Climate and Conservation

By on November 2, 2016

TCD candidates discuss what role the district might play in developing a climate change action plan.

JACKSON HOLE, WY  – Teton County faces unprecedented challenges balancing human impacts on the environment with conservation. A critical entity in the struggle to find this balance is the Teton Conservation District (TCD), a board that has two open seats. As this area continues to drag its feet in creating clear plans to address climate change, could the conservation district lead the charge?

Travis Ziehl and Tom Campbell are running for the supervisor at large seat and Bailey Schreiber is running uncontested for urban supervisor. Originally from Casper, Ziehl moved to Jackson 12 years ago. He has worked for Teton County Weed and Pest. Campbell, who moved to the valley in the 70s and has worked for the environmental consulting business Biota, has been a supervisor on TCD for four years, and the treasurer for three. Schreiber is a Jackson native who was appointed to be a supervisor on TCD a year ago. She is running to serve a full term.

The conservation district is one of 34 in Wyoming. It is a state entity that operates at a local level, and seeks to promote conservation and manage natural resources. TCD focuses on the following priorities: agriculture, wildlife, water resources, restoration, sustainability, mapping and GIS services, and interacting with county and land development regulations and planning groups.

Combating climate change is not included in the conservation district’s priorities, though all three candidates named it as a pressing concern.

“A lot of the natural resource issues we face … are in some ways related to climate change,” Schreiber noted.

Similarly Campbell believes each priority “has either a direct or indirect relationship to climate change.”

No mode of attack

Jackson Hole is one of the most resource rich areas in the country, but it has not joined the 50 American cities that have created a climate change adaptation plan. These plans identify threats posed by climate change to a particular area, and specify goals to address those concerns.

Because of its structure and latitude, TCD may be uniquely positioned to take a lead in the state and region in climate change mitigation, though this has not been addressed this election season, or mentioned at candidate forums. The unique structure of the conservation district allows it to “seize opportunities” to work both locally and regionally in a way that other entities can’t, Schreiber said.

“[TCD] can be a collaborator and bring a variety of different parties to the table to address natural resource issues,” she explained.

The effects of climate change are already impacting ecosystems, and endanger people and infrastructure, Ziehl said. “Climate change doesn’t always mean hotter, drier, longer.” (A memo that Sen. Mike Enzi has apparently not received—in a 2014 NPR interview he denied the existence of climate change on the basis of a “May snowstorm in Wyoming” that dumped 18 inches.)

But as Ziehl explained, climate change can mean “certain weather patterns that will create more intense storms” and create runoff and erosion issues.

Increasing precipitation has already exacerbated flooding, which decreases water quality and erodes soil. In addition, snowpack has drastically decreased in the past decade. This has an impact on many of the district’s priorities, including agriculture, water resources and restoration.

Similarly, wildland fires pose an urgent threat to the region. According to a study from the University of Idaho and Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, in the last 30 years climate change has doubled the expansion of wildland fires in the Western United States.

“Landowners need to selectively choose for healthier trees,” Ziehl said, “and remove deadstock.”

Despite these concerns, however, state officials have denied climate change, attempting to disallow climate change from being taught in schools, and resisted regulations that would curb carbon emissions.

Teton Conservation District officials have seen this resistance to naming and addressing climate change in their regional work.

“It’s still a political risk to come out and even use ‘climate change’ language,” Ziehl said.

Campbell says that Wyoming has not embraced climate change as a reality, though Teton County has. “These are things we should acknowledge and work to deal with on a local level as well as on a state level with other conservation districts.”

However, TCD candidates do not necessarily see developing a climate change mitigation plan as their role. Schreiber said the district would probably support any county measures to create a plan, but that it would not likely take the lead.

Ziehl suggested that the district’s role might be to leverage pre-existing structures to address the impacts of climate change by making recommendations to the Land Development Regulations.

Addressing climate change will require collaboration across the region and state. But the district may be the only organization poised to do this work both regionally and locally. “You have to take care of the land to reap the benefits from it,” Ziehl said. PJH

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