Planning for the Effects of Climate Change on Natural Resources

Date01 March 2017
Planning for the
Effects of Climate
Change on
by Jessica Wentz
Jessica Wentz is a Sta Attorney and Associate
Research Scholar at Columbia Law School’s
Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.
Climate change has important implications for the
management and conservation of natural resources
and public lands. e federal agencies responsible for
managing these resources have generally recognized
that considerations pertaining to climate change
adaptation should be incorporated into existing plan-
ning processes, yet this topic is still treated as an
afterthought in many planning documents. Only a
few federal agencies have published guidance on how
managers should consider climate change impacts and
their management implications. is Article explains
why these agencies are legally required to consider cli-
mate-related risks in planning processes, and presents
recommendations and a model protocol for conduct-
ing this analysis.
Climate change is already a ecting public lands and
natural resources in the United States. Increasing
temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, and
other climate-related phenomena are altering the biophysi-
cal characteristics of habitats, the composition and range of
species, and the timing of critical biological events such as
spring bud burst.1 ese a lterations can impair ecological
integrity, resource productivity, and the delivery of critical
ecosystem services.2 All of these impacts will become more
pronounced as the climate continues to warm.
Driven by a combination of legal mandates, policy
directives, and pragmat ic considerations , federal agen-
cies have beg un to develop st rategies for responding to
the eects of climate change on resources under their
jurisdiction. Most of these a gencies have recognized that
adaptat ion planning shou ld be mainstrea med into their
exist ing planning processe s, but only a few have promul-
gated regulations or guidelines on how this should be
accompli shed. A s a result, there is consid erable va riation
both within and among agencie s in terms of how and
whether climate change impact s and related risk s are
addres sed in resource assessments, management plans,
environme ntal reviews, and other planning documents.
While many of t hese doc uments do c ontai n some dis-
cussion of how climate change may aect the area or
resourc e being managed, the discussion is often quite
general, and the ndi ngs typically have little or no
impact on manag ement decisions or conclusions about
environme ntal outcomes.
In June 2016, the Sabin Center for Climate Change
Law convened a workshop w ith stakeholders from federal
agencies, environmental consulting rms, nongovern-
mental organizations, and academic institutions to dis-
cuss how we can work together to improve the quality
and consistency of the cli mate cha nge impact ana lysis in
natural resource plann ing documents. e federal agency
representatives discussed how their agencies are prepar-
ing for the eects of climate change, participants shared
examples of how climate change impacts were accounted
for in specic pla nning documents, a nd the entire group
provided feedback on a d raft model protocol that con-
tained instructions on how natural resource managers can
1. U.S. G C R P, C C I
  U S: T T N C A
17, 196-201, 562 (Jerry M. Melillo et al. eds., 2014), available at http://
2. Id. at 196-201.
 is Article is adapted from a longer report, see
Jessica Wentz, 
      
 (Sabin Center for Climate
Change Law 2016).
Copyright © 2017 Environmental Law Institute®, Washington, DC. Reprinted with permission from ELR®,, 1-800-433-5120.
3-2017 NEWS & ANALYSIS 47 ELR 10221
account for the eects of climate change in dierent types
of planning doc uments.
is Article presents some of the key ndings from the
workshop and research underpinning the model protocol
project. Part I explains why federal agencies are legally
required—at least in some circumstances—to consider
how climate change will aect t he natural resources and
lands that they manage. Part II describes the eorts under-
taken by federa l agencies to ensure that climate change
impacts are accounted for in planning and environmental
review documents, and nds that the issuance of directives
or guidance on how climate change should be addressed
in these documents can signicantly improve the quality
and consistency of the analysis. Part III presents recom-
mendations on how natural resource managers (including
but not limited to federal agencies) can eectively integrate
information about climate change impacts a nd adaptation
measures into planning documents. Finally, Part I V con-
cludes, and the model protocol is appended.
I. Legal Framework
Climate change clearly has implications for the ma nage-
ment of natural resources, but there is very little statu-
tory gu idance on how natural resource managers, a nd in
particular federal agencies, should account for the eects
of climate change when developing resource assessments,
management plans, and environmental review documents.
Indeed, a ll but one of the federal statutes that deal with
natural resource management are totally silent on the issue
of climate change. e only exception is the National For-
est Management Act (NFMA), which was amended in
1990 to require the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to account
for the eects of climate change when assessing the status
of resources under its jurisdiction and developing recom-
mendations for their management.3
While the natural resource management statutes do not
contain explicit guidelines on climate change, it is none-
theless clear that federal agencies should be accounting
for climate change in planning and environmental review
documents. is is because many of the management
directives contained therein, particularly those pertaining
to the sustainable use of resources, cannot be fullled with-
out consideration of how climate change wil l aect those
resources. Most of these statutes also provide ample leeway
for agencies to respond to the eects of climate change in
management decisions. Further, the National Environmen-
tal Policy Act (NEPA)4 provides an independent basis for
requiring an evaluation of climate change impacts, insofar
as it requires agencies to consider the current and future
3. 16 U.S.C. §§1601(a)(5), 1602(5)(F).
4. 42 U.S.C. §§4321-4370h; ELR S. NEPA §§2-209.
state of the environment when assessing the environmental
consequences of natural resource management actions.
e Obama Administration also issued a number of
Executive Orders calling on federal agencies to eva luate
how climate change will aect their mission and operations
and to develop adaptation plans.5 ese orders further sup-
port t he nding that federa l a gencies should account for
climate change impacts in planning documents and devel-
oping appropriate adaptation strategies. However, these
orders may be rescinded or replaced by the Donald Trump
Administration, and this Article will therefore focus on
statutory and regulatory requirements for adaptation plan-
ning, as these are less likely to change in the near future.
A. Management Directives Require Consideration
of How Climate Change Will Affect Natural
Almost all the federal statutes that govern the administra-
tion of public lands and natural resources contain man-
dates related to the sustainable use and/or conservation
of these resources. For example, the USFS, the Bureau of
Land Management (BLM), and the National Marine Fish-
eries Service (NMFS) must manage resources under their
jurisdiction in accordance with the principle of sustained
yield—the idea being that forests, rangelands, sheries,
and other resources should be used in a manner that will
not impair their use and enjoyment by future generations.6
Similarly, the conservation of certa in natural resources is
the primary mandate of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
(FWS) and the National Park Service (NPS).7
Federal statutes also require natural resource manage-
ment agencies to undertake a comprehensive planning pro-
cess in order to ensure that they comply with substantive
mandates pertaining to sustainable resource development.
e planning processes typically involve the development
and periodic revision of resource assessments and manage-
ment plans for specic units of land or marine a reas.8 e
resource assessments must include an evaluation of the
5. Exec. Order No. 13514 (2009) (Federal Leadership in Environmental,
Energy & Economic Performance) (revoked and replaced by Exec. Order
No. 13693); Exec. Order No. 13547 (2010) (Stewardship of the Ocean,
Our Costs, and the Great Lakes); Exec. Order No. 13653 (2013) (Preparing
the United States for the Impacts of Climate Change); Exec. Order No.
13690 (2015) (Establishing a Federal Flood Risk Management Standard
and a Process for Further Soliciting and Considering Stakeholder Input);
Exec. Order No. 13693 (2015) (Planning for Federal Sustainability in the
Next Decade).
8. , 16 U.S.C. §§1600-1605; 43 U.S.C. §§1711-1712 (BLM planning
requirements); 54 U.S.C. §§100502-100503, 100704, 100706 (NPS
planning requirements); 16 U.S.C. §668dd (National Wildlife Refuge
System planning requirements); 16 U.S.C. §§1851-1855, 1881-1884
(National Fishery planning requirements).
Copyright © 2017 Environmental Law Institute®, Washington, DC. Reprinted with permission from ELR®,, 1-800-433-5120.

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