Photo by Lione Clare (@lioneclarephoto)
This write-up was originally featured in our Spring 2023 Trail Break issue.
My skis clamber up a ridge in my new backyard, the Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska. I slither between Sitka spruces towering over the snow-swept forest floor, and pass by Western hemlocks whose tops bow downwards as if they’re greeting me. This forest oozes with life. The Tongass is not only a place for recreation, it’s also commonly referred to as one of our greatest tools in the fight against climate change.1
No matter how quickly we turn to renewable energy, the effects of climate change are already upon us. Our winters, snowy landscapes, and all things dependent on them, face the brunt of these impacts. The Tongass, for example, is a massive carbon sink—a natural environment with the ability to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it. Protecting areas like the Tongass is vital in the process of mitigating and adapting to climate change.
“Among the world’s temperate rainforests, the Tongass is one of the most important on the planet,” says Dr. Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist at Wild-Heritage, a conservation organization focused on the protection of primary forests. “It represents 9% of the total area of our national forest system and yet it stores 20% of all the carbon.”
By tailoring conservation methods to a specific region and the exact needs of that ecosystem, nature-based climate solutions focus on protecting and healing the land. Ideally, these solutions follow the lead of local Indigenous knowledge, as Indigenous peoples are traditionally the most in tune with the landscape.
“It’s unfortunate that not enough emphasis is being placed on the value public lands have from a climate mitigation and adaptation standpoint,” DellaSala says. “This is where you find most of the important biodiversity, drinking water, highest mature and old growth forests, and carbon. This is where you want to build out your climate strategy around nature-based climate solutions.”
640 million acres of the land in the United States belong to the public, and each piece of public land is wildly different from the next. From the crested granite of the North Cascades to the sweltering depths of Death Valley, the unique qualities of each landscape are an innate part of their value. But according to a report done by the U.S. Geological Survey, almost a quarter of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions come from fossil fuel extraction on those very lands.2
By changing the way we manage our public lands, we can shift them from carbon emitters into carbon sequesterers and locally beneficial spaces. Our public lands will become our greatest allies in the fight against climate change; in turn protecting our beloved snowy landscapes.
“In terms of climate change mitigation, I feel like often winter gets forgotten,” says Winter Wildlands Alliance Policy Director Hilary Eisen. “Which is funny, because that’s the season we’re going to lose if we don’t do anything about climate change. It has to be part of the solution. We can’t just accept that we’re going to lose winter.”
Creating local mitigation measures that assure snow has places to collect where it won’t be disturbed, and sensitive wildlife have ample refuge in the most critical season, are fundamental steps toward protecting winter generally. In 2022, the U.S. Forest Service released an Over-snow Vehicle (OSV) Use Plan for the Stanislaus National Forest in California,3 the first in the country under the 2015 OSV Rule, in an effort to better and more thoughtfully manage winter motorized recreation on the Stanislaus and to minimize impacts to natural resources, wildlife and other recreation uses such as backcountry and Nordic skiing.
The Stanislaus is one of the oldest National Forests in the nation, located on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada on the ancestral lands of the Central Sierra Me-wuk peoples. It is a major component of the San Joaquin River watershed, which supplies clean drinking water for millions of people and irrigation for billions of dollars in agriculture.
The new plan stipulates that OSV use is only allowed within designated areas and with a minimum snow depth of 12 inches (certain sensitive areas require a minimum of 24 inches). This helps to ensure that no contact is made with native soil or vegetation, thus protecting their ability to store carbon.4
By implementing such specific land-based policies, agencies seek balance: providing space for recreation while also protecting the resources, wildlife and natural systems that together sustain the health of the land itself.
“There’s a reason we are asked not to go skiing or snow machining in certain places at certain times,” Eisen told me. “We’re just one piece of this larger system and being respectful and humble in the face of that is important—if we want to be able to do what we do for the long haul.”
Indigenous peoples, who have lived in stewardship with the land since time immemorial, can lead the charge in climate mitigation with Traditional Ecological Knowledge—evolving knowledge from thousands of years of living in direct contact with the environment.
For example, the Nooksack Indian Tribe is working on building climate resilience in Northwest Washington State. In 2020, the Tribe released a Climate Adaptation Plan that includes 140 high priority actions to be implemented to support species and habitats that the Tribe deemed vulnerable in their 2017 climate vulnerability assessment.5
Sitting in the South Fork Nooksack River valley, shaded by old-growth Douglas fir, privately-owned Stewart Mountain is located on ancestral lands of the Nooksack. The Tribe, along with key stakeholders like Evergreen Land Trust, have formed local coalitions to put ownership of Stewart Mountain back into the public’s hands, and to implement pieces of the Tribe’s adaptation plan.
“We’ve been able to purchase the first 550 acres, which we think of as phase one,” Evergreen Land Trust’s Holly O’Neil told me. “It is so powerful for a community to actually have control of managing the resources their world is dependent on.”
The goal is to turn Stewart Mountain into a community forest. According to the initiative, this means managing the land as a working forest that balances ecological, economic and community benefits such as watershed health, improved water quality, increased water quantity, sustainable forestry jobs, fish and wildlife habitat, and recreational access, while also offsetting the projected impacts of climate change.
One of the main objectives of the community forest is for the effects to be felt throughout the whole ecosystem. The icy headwaters of the Nooksack River’s south fork stem from peaks in publicly- owned Mt. Baker National Forest. The Tribe and surrounding local communities depend on the South Fork, which has been deemed vulnerable under the Tribe’s assessments.
“The importance of the forest is really becoming clear to everybody,” O’Neil says. “There are all these different strategies for how to promote watershed health [in the Nooksack] and the one that we see having the biggest impact is to restore the upland hydrological function, which is Stewart Mountain.”
Building climate resilience is not something that can be done in a silo—it requires on the ground action, intimate knowledge of different ecosystems, and building local coalitions.
“The price of an ecological education is you see the wounds of the planet,” DellaSala says. “You’ve got to have an outlet, otherwise it will eat you alive.”
For DellaSala, his outlet is the blues band he plays in at night: “The Pozitronics.” As I sit overlooking the Tongass, feeling the sharp wind bite my flushed cheeks, I feel thankful that my outlet is embedded in my splitboard and the piece of public land right in front of me.
Editor’s note: In January 2023, the Biden Administration restored Roadless Rule protections to the Tongass. Previously, in 2020, the Trump Administration had opened 9.37 million acres of roadless lands across the forest to logging and road building. Congressional action is still needed to permanently codify the Roadless Rule and ensure that the Tongass—and other roadless lands across the nation—retain their contributions to nature-based climate solutions.
KAYLA HEIDENREICH is an outdoor educator, freelance writer and public lands lover. She spends most of her time exploring mountains, rivers and crags, learning from the land as she goes. She currently lives in Juneau, Alaska, on the traditional lands and territories of the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people.
1. “By the numbers: Why this ancient rainforest is an important climate solution.” The Wilderness Society, May 2021, https://www.wilderness.org/articles/blog/numbers-why-ancient-rainforest-important-climate-solution.
2. Merrill, M. D., Sleeter, B. M., Freeman, P. A., Liu, J., Warwick, P. D., Reed, B. C. (2018). Federal Lands Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sequestration in the United States Estimates for 2005-14. U.S. Geological Survey Science for a Changing World. https://pubs.usgs.gov/sir/2018/5131/sir20185131.pdf
3. U.S. Forest Service. “Stanislaus National Forest Over-Snow Vehicle Use Designation, Record of Decision.” Pinyon Public, 28 Mar. 2022.
4. Mengmeng Ai et al 2018 IOP Conf. Ser.: Mater. Sci. Eng. 394 052028.
5. Nooksack Indian Tribe Climate Change Adaptation Plan for Key Species and Habitats (n.d.). https://cig.uw.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2021/11/Nooksack-Adaptaiton-Plan-FINAL_errata_11.24.21_v2.pdf