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Managing forests in a changing climate

Leslie Brandt
Office of Sustainability and Climate
July 28, 2022

Aerial view of a Forest partially covered with smoke
While the 2020 and 2021 fire season were particularly devastating for the forests of southern Oregon, scenes of devastation are not unique to Oregon. As temperatures warm and the climate changes, forest ecosystems across the U.S. are affected. The Forest Service has released its plan to adapt to climate change now and in the future. (USDA Forest Service photo)

The Umpqua River winds its way through the heart of the Umpqua National Forest in southern Oregon. Driving down the canyon alongside the river, burned and blackened trees line both sides of the canyon. At the base of many charred trees, green shoots of new trees stand in contrast against the black ash.

A river runs through a marsh
View of the Sycan River and Marsh on the Fremont-Winema National Forest in Southern Oregon. Oregon is home to diverse ecosystems that are under threat from a changing climate. (USDA Forest Service photo) 

Back-to-back intense fire seasons in 2020 and 2021 have left their mark on forests and watersheds of the Umpqua National Forest. The 2021 Bootleg Fire burned over 400,000 acres across the Fremont-Winema National Forests and surrounding lands. The volcanic landscapes and large trees that encompass national forests in southern Oregon are facing new challenges from longer, more intense fire seasons.

But not just in southern Oregon. As temperatures warm and weather patterns change, stories like these are unfolding across the U.S. From rising sea levels and more intense hurricanes in the East to catastrophic droughts in the West, our nation’s forests and grasslands and the people who depend on them are facing unprecedented challenges.

The Forest Service recently released our Climate Adaptation Plan as part of a USDA-wide effort to evaluate climate change risks to the nation’s forests and grasslands, and to identify potential actions to reduce those risks and to adapt to a changing climate. The Forest Service must act because climate change affects our nation’s forests and grasslands and the people and communities who depend on them for clean water, fresh air, economic opportunities and places to recreate and recharge.

As more people seek out mountains, rivers, and lakes to escape heat waves, national forest managers will face a mounting challenge in meeting increasing demand for outdoor recreation opportunities, while also ensuring equitable access to these recreational opportunities for the diverse populations that make up the country. At the same time, campsites, picnic areas, and access roads are being threatened by more severe flooding and other weather disasters.

The Red Bluff campground on the Mark Twain National Forest in Missouri, for example, is relocating campsites and other infrastructure away from areas affected by recent flooding, a trend that is projected to continue across the nation.

A road in a meadow interrupted by a crumbling road
Flooding at Red Bluff Campsite. Flooding is becoming more frequent in many watersheds in the eastern United States. (USDA Forest Service photo)

Climate Adaptation Plan outlines actions the Forest Service will take to reduce risks — like those posed to the Red Bluff campgrounds — across national forests and grasslands, and to better prepare for future changes. The plan underscores the need for the agency to work with Tribes and other communities to understand how to address climate change in new and more equitable ways.

Actions outlined in the plan include reforestation, using trees that are adapted to current and future climates. It identifies and calls for reducing risks to recreation sites and using climate data and tools to better inform fire management. Actions in the plan also account for the breadth of diverse landscapes the agency manages and the many services the Forest Service provides.

“Each of these broad actions include more specific adaptation activities that address climate challenges and describe ways we can make positive strides as an agency and country,” said Chris Swanston, the agency’s climate advisor and acting director of the Forest Service Office of Sustainability and Climate.

Helicopter flying through a fire
Wildfire on the Umpqua National Forest, 2020. (USDA Forest Service photo) 

The Climate Adaptation Plan outlines actions that may provide multiple benefits to all Americans as the climate changes. Environmental justice is at the plan’s foundation, emphasizing that our work to adapt to climate change must benefit all towns and communities. The plan outlines actions to ensure clean water and air is provided to everybody, as climate-related disasters become more frequent. Our actions will also help to reduce risks and find new opportunities for forest products, an important economic engine for many underserved rural communities.

“Adaptation is not easy. Climate change affects all lands, our communities, and our workforce,” Swanston said. “These changes are pervasive and, to be successful, we’ll need to change, too. Addressing immediate crises is critical, but we also need to adapt our long-term management and research, build and sustain strategic partnerships, and work to secure environmental justice and economic opportunities for communities.”

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