As the former CEO of Recreational Equipment, Inc. (REI), Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell would seem like the last person to take actions that will likely lead to restrictions on recreation on public lands, but she has done just that. By imposing a moratorium on new coal leasing, she has set in motion a regulatory and legal cascade that will not stop with coal, and will likely lead to restrictions on natural gas and oil leasing—even recreation. The problem is Secretary Jewell’s logic for imposing the coal-leasing moratorium. She imposed the moratorium to make sure the leasing program “takes into account [coal’s] impacts on climate change.” This justification applies to coal, but also to natural gas and oil production, and even to recreation on public lands. All of them are related to the generation of carbon dioxide.

The Coal Moratorium

President Obama telegraphed his plan to impose the coal lease moratorium during January’s State of the Union Address. He stated, “that’s why I’m going to push to change the way we manage our oil and coal resources, so that they better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet.” Two days later, Secretary Jewell announced a moratorium on new coal leasing “to ensure the federal coal program delivers a fair return to American taxpayers and takes into account its impacts on climate change.”

It is obvious from the timing of Sec. Jewell’s actions, just after the State of the Union, that the key reason for the moratorium is the climate considerations of using coal. But once the Secretary starts halting activities on federal lands because of climate change considerations, where does that end?

Restrictions on Natural Gas and Oil Leasing are Next for the Administration

In President Obama’s State of the Union address, he specifically said he would “push to change the way we manage our oil and coal resources” [emphasis added]. This puts natural gas and oil next in the administration’s crosshairs. Like coal, the administration has not “take[n] into account [natural gas and oil’s] impacts on climate change.” Natural gas and oil, like coal, emit carbon dioxide when they are used. The administration’s case to impose a moratorium is the same.

The administration may claim that they do not want to impose a moratorium on natural gas and oil production, but environmental groups will likely petition and pressure the administration to do so, arguing that because they took steps to halt new coal leasing because of climate change impacts, they should do the same for natural gas and oil leasing.

These petitions, however, will not be needed if Hillary Clinton is elected President. She has already announced ending natural gas, oil, and coal production on federal lands is “a done deal.” And Senator Bernie Sanders has sponsored a bill to “keep it in the ground” when it comes to oil, gas and coal on federal lands.

Coming Restrictions on Recreation on Public Lands

While a moratorium on natural gas and oil production on federal lands is the obvious next step, what is less obvious is that recreation on public lands will also be targeted because of the carbon dioxide emissions associated with recreation. Almost all recreation on public lands is associated with some carbon dioxide emissions—people fly or drive to National Parks, and other public lands and some National Recreation Areas include a substantial amount of boating recreation.

For example, the National Park Service recently released their visitation numbers for 2015. Park visitation surpassed 307 million during 2015 and nearly all visitations involved carbon dioxide emissions. Here are the top ten units of the National Park System by visitation:

All Parks of the National Park System

  1. Blue Ridge Parkway – 15,054,603
  2. Golden Gate National Recreation Area – 14,888,537
  3. Great Smoky Mountains National Park – 10,712,674
  4. Lincoln Memorial – 7,941,771
  5. Lake Mead National Recreation Area – 7,298,465
  6. George Washington Memorial Parkway – 7,286,463
  7. Gateway National Recreation Area – 6,392,565
  8. Natchez Trace Parkway – 5,785,812
  9. Vietnam Veterans Memorial – 5,597,077
  10. Grand Canyon National Park – 5,520,736

The administration and their environmental activist allies have to be concerned about the climate change impacts of these visits. For example, the vast majority of visits to the Blue Ridge Parkway involve some carbon dioxide emissions. It is obvious that not all visits produce carbon dioxide emissions, since some people will walk or bike along the Parkway. But even biking or walking can necessitate carbon dioxide emissions. For example, the last time I rode my bike on the Blue Ridge Parkway, it was after I drove 130 miles from Northern Virginia. And there is no walking on the Baltimore Washington Parkway, which is a 29 mile highway linking Baltimore with Washington, D.C.

There is a similar story to tell of carbon dioxide emissions induced by visits to the National Parks. Here are the top ten National Parks by visitation in 2015:

National Parks

  1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park – 10,712,674
  2. Grand Canyon National Park – 5,520,736
  3. Rocky Mountain National Park – 4,155,916
  4. Yosemite National Park – 4,150,217
  5. Yellowstone National Park – 4,097,710
  6. Zion National Park – 3,648,846
  7. Olympic National Park – 3,263,761
  8. Grand Teton National Park – 3,149,921
  9. Acadia National Park – 2,811,184
  10. Glacier National Park – 2,366,056

Great Smoky National Park, Olympic National Park, and Yosemite are the closest parks to large cities, but otherwise these parks are far from cities. As a result, people travel long distances and use a lot of gasoline to reach these parks. Not only that, but the natural wonders in these parks attract visitors from all over the world. For example, the National Park Service reports that for Yosemite during the summer, “25% of visitors were international visitors. Of those, 14% were from the United Kingdom, 13% from Germany, and small proportions from 31 other countries.” International aviation is a large emitter of carbon dioxide.

Even those who use federal lands for backcountry recreation such as backpacking or cross-country skiing almost always drive an SUV, truck, or car to the wilderness boundary and then start hiking or skiing from there.

Dickinson Park Trailhead

Dickinson Park Trailhead, Popo Agie Wilderness, Wyoming

For those concerned about carbon dioxide emissions associated with federal lands, downhill skiing and snowboarding are also problematic. In the Western United States, almost all of the ski resorts are at least partially on federal lands as well as ski resorts in Michigan, New Hampshire, and Vermont. All told, 122 ski and snowboard areas are on federal lands.

Ski resorts induce large amounts of carbon dioxide emissions; not only from skiers and snowboarders driving their cars and trucks to the resorts, but also from the ski lifts, which require a lot of energy to operate, and, in some areas, the making of artificial snow, which uses a lot of energy pumping the water up the slopes to where it is needed. In making artificial snow, huge air compressors combine with large fans and lots of water to make snow—requiring a lot of energy. In fact, energy costs are typically the second highest expense for ski resorts, after labor.

Some activists are pushing the snow sports community to support the coal moratorium, but this would be the equivalent of cutting off your nose to spite your face. According to President Obama and Secretary Jewell, coal is being targeted because of carbon dioxide emissions. In reducing carbon dioxide emissions, there is no reason to stop at carbon dioxide emissions from the use of coal, natural gas, and oil. If President Obama and Secretary Jewell are not concerned about the fact that people are going to lose their livelihoods as a result of stopping coal leasing, they certainly shouldn’t have any problem disrupting leisure activities by those who have the money to travel far distances just for fun.

But Recreation Emits Less Dioxide Emissions Than Coal…

Some may argue that the carbon dioxide emissions from recreation on public lands is very small compared to carbon dioxide emissions from coal. But this argument ignores two important factors—there is no lower limit to the carbon dioxide targeted by the administrations’ policies, and the United States cannot meet the Obama administration’s international climate obligations with current regulations.

The administration believes that any carbon dioxide emission reduction is good, no matter how small the climate impact is. Recently Administrator Gina McCarthy was asked about the climate impacts of Canadian oil sands. She remarked:

We don’t have to prove that any reduction will actually make a precipitous difference in and of itself, but we have to admit that there is a lot of efforts need to be done to get at this issue, and it is that combined effort. But, every step, the first step–this is a marathon, and if you don’t take the first step, you ain’t getting nowhere baby.

The administration’s policies bear out the fact that the administration will impose regulations with little to no regard to the actual climate benefits of the policy. For example, the regulation of carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, (ie. the Clean Power Plan) only reduces temperature by 0.01 C by 2100. Even then, in the proposed regulation, the administration did not even calculate the climate change impact of the regulations.

Given the actual policies implemented by the administration and McCarthy’s comments, for the Obama administration, what matters is that carbon dioxide emissions are reduced. The actual amount reduced or the impact on climate are of little concern.

In the run up to Paris, the Obama administration pledged to other countries that it would reduce carbon dioxide emissions. This pledge, in the parlance of global climate negotiations, is called an Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC).

While the Obama administration announced that it would achieve certain reductions in their INDC, the regulations the administration have announced will only result in 55 percent of the total reduction they claim the United States will achieve under the INDC. In words, there is no announced plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by the other 45 percent called for in the administration’s INDC. If the next administration wants to follow the Obama administration’s plans, they will need to find additional carbon dioxide emission reductions. Restricting recreation on federal lands is one way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and no reduction is too small—given the Obama administration’s logic.

Lastly, we are in the final year of the Obama administration, and it may be too late to implement restrictions on recreation on public lands due to carbon dioxide emissions. However, Hillary Clinton has signaled that she will follow and build on the Obama administration’s climate policies.


By imposing a moratorium on new coal leases because of carbon dioxide emissions, the Obama administration has set in motion a plan that will logically lead to restrictions on recreation on public lands. Recreation on public lands involves large amounts of carbon dioxide emissions. People fly and drive to visit these beautiful public lands. This flying and driving results in carbon dioxide emissions that only happen because of recreation on federal lands. People cannot get to these areas without consuming huge amounts of energy, which in turn results in more carbon dioxide. The Obama administration or a potential Clinton administration, if they follow the logic of the coal moratorium—and are honest—will likely impose restrictions on recreation in the name of climate change. If they are willing to impose regulations that cause people to lose their jobs in order to reduce carbon emissions and “save the planet,” surely they would be willing to cut back on people’s fun and recreation to reach their goal.

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