Climate change adaptation in Olympic National Forest and Olympic National Park

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Fast facts
Project Status 
Project Dates :  

External Source

Halofsky, Jessica E.; Peterson, David L.; O'Halloran, Kathy A.; Hawkins Hoffman, Catherine, eds. 2011. Adapting to climate change at Olympic National Forest and Olympic National Park. Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW-GTR-844. Portland, OR: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station. 130 p.

Project Summary

Here, we elaborate a multi-agency effort to determine how to adapt management of federal lands on the Olympic Peninsula, Washington, to climate change. Efforts on the Olympic Peninsula began in the summer of 2008 and included Olympic National Forest (ONF), Olympic National Park (ONP), scientists from the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station, Region 6 of the Forest Service, the University of Washington, and the U.S. Geological Survey.

The project process involved science-based sensitivity assessments, review of management activities and constraints, and adaptation workshops in each of four focus areas (hydrology and roads, fish, vegetation, and wildlife). The process produced adaptation options for ONF and ONP, and illustrated the utility of place-based vulnerability assessment and science-management workshops in adapting to climate change.

Geographic area of project

Pacific Northwest Region (R6)
Olympic National Forest

Scale of Project

National Forest and National Park


Olympic National Forest
Olympic National Park
University of Washington
USFS Pacific Northwest Research Station
USFS Region 6
US Geological Survey
Jessica Halofsky, Kristen Schmitt

Project background and scope

The Olympic Climate Change Case Study was initially developed as an effort of the WestWide Climate Initiative (WWCI), an initiative created by U.S. Forest Service scientists to address the need to share climate change information, and work with land managers to develop adaptation options. Scientists who founded the WWCI received funding from the U.S. Forest Service Research and Development Office to conduct a series of climate change adaptation case studies on western National Forests.  The Olympic National Forest was chosen as a case study forest because of a previous manager-initiated effort to increase communication between scientists and managers on climate change.  Parallel case studies took place on the Inyo National Forest [pdf] and the Shoshone National Forest.

Results from all of these case studies were later distilled into a guidebook for developing adaptation options.

Project Process and Implementation

First, University of Washington (UW), Pacific Northwest Research Station (PNW) and Region 6 (R6) scientists conducted a vulnerability assessment to facilitate the development of adaptation strategies and actions for ONF and ONP. The first step in assessing vulnerability involved a review of available climate model projections to determine likely levels of exposure to climate change (degree of deviation in temperature and precipitation) on the Olympic Peninsula. Next, researchers reviewed these projections along with relevant literature to identify likely climate change sensitivities in each of four focus areas on the Olympic Peninsula, including:

  1. hydrology and roads
  2. fish
  3. vegetation
  4. wildlife

UW, PNW and R6 researchers then worked with regional and local scientists and specialists to interpret the available information and apply it more directly to Olympic Peninsula ecosystems in each focus area. Finally, collaborators reviewed current management activities at ONF and ONP and identified management constraints within each focus area. This served to evaluate some aspects of institutional capacity to implement adaptive actions.

The vulnerability assessment process set the stage for development of adaptation options at the forest and park through science-management workshops in each focus area. The workshop format gave managers an open forum to brainstorm, express initial thoughts and ideas, and vet those ideas among peers. Direct engagement of scientists and managers in the workshop format fostered development of science-based adaptation strategies. During workshop discussions, managers identified general priority actions for adaptation, as well as priorities for species protection, habitat protection, and monitoring.

  • Alpine and subalpine meadows were identified as being particularly vulnerable to climate change on the Olympic Peninsula. Credit: NPS

  • This project was developed to address climate change adaptation on federal lands under different agency ownerships. The map shows their location on the Olympic Peninsula. Taken from Halofsky et al., 2011.

  • Warming temperatures could reduce snowpack and alter forage species composition in the alpine and subalpine areas inhabited by the Olympic marmot. Credit: NPS, Olympic National Park.

Project Outcomes

The following are brief summaries of some of the identified climate vulnerabilities and adaptation options in the four major focus areas examined in this case study. Please see Adapting to Climate Change at Olympic National Forest and Olympic National Park for a full description.

Hydrology and Roads:

Climate changes on the Olympic Peninsula are projected to result in many hydrologic changes, such as more precipitation falling as rain rather than snow, decreased snowpack, earlier snowmelt, increased winter precipitation and runoff, increased storm intensity, increased winter and spring streamflows, reduced summer streamflows, increased flood frequency and magnitude, and elevation shifts in transition (rain on snow) zones. This will affect many physical processes that relate to forest road networks and maintenance, including wasting and debris flows, sediment delivery to streams, and floodplain inundation, among others.

Adaptation options 
Fortunately, road management actions currently taking place on ONF and ONP have focused on increasing the resilience of infrastructure and reducing potential risk to aquatic resources. Many of these activities make sense to continue in light of projected hydrologic changes. Adaptation strategies outlined in the roads workshop range from the physical to the institutional, and include actions such as: evaluating road placement, road design and relocation options; updating culvert guidelines; managing for the risk of road failures; and increasing the flexibility of forest road management policies.


The hydrological impacts discussed above will also have important implications for fish species, particularly salmonids in the region (Salmon, Steelhead, and Bull Trout).  In addition to the volume and timing of streamflow, warmer water temperatures are an important consideration. Vulnerabilities vary by species, but can include stress from increased water temperatures during critical life stages such as spawning, freshwater rearing stages, and seaward migration. Flooding events and peak flows could affect egg survival and disrupt migration timing. Positive effects in some streams, through increased productivity and growth rates, are also possible.

Adaptation options 
Options identified are varied, and include strategic monitoring to look for indications of change or invasion; protecting cold water refugia; continuing to restore habitat especially in areas expected to retain adequate summer flow; improving road crossings and culvert sizing; and limiting mortality through recreational fishing.


Increased temperatures and corresponding increases in summer drought stress and fire frequency in the Pacific Northwest will lead to changing vegetation distribution in the region, resulting in forest types different from those seen today. Changes in plant phenology, increased drought stress, and changing disturbance regimes (storm intensity, insect pests) could lead to changes in plant regeneration patterns. ONF and ONP identified alpine and subalpine meadows, wetlands, and Sitka spruce rain forests as being particularly vulnerable to warming climate.

Adaptation options
Collaborators agreed that the primary goal is to continue to maintain functioning ecosystems under future climates. An overarching adaptation strategy would therefore focus on minimizing mass die-off and the effects of major disturbances, while encouraging the maintenance and restoration of structures and processes that are viable over the long term. Actions to achieve this may include thinning to reduce drought stress; maximizing early successional tree species diversity; conserving genetic resources (tree seeds); early detection of exotic species;  and consideration of planting native drought-tolerant species after thinning.


Wildlife species on the Olympic Peninsula are expected to respond to both direct and indirect effects of climate change, for example temperature changes that affect physiology (direct) and changes in the phenology and/or distribution of habitat, forage or prey (indirect). These effects are expected to act in combination with other stressors such as habitat loss and fragmentation to affect wildlife. Endemic species, specialists with strict habitat or diet requirements, and high-elevation species may be particularly at risk.

Adaptation options
A landscape scale strategy will be particularly important in addressing vulnerable wildlife species. Adaptation responses at this scale can include promoting forests with desired late-successional habitat characteristics, especially near existing late successional forests, to increase landscape connectivity (e.g. through restoration thinning in young-growth forest). At smaller scales (e.g. forest stands), wildlife habitat quality can be improved through actions like creating and protecting legacy structures with high habitat value (snags, downed wood), and protecting and restoring headwater streams.

Please see the complete document for additional information and references.

Project challenges and lessons learned

Collaboration between land and resource management agencies in response to climate change is critical. The Olympic Climate Change Case Study is an unprecedented example of U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service jointly planning for climate change adaptation. The case study process produced specific and tangible ways for ONF and ONP to incorporate climate change adaptation strategies into management. A key finding of the assessment was that the current general management at both ONF and ONP, with restoration as a primary goal, is consistent with managing for resilience to prepare ecosystems for a changing climate. However, the effort highlighted some potential issues related to climate change that challenge current precepts and management guidelines and helped to identify new potential actions and priorities.

For more information, see the Synthesis and Conclusions chapter (chapter 8) of the Adapting to Climate Change at Olympic National Forest and Olympic National Park.

Learning Objectives

  • See an example of how federal land management units can collaborate in the initial stages of climate change adaptation.
  • Understand one process used to gather expert input on climate change adaptation (workshops with experts in four focus areas).
  • See examples of suggested climate adaptation strategies in response to projected regional impacts.
  • Understand how current management practices may align with suggested adaptation strategies under climate change, and where there are opportunities to re-examine or reprioritize current actions.
Photos and Video

  • Alpine and subalpine meadows were identified as being particularly vulnerable to climate change on the Olympic Peninsula. Credit: NPS

  • This project was developed to address climate change adaptation on federal lands under different agency ownerships. The map shows their location on the Olympic Peninsula. Taken from Halofsky et al., 2011.

  • Warming temperatures could reduce snowpack and alter forage species composition in the alpine and subalpine areas inhabited by the Olympic marmot. Credit: NPS, Olympic National Park.

Additional Resources