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Managing For Change


Why focus on forests and climate change?

The climate changes happening now and those expected before the end of the 21st century have serious implications for ecosystems and the benefits they provide, including temperature regulation, watershed protection and flood control, erosion reduction, wood and fuel delivery, recreational and aesthetic value, and species habitat (see more on effects in the Climate Science Primer). Both public and private natural resource managers are entrusted with maintaining these services in spite of the challenges posed by climate change and other threats. Actively managing forests and other ecosystems so they can adapt to climate change is a form of risk management. This is intended to maintain the many benefits we receive from ecosystems, and avoid future costs that might come from reacting too late to changes.

Science on how climate change will affect ecosystems has advanced rapidly, yet has often left managers with the question of what on-the-ground actions to take to respond to these effects. Fortunately, approaches to forest adaptation have been advancing as well, and practical solutions are being developed through collaborations between researchers and managers (see the Moving Forward section below). Because of the variety of existing goals for ecosystem management, and the diversity of natural resources in the U.S., no single solution and no individual approach to climate change will be appropriate in all situations. These pages offer an overarching framework for addressing climate change issues in natural resource management.

Principles for Managing under Climate Change

(adapted from Forest Adaptation Resources) Land managers have many tools available to begin to address climate change; however management thinking could be expanded to consider new issues, spatial scales, timing, and prioritization of efforts. The following principles can serve as a starting point for a new perspective:

Prioritization: It will be increasingly important to prioritize actions for adaptation based both on the vulnerability of resources and on the likelihood that actions to reduce vulnerability will be effective.

Flexible and adaptive management: Adaptive management provides a science-based, experimental framework for decision-making that maintains flexibility and incorporates new knowledge and experience over time.

"No regrets" decisions: Actions that result in a wide variety of benefits under multiple scenarios and have little or no risk may be initial places to look for near-term implementation.

Precautionary actions: Where vulnerability is high, precautionary actions to reduce risk in the near term, even with existing uncertainty, may be extremely important.

Variability and uncertainty: Climate change is much more than increasing temperatures; increasing climate variability will lead to equal or greater impacts that will need to be addressed.

Integrating mitigation: Many adaptation actions are complementary with actions to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, and actions to adapt forests to future conditions can help maintain and increase their ability to sequester carbon.

Managing multiple stressors: Impacts from changing climate are often first felt through their effect on ecological disturbance (wildlife, flood, insects and disease). Managing ecosystems for resilience to these forces is a wise place to focus resource action.


Broad Climate Change Strategies

In the broadest terms, natural resource management strategies for addressing climate change can be classified under adaptation and mitigation.

Adaptation refers to all approaches taken to adjust, prepare for, and accommodate new conditions that are created by changing climates. Adaptations may be cultural and societal, for example families deciding to purchase flood, fire, or windstorm insurance. For natural-resource managers, adaptation strategies also include actions taken to assist natural resources (species, habitats, forest plantations, watersheds) in accommodating new conditions imposed by climate.

Mitigation in the context of climate change is an intervention designed to reduce the human influence on the climate system, primarily through increased removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, and the reduction of feedbacks that might enhance warming. In natural-resources, this may include managing forests in a way that sequesters and stores more carbon dioxide.

Adaptation and mitigation are often parallel strategies that can be simultaneously integrated into natural resource management. Ecosystems that are better adapted to future climates will be better able to hold on to their stores of carbon and avoid releasing them into the atmosphere. Fortunately actions taken for adaptation and mitigation are often complementary; in situations where they conflict, pros and cons must be weighed.

A range of adaptation options exist for managing forests to be better able to cope with the negative effects of climate change. These can be broadly grouped into three, or sometimes four categories:

This set of options promotes resistance to the effects of climate change and focuses on improving the defenses of the forest against anticipated changes. A resistance strategy may be appropriate for defending a high-risk or high-value resource in the short term, for example creating an in-situ refuge for a critically vulnerable endangered species, or constructing fire breaks where a resource is threatened by near-term fire risk. It may also make sense to pursue resistance where microclimates may buffer anticipated climate changes. Resistance options are often expensive and take a considerable amount of time and resources, since they are focused on keeping changes at bay. In addition, they can be risky; in some situations, conditions will eventually become so different that a resource passes a threshold and resistance becomes futile. Thus, choosing to resist change and maintain a system in its present condition will not be appropriate in all situations, and may become less appropriate over time as external pressures mount.

Resilience options accommodate gradual change, usually returning to a prior condition after disturbance or seeking to maintain status quo even in the face of forces of change. Climate change may lead to new intensities of stressors and extreme events. Management options that improve the ability of a resource to return to or maintain a desired condition after encountering stressors fall under the category of resilience. Healthy species, forests and ecosystems are considered more resilient to change, and so many resilience strategies are aimed at creating healthy forests. For example, using a combination of mechanical thinning and prescribed burning in a dense forest threatened by risk of wildfire could reduce the intensity of future fires, allowing the forest to more easily withstand and regenerate after burning. In the case of endangered or threatened species, reducing harvesting or other non-climate stresses on the species could make the population more resilient to climate change influences. As with resistance options, strategies to promote resilience may only be successful in the relatively short-term in many areas; eventually, climate changes may be too drastic to allow a return to a prior condition. 

Transition (also known as Response and Realignment)
Transition options intentionally accommodate change and enable ecosystems to adaptively respond to future conditions. In certain locations or over longer time scales, it may be difficult for a system to either resist change or return to a prior condition after disturbance. Where this is the case, managers can adopt strategies to help these systems transition smoothly to a future state that maintains ecosystem processes and functions that are considered beneficial. An example would be intentionally increasing tree species diversity on a forested landscape following a disturbance event. A diverse pool of tree species would increase the candidates available for selection under new climate conditions and would reduce opportunities for mass die-offs, such as from pest outbreaks. Promoting connected landscapes to allow species to more easily colonize new environments would be another example of a transition approach. In each of these situations, it is recognized that future landscapes may not be the same as they were historically, but that they will ideally maintain certain desired features (e.g., forested habitat and watershed protection).

The forestry sector has many opportunities to reduce human influences on the climate system. In forest management, examples of mitigation actions can generally be placed into three categories: emissions avoidance, sequestration, and substitution.

Emissions avoidance focuses on maintaining existing carbon storage in trees by avoiding deforestation and reducing potential impacts from catastrophic disturbances, such as wildfire. Enhancing sequestration encompasses actions such as afforestation (planting trees) and managing forests to increase the amount of carbon stored relative to 'business as usual.' Substitution describes actions that reduce greenhouse gas emissions by using forest products in the place of fossil fuel intensive products. This would include using renewable forest-derived biofuels for energy instead of fossil fuels, and using wood that will store carbon long-term (e.g., lumber for wood houses) in place of materials that may be more energy-intensive to produce.

See the References for more examples and comprehensive reading on these strategies.

Moving Forward

These basic strategies for climate change adaptation and mitigation in forest management have gained recognition and momentum over the past several years. However, forest managers are now at the point where they are attempting to translate these broad approaches into on-the-ground actions. Many on-the-ground efforts are still nascent, however the following provide some examples of how decision-makers have implemented specific actions under these broad approaches. See more about forest adaptation efforts by visiting the CCRC Adaptation Examples section or explore specific strategies and approaches in the CCRC Compendium of Adaptation Approaches.

Managing Lands Under Climate Change has been modified from:
Millar, C.I.; Stephenson, N.L.; Stephens, S.L. 2007. Climate change and forests of the future: managing in the face of uncertainty. Ecological Applications. 17: 2145-2151.
Millar, C.I.; Stephenson, N.L.; Stephens, S.L. 2008. Re-Framing Forest and Resource Management Strategies for a Climate Change Context.
Swanston, C.W.; Janowiak, M.K. 2012. Forest adaptation resources: climate change tools and approaches for land managers. Gen. Tech. Rep. NRS-87. Newtown Square, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station. 121 p.
Additional References:
Innes, J.L.; Joyce, L.A.; Kellomaki, S.; Louman, B.; Ogden, A.; Parrotta, J.; Thompson, I. (2009) Management for adaptation. In: Seppala, R. (ed.). Adaptation of Forests and People to Climate Change., IUFRO World Series, Volume 22. International Union of Forest Research Organizations, Vienna. pp. 135-169.
For more on forest adaptation:
Bierbaum, R.; Smith, J.B.; Lee, A.; Blair, M.; Carter, L.; Chapin, F.S.; et al. 2013. A comprehensive review of climate adaptation in the United States: more than before, but less than needed. Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change. 18(3): 361-406.
Swanston, C.W.; Janowiak, M.K. 2012. Forest adaptation resources: climate change tools and approaches for land managers. Gen. Tech. Rep. NRS-87. Newtown Square, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station. 121 p.
Peterson, D.L.; Millar, C.I.; Joyce, L. A.; Furniss, M.J.; Halofsky, J.E.; Neilson, R.P.; Morelli, T.L. 2011. Responding to climate change in national forests: a guidebook for developing adaptation options. Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW-GTR-855. Portland, OR: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station. 109 p.
Peterson, D.L., Halofsky, J.E.; Johnson, M.C. 2011. Managing and Adapting to Changing Fire Regimes in a Warmer Climate. Ch. 10 In McKenzie, D.; Miller, C.; Falk, D.A. The Landscape Ecology of Fire. Springer Verlag, New York, NY.
Furniss, M.J.; Staab, B.P.; Hazelhurst, S.; Clifton, C.F.; Roby, K.B.; Ilhadrt, B.L.; Larry, E.B.; Todd, A.H.; Reid, L.M.; Hines, S.J.; Bennett, K. A.; Luce, C.H.; Edwards, P.J. 2010. Water, climate change, and forests: watershed stewardship for a changing climate. Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW-GTR-812. Portland, OR: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station. 75 p.
Joyce, L.A.; Blate, G.M.; Littell, J.S. [et al.]. 2008. National forests. In: Julius, S.H.; West, J.M., eds. Preliminary review of adaptation options for climate-sensitive ecosystems and resources: a report by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program and the Subcommittee on Climate Change Research. Washington, DC: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: 3-1-3-127. Chapter 3.
Millar, C.I.; Stephenson, N.L.; Stephens, S.L. 2008. Re-Framing Forest and Resource Management Strategies for a Climate Change Context [pdf].
Millar, C.I.; Stephenson, N.L.; Stephens, S.L. 2007. Climate change and forests of the future: managing in the face of uncertainty. Ecological Applications. 17: 2145-2151.
For more on mitigation: CCRC Carbon Tools Primer and Climate Change and Carbon Tools
Swanston, C.; Furniss, M.J.; Schmitt, K.; Guntle, J.; Janowiak, M.; Hines, S., (eds.). 2012. Forest and grassland carbon in North America: A short course for land managers. Gen. Tech Rep. NRS- 93. Newtown Square, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station. [DVD].
Post, W.M.; Izaurralde, R.C.; Weste, T.O.; Liebig, M.A.; King, A.W. 2012. Management opportunities for enhancing terrestrial carbon dioxide sinks. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. 10 (10): 554-561.
Ryan, M.G.; Harmon, M.E.; Birdsey, R.A.; Giardina, C. P.; Heath, L.S.; Houghton, R.A.; Jackson, R.B.; McKinley, D.C.; Morrison, J. F. 2010. A synthesis of the science on forests and carbon for U.S. forests. Ecological Society of America. Issues in Ecology. 13(1):1-16.

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