Climate change tough on Colorado Plateau

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado
Scott Condon The Aspen Times

Conservationists are lobbying the Bureau of Land Management to overhaul its policies in the Colorado Plateau after the agency’s own study indicated big alterations are coming over the next 50 years because of climate change.

The vast Colorado Plateau is home of the spectacular canyon country and soaring mountain ranges of western Colorado and much of Utah. It covers 32,387 square miles, much of it public land managed by the BLM. It stretches from Grand Junction on the east to St. George, Utah, on the west and from Arizona to Wyoming. Moab, Utah, the popular offseason playground for hikers, bikers and Jeepers from Aspen and throughout the Colorado mountains, is in the heart of the plateau.

The BLM recently completed a rapid ecoregional assessment that examines current conditions and analyzes how the landscape could be altered by climate change and other “change agents” such as wildfire, invasive species and road development.

“This report describes fundamental changes in how the Colorado Plateau will look and how it functions,” said Heidi McIntosh, managing attorney for Earthjustice Denver.

One finding of the report is that the average annual temperature of the plateau could increase 1 degree Celsius in the short term and around 2 degrees by 2060. The biggest warming could occur during winters.

The report said predicting future precipitation amounts is more difficult, but the trend is for a drier climate in the short term and a radical mix of periods of much drier and much wetter weather by 2060. The variation is due to the extreme terrain – low canyons will be drier; mountain ranges will be wetter during summers.

Hotter, drier weather overall could decimate the hallmark vegetation that already struggles to survive on the plateau, McIntosh said. The pinyon and juniper trees that dominate many parts of the plateau could fall victim to climate differences. The biological crusts, commonly called “crypto soils,” that stabilize soils and help native vegetation get a toehold could struggle to thrive, leading to greater amounts of airborne dust and erosion, according to McIntosh.

Colorado’s mountains have paid the price for sandstorms in recent winters. Large amounts of sand blew in during late winters, and the dust was deposited on the snowpack surrounding Aspen and elsewhere. The dust absorbs sunlight and warms quicker than the snow, leading to faster melting of the snowpack. Those storms could become more frequent.

McIntosh said the study also describes a scenario where the rare perennial streams that are the lifeblood of the desert could be affected by less precipitation, resulting in lower streamflows. Those streams are critical to sustaining wildlife, from deer to beavers. Animals would either be forced to move in search of more hospitable conditions or perish.

Earthjustice and The Wilderness Society contend that various scientific studies show the Colorado Plateau will bear the brunt of climate change more than other parts of the country.

The extensive study is on the BLM website at

Earthjustice is teaming with The Wilderness Society to try to get the BLM to use the study to alter its management practices to address the threat of climate change. Different management practices won’t prevent the changes, but they can lessen their effect, McIntosh said.

“Change is inevitable,” she said.

McIntosh likened the situation to a man finding out he has heart disease. A wise man would make lifestyle adjustments, such as exercise and healthier eating, to prolong his life. The BLM needs to manage public lands in ways that ease the effects of climate change, she said.

“What the BLM should be doing is erring on the side of conservation and caution,” McIntosh said.

For example, Earthjustice and The Wilderness Society are trying to get the BLM to keep large, roadless areas intact. That means making those areas off limits to oil and gas development because of the roads they require, McIntosh said. They also want greater restrictions on off-road vehicles to minimize soil disturbance that leads to erosion and dust.

The BLM also needs to base management on preserving water sources so that wildlife can survive, she said.

The two environmental groups are engaged in talks with top BLM and Department of the Interior officials to try to alter the management practices.


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