Glaciers Get New Protections with Passage of Natural Resources Act

Over 300 glaciers in North Cascades National Park were at risk of mining contamination, but they will now receive increased federal protection aimed at better preserving them.

The largest public lands bill in decades was passed in February by the US Congress with bipartisan support. In the House, the vote was 363-62 and in the Senate 92-8. President Trump signed the bill in mid-March. The Natural Resources Management Act sets forth provisions that aim to protect land, rivers, and ecosystems across US public lands. The bipartisan effort extends protections to over 300,000 acres of land in areas around North Cascades and Yellowstone National Parks. The measure also adds 1.3 million acres of wilderness to the western United States, protecting those areas from resource extraction, such as oil and gas drilling. Utah will be granted 661,200 acres of wilderness land, California 375,500 acres, and New Mexico 272,900. A full list of the expansions of national parks, wilderness areas, and trail extensions can be foundhere.

Doubtful Lake as seen from Sahale Glacier Camp in North Cascade National Park (Source: Brew Books/Flickr).

Advocates for the legislation, including national park visitors, conservationists, and environmentalists, hope that it will reduce or prevent harmful impacts of climate change and water contamination on sensitive environments, such as the glaciers in North Cascades. Mining creates soot that falls onto glacier surfaces, reducing their albedo, which in turn causes greater amounts of melting.

According to the National Parks Service, North Cascades is among the snowiest places on Earth and is the most heavily glaciated area in the United States, outside of Alaska. Glaciers in the park are shrinking due to the impacts of climate change—20 percent of North Cascade National Park’s Boulder Glacier has been lost to glacial retreat. North Cascade Glacier Climate Project (NCGCP) has tracked changes on the glacier since 1988. According to NCGCP, Boulder Glacier has retreated about 20 meters per year from 1984-2009, a total of about 515 meters.

The Natural Resources Management Act will provide a larger buffer zone between mining sites and the park.

After the bill was passed in February by the US Senate, Kristen Brengel, vice president of government affairs for the National Parks Conservancy Association stated: “We are one step closer to adding over 2 million acres of parks, wilderness, and conservation lands into protected status.”

Sen. Mike Lee, a Republican representing Utah, opposed the bill, fearing land in his home state would miss out on development opportunities.

The bill protects Yellowstone National Park from mining around the area. (Source: Frip/Flickr)

Lisa Dale, a lecturer at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, has extensive experience with wilderness designation. Dale, who worked for the Wilderness Society, which was instrumental in the passage of the 1964 National Wilderness Act, explained to GlacierHub the process for expanding wilderness protections on public lands.

The land must not have any roads and must be a minimum of 5,000 acres. And the areas under consideration should, according to Dale, “provide an opportunity for solitude … and not have any presence of modern life.” The presence of modern life includes noise and light pollution from nearby cities and towns.

Land under considered for protection must be deemed a valuable and unique ecosystem—North Cascade National Park, for example, which hosts awe-inspiring terrain and hundreds of glaciers.

The process for granting wilderness status is not typically fast or easy. First, it is important to note that land turned into wilderness is not taken from the private sector. Rather, wilderness comes from land that the federal government already possesses. What makes it wilderness, however, is added protection and restrictions of the land. After the land is constituted as wilderness, the area is designated for recreation—fishing, hunting, backpacking, and finding solitude. Mechanized vehicles are prohibited.

Dale said the process often starts with a small, grass-roots organization that has a substantial amount of data on federal areas. These areas are usually designated Wilderness Study Areas. In order to be considered a Wilderness Study Area, it must have been identified by the Land Management Agency, Forest Service, Park Service, or Bureau of Land Management as having “wilderness quality.” This wilderness quality will be maintained by organizations such as the Wilderness Society as they wait for wilderness approval.

Colorado’s Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness – White River(Source: Colorado Sands/Flickr).

There is much to celebrate with the passing of this bill, and with it comes the protection and conservation of sensitive ecosystems like the glaciers of Northern Cascade National Park.

“To have all of these things happening at once happening in one bill is pretty exciting and worth celebrating because of the bi-partisan nature of the support that came around to support these actions,” Dale said.

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