Reducing Carbon Demand From Federal Lands: A Modest Proposal



There seems to be a full-court press by NGOs with the concept that President Biden should show his support for climate action (related to COP26) by shutting down oil and gas leasing on federal lands (without regard to its legality, apparently).  As we’ve seen with forest products, though, that actually doesn’t stop demand and use, and simply moves the environmental costs and social benefits of production to other countries.  What I’d like is to open up the question of ways we could instead reduce consumption, preferably while not affecting poor/working class/people of color disparately, using federal land policies, that is legally viable.

To start the discussion, I’ll start with a likely to be highly unpopular idea.. but hopefully this will trigger other, more likely to be popular, ideas.

Discouraging High Carbon Tourism

Having recently returned from visiting three National Parks in Alaska, with thousands of other folks who flew in, used boats, cars and RVs. I propose analyzing the carbon footprints of visitors and workers in heavily used National Parks and closing, or greatly restricting, visitation to the ones with the highest footprints (tourists from farthest away; air travel, non-resident seasonal employees).  Here are my arguments.

1. Heating, transportation of necessities, combines and snowplows, travel to work are necessities; “airplane level” tourism not so much. One view might be that If we as a country want to keep our footprint small, we should prioritize necessities, not luxuries. Many folks like this recent piece in the WaPo, recommend tourism close to home to reduce carbon footprints.

The farther from home you go, the more fuel you need to get there (unless you’re going by bike, on foot or via renewable energy, of course), says Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist, professor, director of the Climate Center at Texas Tech University and author of the forthcoming book “Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World.” Her advice for travelers is to explore your own backyard and opt for more domestic trips.

2. At Denali, I asked why their Visitor Center was closed (I assumed it was due to Covid). The Park employee told me that it was because the Park was not funded or staffed well enough to keep it open. By closing or reducing access, perhaps Parks could better match their finances with their services.

3.  Concessionaire employees are interacting with tourists (although Park employees, thankfully, are not).  There are mask mandates but, if employees would not be safe with these same restrictions, then concessionaire employees would equally not be safe. For example, at Denali, the visitor center was closed, and the store was open. Fewer or no visitors would mean less chances for Covid transmission.

4. People say that National Parks are the “highest level of protection”. Seems like they would be even more “protected” without thousands of visitors, or with many fewer.

5. Tourism is seasonal and often workers are not permanent residents of the state. Even more travel could be reduced by having no concessionaires’ employees, and those workers especially now, would be likely to find similar (relatively low-paying) jobs in their own communities.

6. For gateway communities, less traffic would also mean less congestion in their communities, saving even more fuel.

In this Wall Street Journal article, they talk about local businesses pushing back to efforts to restrict/manage entry. On the other hand, there may be local people who would support the idea fewer tourists.

Awhile back during both the government shutdown, and because of Covid, many folks were arguing that Parks should be shut down to protect the resource Maybe this would be a win/win for the Park environment and reducing carbon impacts.

Other ideas?

15 thoughts on “Reducing Carbon Demand From Federal Lands: A Modest Proposal”

    • I sent you a link that should work.If not let me know and I’ll try something else. Believe me, the whole “can’t see without a subscription” thing makes life difficult for me as well. Someone could probably make some $ from figuring out a subscription service where you get up to say four articles per month from a variety of sources.

  1. I’ll think about your suggestions Sharon and post some ideas later.
    How about this as an additional topic for discussion?
    Reduce motorized recreation such as ATV’s, dirt bikes, snowmobiles? Would have a direct effect on carbon footprint.
    And this, let’s provide alternative transportation for recreation visitors to get them OUT of their private vehicles. Ski areas are a prime opportunity! Lots of people travelling to the same destination at roughly the same time of day (based on ski lift operating hours) so it would be easy to have suitable bussing. I think that would be in line with the efforts of the group “Protect Our Winters” (POW). The ski industry depends on snow but the failure to reduce the carbon footprint of downhill skiers is having a direct, adverse impact on skiers and the ski industry.

    • OW, see I think that’s all interesting to think about. Take a look on some Friday afternoon and Saturday and count vehicles going hiking, different kinds of vehicles pulling different kinds of trailers (boating, camping, horse, ATV) and calculate the carbon footprint. Of course there are electric cars (but not pulling trailers) but most of them in our case are powered by the (not carbon-free) grid. So if we’re going against gas powered vehicles, then we would consider all.. you didn’t mention boats with motors.

      Ski areas are notable for wanting to improve their carbon footprint (you can find many examples online), and yet in Colorado I believe it was one ski area that had was up in the list of greatest users of energy (I can’t easily find it).

      My point is that there seem to be carbon reduction sacred cows, including tourism. I don’t think we’ve ever taken an honest look at all the interventions. It seems like unknown parties (remember Ed Quillen? “the people who really run America” have decided some are worthy of attention and discussion and others not. I’m asking the question, could we broaden this discussion to all carbon sources and uses?

  2. wow, blame the tourists and ignore the elephant in the room (carbon emissions from logging public land, relying on commercial timber sales as the main tool for [every purpose])

    • because there are *definitely* a comparable amount of logging trucks to, say, cars idling deadlocked in Yellowstone because of a bison-jam on a random tuesday in July. I think Sharon’s point is that tourism is a sacred cow with too few calculated costs.

      I would go a step further and say it’s a recurring theme that is borne out in a lot of public engagement for federal land management planning. Re: industrial or commercial activity of any sort (look at what they’re doing, think of the costs!) tourism and recreation (general silence except from local groups). Because, well, where else to get supporters for a national ENGO nonprofits if not from outdoor recreationists? After all, upper middle class potential donors from population centers primarily interact with these lands through recreation, hence, I imagine, Sharon’s reference to an unpopular idea. If suddenly their use of the land is unwelcome or less welcome, and for environmental reasons, then the willingness to support environmental causes may be less robust. So, accordingly, don’t ask questions about tourism, focus on the other, who can be safely demarcated as not caring like you do. The solution then turns on stopping or reforming them, not yourself.

      Realizing that transportation is involved in forestry as well, it cannot be seriously supposed that the emissions are comparable to that of tourist travel. Just for the sake of argument think through an example of what people do to go to Denali or Yellowstone. Take an ride to the airport. Fly. Use all the disposable items extra prevalent in flying (double down for covid). Rent a car. Drive around. Idle at the entrance and stopping to look at stuff. Any experience in national parks, especially popular ones with drivable thoroughfares for seeing highlights will testify to this experience being numerically predominate among visitors (Yosemite, Yellowstone, Glacier, Acadia, Shenandoah to name a few)

      Maybe Sharon’s point is generally that folks advancing environmental concerns (which are more often than not legitimate!) too seldom kick the hornet’s nest of questioning the costs and values of tourism because they derive so much support from it.

      I would tentatively advance the further thesis that avoiding calculating its costs is important to many national-scale ENGO (local groups seem more variable, anecdotally) depend on outdoor recreation as a way to connect to member and donor bases. Obviously this is speculative, but it thereby is an organizationally advantageous strategy to direct energy to the narrative that the problem is strictly the “dirty, old fashioned, outmoded” forms of interacting with the land, not with the “weekend consumption of the pretty thing”. Gotta sell those John Muir quote stickers and national park mugs, after all.

      • Or could it be that it is more difficult to argue for directly restricting personal freedom to use public lands than to argue for restricting those who make money off them (partly by externalizing their costs onto public land users and the environment)?

        • Oh right! I forgot – nobody makes private money off of marketing and using public lands for recreational uses, such as operating ski areas, using special use permits, concessionaire contracts, and guiding and outfitting on them, etc. And these uses don’t externalize costs by relying on a public land base allowing them to operate on a scale they couldn’t afford otherwise.

          Your point about the difficulty in restricting personal freedom to use public land is well-taken, but it’s not just a question about freedoms, it’s also a question about which uses are privleged and in what ways. I think it can be unproblematically agreed that a handful of hikers on a moderately maintained trail that they drove a half-hour to get to externalizes less cost to the environment in the form of carbon than a full-blown timber operation on, say, several hundred acres of land. But blow up the proportion of tourists to certain national park levels, or even really busy parts of the CO front range on a weekend during summer or ski season? T

          Primarily though, there is the problem with the neat dichotomy painted between “freedom exercising personal users” (who, as noted above, may be free precisely to go to a ski resort or guiding service or other use on federal land that exists through the externalization of land costs). Versus, of course, the users making money and externalizing costs even though they may be under contract carrying out a timber operation that does indeed make money but also achieves other identified social or ecological goals in the process.

          Slight facetiousness aside, I think I wanted to poke some problematic assumptions. There are at least two of these: one, that timber removals or other industrial activities may not themselves be achieving goals other than

          And two, the closely related and in my view erroneous dichotomy above, that recreationists are not connected with the externalization of environmental costs, nevermind the infrastructure and services used in recreating; but the timber industry is out to pocket and run.

          A third potential but less developed assumption to question is the usefulness of externalization of costs as an criterion here. In cases of clear cut environmental justice problems (think low SES and diverse neighborhoods subjected to higher levels of air pollutants) issues it makes sense to speak of externalization. But in the sense of whose carbon emissions are more justifiable on public lands? Maybe less useful. Because anyone interacting with those lands via travel or management is going to emit carbon. But is the carbon thus emitted a worthwhile tradeoff with other management goals? Simply saying that the cost is “externalized” explains little about the tradeoffs involved.

          Often invoked, seldom explained in meaningful detail, I am often skeptical of the explanatory power in saying that this or that user is externalizing the cost of their doing business onto the public or environment. Fossil-fuel extraction may be a more understandable case. But any management of land is going to involve impact. And forestry business are often a big part of management for federal land management agencies toolbox for getting work done. So is it the mere act of making money off of it that makes it an externalized cost? Would the same activity carried out by government personnel make for a non-externalized cost?

          • Here’s Wikipedia’s definition: “In economics, an externality is a cost or benefit for a third party who did not agree to it. Air pollution from motor vehicles is one example. The cost of air pollution to society is not paid by either the producers or users of motorized transport.” Climate change is an externality. The term is usually used in the context of being able to make a product cheaper because the producer doesn’t have to pay all of the real costs of producing it, but the externality is essentially the impact on others, which government personnel could cause as well.

            So my point was that reducing externalities is another reason why it makes more sense to pick on “producers.” There are degrees of externalities, and developed recreation has them, and even those who just drive to a trailhead are not paying the full cost of the trip, but producers are a bigger target. Also, if you made gas cost more, there would be fewer trips to the ski area or trailhead.

    • 2nd.. it seems that it is only people in Oregon (not neighboring timber industry inhabited Washington nor California, let alone Arizona nor Colorado) who have the view “carbon emissions from logging public land is the worst source of carbon emissions.” Why do you think that is?

      My guess is that some in Oregon has never gotten over the “timber wars” and some can’t see outside that framing. Carbon is just the latest skirmish.

      • The idea that logging is Oregon’s largest source of CO2 came from a study by OSU’s Beverly Law, which we’ve discussed here previously and is outlines in this High Country News article from 2018:


        Last summer, the skies of Oregon turned a foreboding shade of gray. Forest fires up and down the state blackened forests and left people gasping for air. Politicians stumped about the need to ramp up logging to improve Oregon’s air, environment and economy. The fires and heated rhetoric got Oregon State University researcher Beverly Law thinking about carbon storage and emissions from Oregon forests.

        Because of the human health impacts of smoke, the conversation about pollution and forests is typically centered on fires. But the study Law and her colleagues put together earlier this year found that wildfire is not the biggest source of climate-warming carbon dioxide in Oregon forests — logging and wood products are. Figuring out the role of forests and wood in carbon pollution could have major policy implications in Oregon, as Gov. Kate Brown has pledged to meet the emissions goals of the Paris Climate accords.

  3. Sharon said,
    “the whole “can’t see without a subscription” thing makes life difficult for me as well. Someone could probably make some $ from figuring out a subscription service where you get up to say four articles per month from a variety of sources.”

    I’ve been told by sources (teens who follow trends in computing and biz) that news media will probably follow other models such as gaming that have done similar, just a matter of time. Sign up with one subscription, and the service tracks how much time you spend on which media source and allocates a percentage of your subscription to those sources based on time spent.

    I would probably read a couple few hundred articles per month that are currently behind a paywall. Scientific papers too.

    • Robb, if I am really interested in a scientific paper I contact the author via email and ask for an e-reprint. In the old days we used postcards. I think 1 out of 100 times maybe they don’t respond. Most of them seem to be happy that someone outside academia is interested in their work. I do like the gaming subscription idea, thanks for giving me hope!

  4. I’ve thought of this issue. Is it possible to have low carbon tourism?

    It would take an entire upending of our current way we do tourism, but I think we need to do so anyway. Non essential flying needs to end, maybe a round trip per year to see family. High speed rail and non essential flights taxed at very high rates might make Americans a lot more eager to overcome hesitancy for high speed rail, China has 23,000 miles.

    Trains originating at large cities or collecting people as they went. Coordinated with electric busses after they arrive at their destinations. No concessionaires. Spartan accommodations with an emphasis on camping with all equipment rented at the subsidized prices (remember those non essential flight taxes) Food transported in by rail or bought locally, forget blueberries from New Zealand. Reduce the number of servants to the largest extent possible, encouraging people to cook, clean, and entertain themselves.

    It’s ridiculous for politicians to talk global warming but push one of the most carbon intensive industries. The Sierra Club has an extensive list of travel destinations for those wanting to burn carbon internationally and within this hemisphere.

    For decades the NPS has pushed the development of hotels and restaurants outside of parks, maybe it’s time to reduce the footprint of parks. Look at that monstrosity called Jackson Wyoming.

    • Som.. it’s kind of interesting how expectations have changed.. when flying was expensive, people seldom flew. When talking on the phone was expensive, people seldom talked long distance. And yet we got along OK. Problem being if we used that way of dealing with it… (raising prices) only the rich would have good experiences. It’s a puzzling problem to be sure.


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