Interior Launches Climate Strategy

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar launched the Obama administration's first coordinated response to the impacts of climate change Monday, which he said would both monitor how global warming is altering the nation's landscape and help the country cope with those changes.

Salazar will lead a new "climate change response council" that will coordinate action among the department's eight bureaus and offices. A secretarial order will create eight "regional climate change response centers" in areas ranging from Alaska to the Northeast and build landscape conservation cooperatives that will create strategies for the eight regions with the help of state and local groups, and other federal agencies.

Interior manages one-fifth of the nation's land mass and nearly 1.7 billion acres on the Outer Continental Shelf.

"The Department of Interior must continue to change how it does business and respond to the issues of energy and climate change, which I see as the signature issues of the 21st century," Salazar said at a news conference. "The time this department operated under silos is a time that's over."

To curb climate change, Interior will explore methods to sequester carbon by storing it underground and by absorbing it through forests and rangelands, Salazar said, as well as ways to cut the department's own greenhouse gas emissions. He did not, however, specify by how much the agency would reduce its carbon footprint.

Kit Batten, science adviser to Interior Deputy Secretary David Hayes, led reporters through an elaborate geospatial presentation that mapped everything from the frequency of large hailstorms and windstorms in the United States to the melting of Washington state's South Cascade Glacier.

"This will help us understand the impacts of climate change, adapt to the impacts of climate change and provide ways to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions as a department," Batten said. "This work is important to all Americans, not just scientists and land managers."

Brenda Ekwurzel, climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that while the announcement was not a substitute for a mandatory, nationwide limit on greenhouse gas emissions, it "means the United States will be much better prepared to respond to the current and coming changes due to global warming. The Interior Department manages 20 percent of the land in the United States, so its role in developing strategies to cope with the unavoidable consequences of global warming is critical and could potentially save lives."

It remains unclear how much the department will devote in additional resources to the effort. Salazar noted that while the U.S. Geological Survey had received $10 million to address climate change through its centers, "There is additional money that will be needed."

The initiative could change the way Interior employees such as Mike Pellant, Great Basin Restoration Initiative coordinator, does his job. Pellant works on bringing the habitat of the Great Basin -- an area that encompasses tens of millions of acres in Nevada, western Utah, southern Idaho, southeastern Oregon and parts of California -- closer to its natural state. The sage brush steppe that once dominated the landscape is being replaced by invasive cheat grass, which thrives on carbon dioxide and the wildfires that now take place with increasing regularity. Cheat grass plays a major role in roughly one-third of the 80 million acres the Bureau of Land Management oversees in the basin, converting the area from one that absorbs carbon to one that emits carbon into the atmosphere because of the grass-fed wildfires, accelerating global warming.

If the department puts a higher priority on carbon sequestration, Pellant expects more public and agency support of the effort to replace cheat grass with sage brush.

"Cheat grass is a carbon source, and we'd rather see [the basin] as a carbon sink," Pellant said.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company