Planting Trees Isn't Enough to Prevent Climate Change

Planting Trees Isn't Enough to Prevent Climate Change
Gareth Wildman/PBS via AP
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In his latest State of the Union address, President Trump spoke at length about the things that he considers proof of American greatness. But proposing to plant a trillion trees while simultaneously cutting down Alaska’s pristine national forest is not a solution. Without action to conserve more of our land, the things that make this country great are imperiled by unchecked growth and development. 

There are some places that quietly support our lives that are easy to take for granted. Here in Alaska, I like to take people to the tundra and show them the magic of the miniature forests that blanket the land and provide food and habitat for the salmon, wildlife, and people of the Bristol Bay. In it, I see an important lesson for all of this beautiful country. 

While proposals to green America by planting trees might sound good in a speech, they fail to account for the threat facing the habitats we depend on today. Many  public lands in Alaska, and elsewhere in the United States, are being traded for short term gains that threaten to tear these surfaces from the earth — places that include the tall rainforests of the Tongass National Forest, the caribou birthing grounds of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and the millions of acres of lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management in the Bering Sea-Western Interior. The imminent threat of the Pebble mine at the headwaters of the Kvichak and Nushagak Rivers of Bristol Bay is on state land that has been prioritized for mineral development. These lands not only have measurable economic value when it comes to tourism, outdoor recreation, and commercial fishing, but they also include traditional hunting, fishing, and gathering grounds for Alaska’s first people.

Bristol Bay is the birthplace of my mother, Katherine Brown, and the Naknek River is the water that has brought us life for generations unknown. The salmon nurtured in that water have brought us sustenance and livelihood because of the abundance that has continued long past the onset of the establishment of the commercial fishing industry that has existed since the late 1800s. My children now fish with me and represent the fifth generation of commercial fishers in our family.

The flat tundra of Bristol Bay is considered the perfect landscape for rearing sockeye salmon and when they return from their time at sea to spawn, they come back by the millions to seven river systems. My mother often comments on how the Naknek River always brings consistent returns and she attributes this to the fact that it flows from Katmai National Park.

It’s reassuring to know that the parts of the salmon life cycle that are supported by its terrestrial environment are protected, and that these protections only help to support my ability to harvest salmon where the sea meets the river.

This extra layer of protection provided by the national park has prevented multiple development projects from encroaching on habitat and buffers disruption to the salmon life cycle when ocean conditions are less than ideal. Just as caribou need refuge when they are calving, so too do the salmon when they are spawning and rearing.

Policy protections that conserve salmon by limiting harvest areas at sea, such as the Magnuson Stevens Act, are critical, but are only one piece of the puzzle. Protections on land are vital if we are to maintain the healthy wild salmon runs that remain in Bristol Bay and other parts of Alaska.

I recently learned that scientists around the country are recommending a national goal of protecting 30 percent of America’s lands and oceans by 2030 to help stem the degradation and pollution of critical habitat and support biodiversity — including healthy runs of wild salmon. An initiative of this scale gives us ten years to work to maintain and possibly grow protections for our lands and oceans that quietly support our lives. It is ambitious, but critical.

Whether we rely upon public lands for supporting habitat that bolsters the returns of fishing runs, as places to recreate and connect with nature, or for protecting the atmosphere that we all ultimately share, I firmly believe the following to be true: some places need to be left alone to quietly cradle the water and filter the air that moves across them. More can be gained from these places than we can fully know.

Melanie Brown set-nets commercially for sockeye salmon with her family in Bristol Bay every summer and advocates for wild caught fisheries and their habitat with SalmonState in the winter.

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