The Sierra Nevada is a biologically diverse and socially important region of California, providing water, timber, rangeland, recreation, and many other ecosystem services. A significant amount of infrastructure (roads, bridges, structures, etc.) is needed to support these services. In recent years, a period of major drought has led to tree mortality and wildfires. Rainstorms following wildfires have caused debris slides, washouts, and erosion. Billions of dollars of damage to roads, trails, culverts, bridges, dams, campgrounds, buildings, and other infrastructure have been caused by wildfires, extreme rain events, floods, and debris slides.
To address these issues, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service (USFS) conducted a vulnerability assessment on the effects of climatic variability and change on infrastructure in the 10 national forest units of the Sierra Nevada. The assessment was led by the USFS Pacific Southwest Region in partnership with the USFS Office of Sustainability and Climate, Pacific Southwest Research Station, Pacific Northwest Research Station, and the University of Washington. This assessment is intended to be a resource for the agency and its partners to inform ongoing and future planning and projects. Resources at risk were identified by documenting sensitivities to climate-related factors from the scientific literature and expert knowledge (risk assessment), then options for responding to sensitivities were identified from existing best management practices (BMPs) and information elicited from resource managers (risk management).
The Arctic and boreal regions are warming more than twice as rapidly as the rest of the world. The timing of plants’ flowering and fruiting is changing, with implications for insects, wildlife, and people who rely on these resources for food and livelihoods in Alaska. Alaska’s boreal forest will undergo significant functional and structural changes within the next few decades that are unprecedented in the past 6,000 years. The Bonanza Creek Long-Term Ecological Research program is critical to Forest Service research because it is the only Forest Service outpost in the boreal forest, which is the biggest forest in the world. Pacific Northwest Research Station scientists are contributing groundbreaking climate research in Alaska, with global implications.
Although a natural ecological process, wildfire in unhealthy forests can be uncharacteristically destructive. Fuel treatments—such as thinning, mowing, prescribed fire, or managed wildfire—can help reduce or redistribute the flammable fuels that threaten to carry and intensify fire. Using both field-tested data and computer simulations, Pacific Northwest Research Station scientists are addressing critical questions such as Are we treating enough of the landscape to restore fire-adapted forests? Are fuel treatments effective at changing fire behavior? Together with land managers, fuel planners, and other partners, our scientists are helping public land management agencies move toward a future of fire-resilient forests and communities.
Forest Service research dates back almost to the time the national forests were created. The first study in the Pacific Northwest was started in 1909 to determine tree volume, taper, and bark thickness of hundreds of trees. Permanent growth plots were established on the Willamette National Forest in 1910. That same year research began at Wind River (Carson), Washington, to learn more about reforestation followinga wildfire. In 1913, the Wind River Forest Experiment Station was established as the first Forest Service research facility in the Pacific Northwest.
Climatic conditions, particularly extreme rainfall, snowmelt, and flooding, pose substantial risks to the infrastructure on and near the National Forests and Grasslands of the Rocky Mountain Region. Essentially all infrastructure is vulnerable to some degree, but risks and vulnerability differ greatly from place to place. Useful distinctions can be made that can inform environmental assessments, land-use planning, and priorities for climate adaptation.
In 1994, a large-tree harvest standard known as the “21-inch rule” was applied to land and resource management plans of national forests in eastern Oregon and Washington (hereafter, the “east side”) to halt the loss of large, old, live, and dead trees and old forest patches. These trees and forest patches have distinct ecological, economic, and social values, as reflected in widespread fish and wildlife use, public support for protecting them, and commercial interest in harvesting them, thus they have been the topic of much discussion and debate. At the request of regional Forest Service managers, we review the scientific knowledge accrued since implementation of the 21-inch rule and discuss the rule’s role and relevance to forest planning today. Critical to our review are new findings from the social sciences and their integration with new biophysical and ecological science to form a more holistic understanding of forest ecosystems and the values they provide. We examine how human values associated with old trees and old forests are nuanced and evolving and discuss important social and economic changes relevant to large, old trees and old forests that have occurred across the Pacific Northwest in the past three decades. Major advances also have been realized in landscape and fire ecology, climate and carbon science, and wildlife, fishery, and silviculture sciences related to the role and importance of large and old trees in east-side forests. Key findings show that trees of early-seral species that are older than 150 years contribute important ecological values not present in younger large trees. Other findings come from climate change research, landscape assessments, and fire history studies, which have contributed knowledge about the historical and likely future variability in fire frequency and severity in various forest types, landscape dynamics, and how landscape resilience works. Many forests are now homogenized, with conditions no longer resembling those that existed prior to Euro-American settlement. Disturbance regimes have become more severe in many places, causing widespread ripple effects. The area burned by wildfire will continue to increase under climate change, and disturbance regimes will change further, leading to even broader changes in forest structure and species composition. Moderate or severe fires or fuel treatments, coupled with maintenance burning, may be needed to remove local seed sources and competition from undesirable shade-tolerant trees and help some patches of forest better adapt to fire and climate change. Proactive management can help facilitate some transitions, leading to better outcomes for people, forests, and native species.
Exposure to nature is an essential part of healthy child development. Youth who spend time outdoors gain social, intellectual, and emotional benefits that can last into adulthood. In an increasingly “wired” society, it can take some extra effort to get kids outside.