Alaskans are creating the first comprehensive land use plan for a Michigan-sized area of forest, tundra, and salmon-producing rivers. Sandwiched between the vast forested heart of the state and the Bering Sea coast, the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Bering Sea Western Interior (BSWI) Resource Management Plan sets high level goals for the next two decades.
In Alaska, generally speaking, the National Park Service manages mountainous lands, Fish and Wildlife Service handles lowlands and swamps, while the Bureau of Land Management and the state of Alaska manage middle uplands. BLM-managed lands literally link together Alaska’s protected lands and carry a multi-use mandate. Of the 62.3 million acres in the planning area, BLM manages 13.4 million strategically-positioned acres.
The agency manages a portion of the study area, but according to Jorjena Barringer, Project Manager for the Bureau of Land Management’s for Bering Sea Western Interior (BSWI) Resource Management Plan, it makes sense to look past boundary lines.
“We need to take into consideration what is occurring outside of the BLM-managed public lands so that we can anticipate what might happen across a landscape, across different landownerships, and take that into conservation in our planning,” said Barringer. “We have to think about being consistent with land owners, for instance, National Wildlife Refuges, Native Corporation lands, or state lands.”
The Northwest Boreal Landscape Conservation Cooperative (NWB LCC), a US-Canada science and conservation partnership, is helping contribute landscape-scale science and conservation management support to the process. Two NWB LCC projects across Alaska and Canada can assist the complex planning work.
One project explores potential corridors between protected lands that are immune to both expected and unknown changes from a warming climate. Led by Dr. Dawn Magness, a landscape ecologist for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, the corridors are based on factors like elevation, slope, aspect, and solar radiation. A warming climate will not change these more permanent attributes of a landscape.
Logging hundreds of computer processing hours, the analysis calculates potential links between Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge and the Innoko National Wildlife Refuge. It accounts for several different terrain types, from the high ridges where lynx roam to the river flats where moose feed. While Alaska’s protected lands are large, they’re not immune to fragmentation. And Alaska’s lands are still healthy enough that they can serve as an intact system with careful planning. Landscape connectivity was identified as the number one climate adaptation action that managers can take (Heller and Zavaleta, 2009.
The boreal region has warmed at twice the rate of the global average and is expected to continue to quickly warm. Exactly how much warmer and how it affects the landscape is less clear. Kim Lisgo of the Canadian BEACONs Project is helping LCC partners handle uncertainty cast by both anthropogenic change and a warming climate. Future resource managers will not be able to manage to achieve historic norms if the climate warms at the expected rates.
The BEACONs analysis of potentially representative regions, called ecological benchmarks, could serve as an experimental control to tease apart human-caused effects in areas managed for multiple uses. Ecological benchmarks are living, breathing ecosystems that are changing in response to climate drivers. As scientists notice change within the “control” area, they can know that a landscape-scale factor like climate or invasive species may be the cause. Amid a rapidly warming climate, and managers can
The BLM process for the massive land plan includes resource management ranging from gold mining to reindeer grazing and recreational snowmobiling. Permitting those uses in a way that achieves the BLM’s mandate requires new considerations in the decades ahead. BLM’s Barringer said dealing with uncertainty requires a flexible approach.
“What we can do is, ideally, utilize an adaptive management approach in how we go about making decisions given these unknowns and how we might adjust our management and our decisions within the plan according to what we see happening in those trends,” said Barringer.
Just as an uncertain climate makes looking two decades ahead difficult, there are a considerable range of possibilities for how in the coming years. Depending on the performance of the global economy, oil markets, gold prices, economic development, rural Alaska and Canada will experience varying levels of change.
NWB LCC Coordinator Amanda Robertson attended a meeting to present climate-smart concepts and answer questions about ways to incorporate landscape-scale language, science, and management into a formal plan. The LCC’s engagement with BLM is not new; Robertson in 2015 taught Climate Smart training for several members of the planning group, and BLM is a central partner in the LCC’s 30-plus member steering committee.
Barringer said while landscape-wide thinking is not brand new, it is new to many of the big planning efforts that drive decades of policy.
“There is a big push now to utilize landscape level planning, more so than the past. That’s very new and different compared to the past. To incorporate adaptive management and incorporate some specific monitoring that BLM has been working on– Assessment Inventory and Monitoring— as well as mitigation,” said Barringer. “I think a lot of what we’ll see in this plan going forward will be a little cutting edge compared to earlier resource management plans.”
Scientists and managers are refining several alternatives for the land use plan this year. A draft resource management plan is expected in 2017. The team will take it through another round of public comment before a final plan is complete in approximately 2019.