Indiana University Research & Creative Activity


Volume 31 Number 1
Fall 2008

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Robert Fischman
Robert Fischman
Photo courtesy Indiana University


Adapting to Climate Change

by Steve Hinnefeld

Rising global temperatures are affecting sensitive ecosystems in the United States, but improved management strategies can make those areas more resilient. So says Robert L. Fischman, professor of law at the Indiana University School of Law–Bloomington, who co-authored the Preliminary Review of Adaptation Options for Climate-Sensitive Ecosystems and Resources, released this summer by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Fischman, a leading expert on laws governing the management of the national wildlife refuge system, says climate change is a serious threat to refuges, many of which are located in coastal areas vulnerable to rising sea levels and Arctic and near-Arctic regions. But for a variety of reasons, the refuge system could be a leader in adapting to climate change.

"I think climate change presents an urgency we haven’t felt before," Fischman says. "It’s a challenge, but it’s also an opportunity."

The window of opportunity is small, though. Even under the most optimistic scenarios, human-induced climate change will continue. "The longer we wait to adapt to climate change, the more options for adaptation will be foreclosed," says Fischman.

The EPA report suggests management goals for each protected area to develop strategies to increase the resilience of each ecosystem. Resilience refers to the ability of an ecosystem to absorb change or disturbance. In many cases, the report says, management practices used against other threats--such as pollution, habitat destruction, and development pressures--can also reduce the impact of climate change. Those practices include buffer zones near vulnerable habitat, corridors that connect sensitive areas, and cooperation with adjoining landowners.

Although national wildlife refuges may be the "often ignored middle child" in what Fischman calls "the conservation estate"  of national forests, parks, and rivers protected by the federal government, they have advantages when it comes to adapting to climate change.

Because many refuges were established to protect migrating birds, they are likely to be managed as part of dynamic systems, not as isolated properties. Their managers have experience with strategies such as focusing on sensitive corridors, developing partnerships with property owners, and using interventions (for example, impounding lakes and contracting with farmers to grow certain crops) to create ecosystems and protect species. Refuges also often occupy property that has been damaged by excessive logging, farming or grazing, or military use. In that way, they are less pristine than often magnificent national parks and can better serve as a model for effective adaptation strategies.

The 1997 National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act--with its mandate to administer a "national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management, and where appropriate, restoration of fish, wildlife, and plant resources and their habitats"--provides a flexible legal framework for strategies to adapt to climate change, Fischman says. "A network is the right metaphor for the kind of management of the conservation estate that we need to move toward."


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