Dear EarthTalk: I understand that Congress passed legislation not too long ago that protected a few million acres of wilderness areas, parks and wild rivers, in part to help offset climate change. How does conserving land prevent global warming? -- M. Oakes, Charlottesville, NC
|According to The Wilderness Society,
American forests capture about one-
tenth of the greenhouse gases put out
by U.S. cars, factories and other
sources. Pictured: Rocky Mountain
National Park in Colorado.
Photo courtesy Thinkstock.
The legislation in question is called the Omnibus Public Land Management Act. It was passed by both houses of Congress and signed into law by President Obama in the spring of 2009. The Act protects some two million acres outright as wilderness in nine different states (California, Colorado, Idaho, Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Virginia and West Virginia) and requires the Bureau of Land Management to prioritize conservation on another 26 million acres of mostly Western lands. The bill also established three new national park units, a new national monument, three new national conservation areas, over 1,000 miles of national wild and scenic rivers, and four new national trails.
With provisions appealing to sportsmen and conservationists alike, the bill enjoyed broad support; drafters took into account requests from dozens of constituent groups in putting together the legislation. As such, it is one of the most significant expansions of U.S. wilderness protection in the past quarter century. “This legislation guarantees that we will not take our forests, rivers, oceans, national parks, monuments and wilderness areas for granted, but rather we will set them aside and guard their sanctity for everyone to share,” President Obama said upon signing the bill into law.
While the law doesn’t specifically address global warming in its language, environmentalists are overjoyed at the climate benefits that protecting so much land will bring. “Our forests store vast amounts of carbon in tree trunks, roots, leaves, dead wood and soils—a service that is becoming ever more essential as the threat of global climate change mounts due to the buildup of human-generated carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere,” reports the nonprofit Wilderness Society.
Plants and trees utilize ground-level carbon dioxide as building blocks in photosynthesis. The more flora we leave growing naturally on the ground, the more greenhouse gas we can store (or “sequester”) there and prevent from drifting on up to the atmosphere where it can contribute to global warming.
“Although investments in energy efficiency and clean energy will provide the only permanent solutions to climate change, forest sequestration can buy us time to develop those alternatives,” says the Wilderness Society, adding that American forests currently capture the equivalent of about one-tenth of the greenhouse gases put out by U.S. cars, factories and other sources. In addition, forests provide other key environmental benefits such as cleansing our air and water.
In the absence of binding legislation mandating stricter carbon emissions standards, the Omnibus Public Land Management Act, given the climate-related benefits of land conservation, may well be the most significant global warming bill Congress has passed to date. And environmentalists might have to take what they can get: With Republicans now in control of the House and gaining ground in the Senate, dedicated climate legislation may be even more elusive than analysts thought even a year ago.
CONTACTS: Bureau of Land Management, www.blm.gov; Wilderness Society, www.wilderness.org; Omnibus Public Land Management Act, http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bill.xpd?bill=h111-146.
Dear EarthTalk: What specific issues and protections are covered by the Food Safety Modernization Act recently signed into law? -- P. Palmerino, New York, NY
Some 48 million Americans are afflicted with
Existing laws and oversight from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have done a decent job of keeping the vast majority of Americans safe from food borne illnesses, but several recent cases of contamination have put the spotlight on what more we can do to protect ourselves from unwittingly consuming harmful bacteria, parasites, viruses and toxins that could be lurking on our dinner plates.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that, of the 48 million Americans afflicted with some sort of food borne illness every year, 128,000 are hospitalized and about 3,000 die. In response to this growing problem, in January 2011 Congress passed and President Obama signed into law the landmark Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), a comprehensive $1.4 billion bill that aims to stop outbreaks of food borne illnesses before they begin.
“This law makes everyone responsible and accountable at each step in today's global food supply chain,” reports FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg. “This law represents a sea change for food safety in America, bringing a new focus on prevention, and I expect that in the coming years it will have a dramatic and positive effect on the safety of the food supply.”
FDA inspectors have monitored domestic producers of seafood, juice, meat, eggs and poultry for decades, but the new law expands their powers to evaluate hazards in all kinds of food and to impose stricter standards on imported foods. Processors are now required to proactively take measures to prevent contamination, and must have plans in place for corrective action when something does go wrong. Smaller producers are exempt from some of the more onerous and costly provisions of the new law, but are nevertheless still responsible for maintaining the strict health safety standards set forth in its provisions. The new law also increases the number and frequency of inspections at both high-risk and non-high risk facilities. And the FDA can now order recalls of tainted foods; before FSMA’s enactment, the agency could only negotiate with businesses to order voluntary recalls.
Given that some 15 percent of our food supply—including 60 percent of fresh fruits and 80 percent of seafood—is imported, the new law also requires importers to verify the safety of food from their foreign suppliers and authorizes the FDA to block foods from facilities or countries that refuse inspections.
FSMA also provides funds for training, equipment and facilities at food safety agencies across federal, state, local, territorial, tribal and even foreign jurisdictions to ensure that all parties are up to snuff on the ways and means of preventing and containing food borne illnesses.
“Really this is a major victory for every American who will sit down at the dinner table and have more confidence that their food is going to be safe,” says Erik Olson of the Pew Health Group, one the most vocal of hundreds of nonprofits in favor of strengthening our nation’s food safety net.