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GAO criticizes Interior Dept. for brushing off global warming

Office looking at natural reserves such as the Chugach National Forest

Posted: Friday, September 07, 2007

WASHINGTON - Wildfires are flaring bigger and hotter in Alaska, the northern Rockies and the Sierra Nevada. Bighorn sheep, mountain goats and grizzly bears in Glacier National Park, along with deer and marsh rabbits in the Florida Keys, face a housing crisis.

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Glacier's alpine meadows are disappearing, sea levels are rising in the Keys and other federal lands are feeling the heat from global warming - and the government is not doing much about it, congressional investigators said in a report Thursday.

Climate change, however, does have things looking up for non-native grasses that are fueling hotter and longer-lasting wildfires in the Mojave Desert, and for heat-loving pests like beetles, grasshoppers and fungi.

Spruce bark beetles are chewing their way through 1,560 square miles of Alaska's Kenai Peninsula, including 620 square miles of spruce trees in Chugach National Forest. Southern pine beetles are on the march in red spruce forests of the Southeast. Even pinyon pines hundreds of years old that have survived droughts before are dying off.

The GAO investigators looked at four representative areas:

• The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

• Alaska's Chugach National Forest.

• Montana's Glacier National Park.

• Grasslands and shrubs managed by Interior's Bureau of Land Management in northwestern Arizona.

After more than three years of study, the Government Accountability Office, an arm of Congress, harshly faulted the Bush administration for doing little to deal with the far-reaching effects of climate change rapidly taking place in national parks, forests, marine sanctuaries and other federal lands and waters - almost 30 percent of the United States.

The GAO said the Interior, Agriculture and Commerce departments have failed to give their resource managers the guidance and tools they need - computer models, temperature and precipitation data, climate projects and detailed inventories of plant and animal species - to cope with all the biological and physical effects from the warming.

"Without such guidance, their ability to address climate change and effectively manage resources is constrained," the report says.

The White House disagreed.

"President Bush is committed to addressing climate and providing the agencies with the tools they need to address this important issue," said Kristen Hellmer, a spokeswoman for the White House Council on Environmental Quality. "The president has provided unparalleled financial investments for dozens of federal climate change programs, many of which are directed at adaptation and developing and deploying cleaner, more efficient energy technologies."

Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and John McCain, R-Ariz., requested what turned out to be a 184-page report in March 2004, when both were running for the presidential nomination in their respective parties.

"We waited a long time for this report to confirm the daunting prospect that climate change is impacting our public lands from coast to coast, and this administration is ill-equipped to respond," Kerry said.

Jamie Rappaport Clark, who was director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the Clinton administration and is now executive vice president of Defenders of Wildlife, called the report an urgently needed wake-up call for the nation.

"Global warming is and will continue to contribute to species extinctions, flooding of coastal refuges and massive movements of wildlife populations in search of more hospitable habitat," she said. "Polar bears and other imperiled species, wildlife refuges, parks and myriad natural resources are at risk and Congress clearly needs to provide more legislative direction because the agencies have failed to do so."

The effects are widespread.

In Glacier National Park, the number of glaciers in the park has dropped from 150 to 26 since 1850. Some project that none will be left within 25 to 30 years. In south-central Alaska, many of the ponds shown in 1950 maps and aerial photographs are now grassy basins with spruce and hardwood trees.

On the Keys' receding coastlines, the climate threat extends "not only to wildlife, but also to humans who live on the islands," the report says.

Bleaching of coral reefs in the Florida Keys, too, is being caused by the stress of warmer water - which causes the corals to eject microscopic algae that live within their tissues. That could harm the fishing and tourism industries, because they are needed by fish and other marine species and are popular with snorkelers and scuba divers.

The GAO said the Interior Department has ignored an order signed by former secretary Bruce Babbitt on the last full day of the Clinton administration that requires it to "consider and analyze potential climate change impacts" in all its major decisions, long-range planning, management of resources and setting of scientific priorities.

In response, James Cason, an assistant interior secretary, told the GAO that an agency task force with nearly 100 people began meeting in April to study climate change, and the U.S. Geological Survey will spend $27 million for climate research in 2008. He said Interior "routinely takes actions to mitigate impacts of climate change."

Forest Service Chief Abigail Kimbell said that studying one forest, the Chugach, is not enough to draw conclusions about more than 300,000 square miles of national forests. Though Chugach's management plan does not address climate change, she said, 12 of the 155 national forests do.

David Sampson, deputy commerce secretary, said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is "at the forefront of global efforts" to improve the ability to observe and forecast climate change through computer modeling.

al grillo / the associated press



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