and plants.
As Senators Baucus and Whitehouse released the GAO report, they also 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 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."
Sen. Baucus said, "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. 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."
Sen. Whitehouse said, "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. 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.