Land & Environment

Climate Change and Public Lands: Can Scientists, Land Managers and Policy Makers Join Forces?

How is climate change affecting public lands and what are land management agencies doing about it?

By Marley Madsen |

People recreating on land managed by the BLM. Public land is maintained for all American citizens, often at low to no cost. (Photo Credit: Marley Madsen)

How is climate change affecting public lands and what are land management agencies doing about it? A team of scientists from the fields of sociology, watershed sciences, wildland resources, ecology, environment and society, mathematic, and outdoor recreation and tourism asked these questions in a recent Ecosphere study.

The team is part of Utah State University’s Climate Adaptation Science program, a National Science Foundation Research Traineeship program that focuses on training incoming career scientists on the science-management-policy nexus of climate change.

The group focused their research on lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The BLM manages more public land than any other federal agency, over 248 million acres, an area over twice the size of California.

“That land belongs to every U.S. citizen equally,” explained Brett Miller, post-doctoral research fellow and co-lead author. “The implications of climate change on land managed by the BLM has direct implications for every U.S. citizen.”

Elaine Brice, doctoral candidate and fellow co-lead author, Miller, and their research team analyzed 225 scientific articles to determine the impacts of climate change on BLM administered lands. Not one paper concluded that climate change isn’t a major threat.

They also reviewed 44 resource management plans from the BLM to determine how the agency is responding to this threat. Most plans don’t even mention climate change let alone discuss current and future impacts.

Why is there such a disconnect and what can be done?

Repair the Science-Management Gap

The scientific community and land managers have a history of bad communication. If the best available science is ever going to be used in public land management then researchers need to be better at providing land managers with accessible results and specific suggestions.

“Few articles actually discussed explicit management actions or recommendations,” observed Brice. “Instead they said their research has ‘management implications’ without ever saying what those implications are.”

Land managers are also responsible to make a greater effort at incorporating scientific information into their management plans and decisions.

Progress Policy

Legally, the BLM must manage for multiple uses even if those uses conflict with one another. They must also allow time for public comment and adhere to current Executive and Secretarial Orders.

Changing management plans is no small task. The whole process can take 8 or more years, during which time policies and priorities in Washington may change drastically.

“The BLM manages for a variety of different, often conflicting, interests and values,” explained Miller. “Policies and priorities often change with new administrations and new leaders in the agency and the Department of the Interior.”

However, time is of the essence. The BLM has already suffered multiple lawsuits for failing to consider climate change in its oil and gas leasing practices. On the other hand, any effort to limit oil and gas extraction is likely be challenged in court due to the BLM’s legal obligation to manage for multiple uses.

Policy makers need to make accounting for climate change a priority for public lands. Until then, the BLM will continue to be trapped in a no-win situation.

Moving Forward

When asked how she hopes the research will be used, Brice stated, “I’m hopeful that our publication will be a catalyst for other researchers to provide tangible suggestions for land managers and that managers will use our publication to find research that may not be accessible or known to them.”

As part of the project, Brice created useful software tools that easily sort through the literature the team found to make it more accessible to land managers. The team’s article also includes several tables that succinctly describe climate change effects on public land uses and resources.

“I also hope that people who read this are inspired to advocate for greater consideration of climate change in public land management,” added Miller. “If the public makes it clear that they care about climate change then the federal government will respond by making policy that will do a better job of considering climate change.”


The research was funded by the National Science Foundation Research Traineeship program and The Wilderness Society.


Marley Madsen
S. J. Jessie E. Quinney College of Natural Resources


Elaine Brice
Doctoral Candidate
S.J. & Jessie E. Quinney College of Natural Resources

Brett Miller
Post-Doctoral Research Fellow
S.J. & Jessie E. Quinney College of Natural Resources


Research 725stories Society 403stories Water 193stories Environment 189stories Ecology 156stories Climate 117stories Wildland 86stories Land Management 85stories Outdoor 49stories Recreation 48stories

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