Climate Change in Natural Resource Assessments

M. Janowiak

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Linda Joyce, Rocky Mountain Research Station, US Forest Service, Fort Collins, CO, and Maria Janowiak, Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science, US Forest Service, Houghton, MI.


Natural resource assessments synthesize scientific literature on the current condition of species, ecosystems, or other natural resources of interest, with the objective of providing timely, relevant, and accessible information for decision makers and policy makers. In addition to peer-reviewed literature, these assessments may draw information from other documents, resource manager experience and expertise, local community and stakeholder input, and traditional ecological knowledge of indigenous peoples. The focus can be on a diverse set of ecosystems or a single ecosystem or species. The condition of the resource may be evaluated in light of its management, or in its ability to provide wood, subsistence needs, or other ecosystem services. Spatial scales of analysis can vary from the global, country (e.g., 1), state (e.g., 2, 3), and local (individual planning unit within federal or state agency) scales. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment was conducted as a multi-scale assessment, linking assessments at local, watershed, national, regional and global scales (4).

Natural resource assessments often focus on the synthesis of scientific information and may also include extensive quantitative analysis. These assessments generally explore the effects of current stressors, such as invasive species, air quality or land use change. For example, the National Park Service natural resource condition assessments use existing data and may collect new site-specific data to provide a mix of new insights and useful scientific documentation about current resource conditions and some of the factors influencing those conditions (i.e., threats and stressors; 5). Additionally, some natural resource assessments (including the Resource Planning Act Assessment described below) also evaluate potential future resource conditions as affected by future changes such as land use and economic demands.

Natural resource managers address climate change as a stressor in their ongoing and periodic natural resource assessments. In some cases, legislation directs agencies to include climate change as a consideration. For example, in 1990, the Food Protection Act amended the Renewable Resources Planning Act (RPA) of 1974 to require USDA to assess the impact of climate change on the condition of renewable resources on all U.S. public and private forest and rangelands as part of the RPA Assessment (6). This Assessment periodically reports the status and trends of the renewable resources, including fish, wildlife, water, forests, range, wilderness, as well as the ability of those resources to provide outdoor recreation opportunities. Another example motivating federal agencies is the Executive Order (E.O.) 13514 Federal Leadership in Environmental, Energy, and Economic Performance (7), signed in 2009, which expands the federal government's energy reduction and environmental performance requirements beyond that of E.O. 13423. Specifically, each Federal agency is required to evaluate agency climate change risks and vulnerabilities to manage both the short- and long-term effects of climate change on the agency's mission and operations. In 2011, the Council on Environmental Quality issued instructions to be used by Federal agencies in climate change adaptation planning (8) and these may influence how climate change is incorporated into natural resource assessments and plans.

Climate Change Integration in Natural Resources Assessments

There are varied approaches to incorporating climate change into periodic assessments and planning processes, and these continue to change over time (3, 9, 10). In some cases, a particular assessment product may be revised and additional material added as an appendix to start the process of incorporating climate change considerations. In other examples, an expanded analysis framework is developed for the periodic assessment (see RPA below), or new analysis approaches are developed (see Rapid Ecological Assessments below). Additionally, natural resource managers have initiated separate studies, outside of the periodic assessment process, on a geographic area or species to identify key vulnerabilities as well as potential management options for addressing climate change; these include climate change impact assessments and vulnerability assessments.

For some federal agencies, guidance is being developed to identify the approaches to incorporating climate change into natural resource management. Examples include the National Park Service, Forest Service, and Bureau of Land Management.

State Wildlife Action Plans varied greatly in their initial approaches (9) and several states have revised their initial plans to further incorporate climate change (3). For example, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries identified climate change adaptation strategies through a process that involved a series of workshops and partnering with the National Wildlife Federation and the Virginia Conservation Network.

All states have completed a State Forest Assessment and Resource Strategy in response to an amendment to the Cooperative Forestry Assistance Act, as enacted in the 2008 Farm Bill. While the states had much flexibility in approach, all assessments were to provide an analysis of forest conditions and trends, and delineate priority rural and urban forest landscape areas and issues. Threats to forests, such as climate change, were identified (2). The process for these assessments was synthetic and collaborative with partners.

The Rapid Ecological Assessments (REAs) developed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) synthesize the current information about natural resource conditions and trends within an ecoregion. BLM will use this information to inform local level environmental analyses and management planning. Climate change is one of the four key environmental "change agents," that will be quantitatively analyzed using a variety of approaches. The U.S. Geological Survey provided the climate scenario data. The REAs gauge the potential risks from these change agents which also include wildfire, invasive species, and development.

At the national level, the approach taken to include climate change into the 2010 RPA Assessment involves using scenarios to characterize the common demographic, socio-economic and technological driving forces underlying changes to natural resource conditions. Three scenarios were chosen that are linked to globally consistent and well-documented scenarios used in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fourth Assessment (11). The IPCC global data were scaled to the U.S. national level and subnational levels. The resources analyses for water, wildlife, forest condition, range condition, and recreation will use this climate and socio-economic scenario data as input to evaluate the sensitivity of resource trends to a feasible future range of these driving forces.


  1. The Heinz Center. 2008. The State of the Nation's Ecosystems 2008. Island Press.
  2. National Association of State Foresters (NASF). 2010. Statewide Forest Resource Assessments and Strategies.
  3. Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies (AFWA). 2009. Voluntary Guidance for States to Incorporate Climate Change into State Wildlife Action Plans and Other Management Plans [pdf]. Washington, DC: Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.
  4. [MEA] Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005. Ecosystems and Human Well-Being. Summary for Decision Makers, Washington: Island Press.
  5. National Park Service (NPS). 2011. NRCA Project Guidance and Reference Materials.
  6. Joyce, LA, Birdsey R, tech. eds. 2000. The Impact of Climate Change on America's Forests. RMRS-GTR-59. Fort Collins, CO: USDA Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station. 133 pages.
  7. Federal Energy Management Program, Executive Order 13514. Federal Leadership in Environmental, Energy, and Economic Performance, signed October 5, 2009,
  8. Council on Environmental Quality, Climate Change Adaptation Planning, with links to the Federal Agency Climate Change Adaptation Planning Implementing Instructions document and the Support Document.
  9. Joyce, L.A.; Flather. C.H.; Koopman, M. 2008. Analysis of Potential Impacts of Climate Change on Wildlife Habitats in the U.S. Analysis Report [pdf]. Final Report WHPRP. 69p.
  10. Pew Center. 2010. Climate Change Adaptation: What Federal Agencies Are Doing [pdf]. Arlington, VA: Pew Center on Global Climate Change. 43 p.
  11. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). 2007. Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M.Tignor and H.L. Miller (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA. Available at

How to cite

Joyce, Linda A.; Janowiak, Maria K. (July 01, 2011). Climate Change Assessments. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Climate Change Resource Center.



The Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments (RISA) program
Part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, supports research that addresses at a regional level the many complex climate issues relevant to decision-makers and policy planners. The RISA research team members are primarily based at universities though some of the team members are based at government research facilities, non-profit organizations or private sector entities. Traditionally the research has focused on the fisheries, water, wildfire, and agriculture sectors.

The National Center for Environmental Assessment (NCEA) Global Change Impacts and Adaptation program
This program assesses the potential vulnerability of EPA's air, water, ecosystem, and human health protection efforts to climate change, and other global change stressors such as land-use change. It assesses these vulnerabilities at the federal, regional, state, municipal, and tribal levels, and examines adaptation options to build resilience in the face of these vulnerabilities. The program is a part of the Office of Research and Development (ORD) Global Change Research Program within the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Research studies often underpin modifications to current natural resource assessments. For current descriptions of related research, see the related links section, and the climate change pages for the agencies that are mentioned in the synthesis paper.



Many tools are available to help managers incorporate climate change science into natural resource assessments and other documents. For more information on these tools, visit the Climate Change and Carbon Tools page.