Not content with having the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) crack down on coal-fired power plants, or with U.S. negotiators helping to pave the way for a UN global climate-change deal later this year in Paris, alarmists – in and out of government – are increasingly turning to land-use restrictions to further their agenda.

prairiesIt no longer suffices just to curb greenhouse-gas emissions, now rebranded as “carbon pollution.”  The focus has broadened to include climate change’s alleged impacts on farmland, ranchland, prairies, forests, mountains, deserts, oceans, rivers, streams, marshes, and every other geographical and geological feature on earth.  From the standpoint of activists, bureaucrats, politicians, subsidy-seeking purveyors of “alternative energy,” and others ringing the global-warming alarm bells, this approach has a certain logic: The coming crisis is potentially so catastrophic, they assure us, that it justifies imposing the most far-reaching controls to protect land and water from climate-related harm.

The fossil fuel, manufacturing, and transportation  industries, long accustomed to being labeled the bogymen on climate, are getting company.  Now, fruit growers, farmers, ranchers, fishermen (recreational and professional), miners, loggers, and just about anyone else who owns land or makes a living from land or water is in the crosshairs of climate regulators.  The overlap between what, at first glance, may appear to be two separate spheres in the environmental debate – climate change and land use – can be seen in a on several fronts.

Endangered Species Act (ESA)

Long the bane of rural landowners, especially in the West, the 42-year-old Endangered Species Act (ESA) is a growing presence in Washington’s climate change initiatives.  Increasingly, threats to the habitat of threatened or endangered species are being linked to an often Ill-defined change in climate.

Facing a September 30 court-ordered dead to decide whether to list the greater sage grouse as greatersagegrouseendangered, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) in late May unveiled a comprehensive plan to conserve the chicken-like bird’s habitat.  The plan covers 165 million acres (an area the size of Texas) in 11 Western states.  No less than 64% of that land is owned by the federal government, 31% is in private hands, and 5% is state land.  These lands contain valuable natural resources, including oil and natural gas.   The Obama Administration’s plan, which some hope might avoid the greater sage grouse being listed as endangered under the ESA, calls for substantial restriction on farming, ranching, mining, and oil and gas extraction.

Along with predation, invasive species, and human encroachment on the bird’s habitat, the FWS cites climate change, which, it says, “may amplify cheatgrass impact and affect sagebrush persistence and distribution.” (Cheatgrass is a noxious weed that can invade grasslands and displace native plants.)

batLike the greater sage grouse, the northern long-eared bat has seen its numbers diminish substantially in recent decades.  In early April, the FWS listed the bat as “threatened” under the ESA. The culprit is a fungus known as white-nose syndrome, which has spread rapidly throughout the bat’s 37-state habitat.  Part of the bat’s habitat includes the energy-rich Marcellus Shale region, which has turned Pennsylvania and West Virginia into major natural gas producers.  The FWS has granted the timber industry a limited exemption from the incidental killing of bats as long as logging is done a quarter-mile from roosting and hibernating.  No such exemption has been granted to the oil and gas industry.  While acknowledging the decisive role of white-nose syndrome in killing the bats, FWS also points the finger at contaminants, wind energy development, and, of course, climate change.

Meanwhile, the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) has announced it will sue the FWS, demanding that the bat be listed as “endangered” rather than “threatened.”  If the CBD’s suit is successful, it will result in far more onerous land-use restrictions that will certainly include scaling back oil and gas exploration as well as other commercial activities.

In addition to the designated habitat of a species listed under the ESA, the FWS typically creates “buffer zones” around the areas set aside to protect plant or animal in question.  The land-use restriction in buffer zones are often as strict as those imposed in habitats, meaning that even more land is off-limits to commercial development..

New federal floodplain standards

On January 30, 2015, the Obama Administration quietly issued an Executive Order, EO13690, pondsetting completely new federal standards for what constitutes a floodplain. The plan will greatly expand federal power over floodplains and other low-lying areas, including land-use restrictions, and will even give Washington a say in writing local building codes.

In determining what constitutes a “future flood risk,” the White House assured the nation that such decisions would be closely tied to, in Obama’s words, “a national policy on resilience and risk reduction consistent with my Climate Action Plan.”  In other words, the administration’s policies to “combat climate change” will serve to justify a new bundle of regulations and standards imposed on communities throughout the country in the name of protecting them from flooding.

Environmental justice

Begun in 1994 without congressional authorization, the EPA’s Environmental Justice (EJ) program provides funding through grants to organizations active in predominantly minority populations. Under the guise of addressing the special needs of minority communities, the EPA awards grants and disseminates information in line with the agency’s regulatory agenda.  On June 10, 2015, the EPA released EJSCREEN, which it described as “an environmental justice screening and mapping tool that uses high-resolution maps combined with demographic and environmental data to identify areas with potentially elevated environmental burdens and vulnerable populations.”  The agency added that “ESCREEN’s simple to understand color-coded maps, bar charts, and reports enable users to areas in need of increased environmental protection, health care access, housing, infrastructure improvement, community revitalization, and climate resilience.”

By inserting “climate resilience” into its latest EJ initiative, EPA can promote its own regulatory agenda by taking its climate message, and taxpayer money, to carefully selected ideological allies.

Conservation easements

bonetaIt’s not just Washington that is flexing its muscles.  Another form of land-use restrictions is carried out by land trusts that enforce conservation easements.  Landowners with conservation easements surrender a specified bundle of their property rights in exchange for a tax break.  Conservation easements limit, and in many cases, prohibit development on the acreage they cover.  However, it is not uncommon for landowners to discover, often to their dismay, that the land trust also enforces a “buffer” around the easement.  What’s more, conservation easements are in perpetuity; once they go into effect, they stay in effect – forever.

Our tendency to view things is isolation can lead us astray.  There is a nexus between policies ostensibly developed to protect species or to safeguard minority communities and measures adopted to restrict Americans’ access to energy and other natural resources. Recognizing this nexus, and connecting the dots, will go a long way toward understanding what the Green movement is all about: the exercise of power by a small elite over the rest of us.


  • Bonner Cohen, Ph. D.

    Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D., is a senior policy analyst with CFACT, where he focuses on natural resources, energy, property rights, and geopolitical developments. Articles by Dr. Cohen have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Investor’s Busines Daily, The New York Post, The Washington Examiner, The Washington Times, The Hill, The Epoch Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Miami Herald, and dozens of other newspapers around the country. He has been interviewed on Fox News, Fox Business Network, CNN, NBC News, NPR, BBC, BBC Worldwide Television, N24 (German-language news network), and scores of radio stations in the U.S. and Canada. He has testified before the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, and the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee. Dr. Cohen has addressed conferences in the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, and Bangladesh. He has a B.A. from the University of Georgia and a Ph. D. – summa cum laude – from the University of Munich.