Addressing Climate Change Adaptation: Think Big!

Tom Tidwell, Chief
Adapting to Climate Change in the National Forests: A Workshop for Managers
Stevenson, WA
— April 20, 2010

Good morning! Welcome to this workshop, and thank you for taking the time to be here. You are pioneers, leading the way for the Forest Service in terms of climate change adaptation. I have been asked to outline our mandate for addressing climate change, and I will do so by describing the management context we find ourselves in and what we are doing to help ecosystems adapt.

New Management Environment

As you know, climate change impacts are altering forests and grasslands, diminishing the benefits they provide. Climate change affects individual species and the stressors and disturbances that shape ecological processes and functions. As climate drivers change, so do ecosystem stressors; and as natural systems change in response, so can the ecosystem services they provide. In an era of climate change, people can no longer take for granted all the benefits they get from forests and grasslands, along with the associated jobs and economic benefits. Our mandate, so to speak, is to make sure that people still get a full range of benefits and services, even in an era of climate change.

Climate change is not the only driver of the changes we have been seeing across America’s landscapes. Urban growth, markets for wood, a legacy of fire exclusion, and other factors are also driving change. Loss of open space, fire and fuels, invasive species, the spread of forest pests and disease—we face a whole host of challenges. Each affects the others in multiple feedback loops, both positive and negative; and each, in turn, is affected by climate change and other major drivers. We are in a whole new environment for land and resource management.

Congress has long recognized the challenge. The Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Planning Act calls for, and I quote, “an analysis of the potential effects of global climate change on the condition of renewable resources on the forests and rangelands of the United States.” For decades, we have incorporated climate change science into our Resources Planning Act assessments, and we have long played a prominent role in national and global climate change research. Sound climate science is the foundation for an effective management response.

Based on sound science, a high-level team is revising our strategy for responding to climate change. The team is led by Dave Cleaves, whom I recently named as our lead executive for climate change. We don’t yet have the team’s results, and we will also be looking at a whole range of broader questions, such as possible requirements for carbon accounting or for climate change adaptation plans at the forest level.

But I can say this: Our core management response will remain twofold. Our core response is adaptation—actions that help species and ecosystems adapt to the effects of a changing climate; and mitigation—activities that directly reduce or offset the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. We already have some science for both, and we are already putting it to use. I will outline where I think we are in terms of adaptation.

Climate Change Adaptation

The Forest Service is responding to climate change through ecological restoration—by restoring the functions and processes characteristic of healthy, resilient ecosystems. By restoration, I do not mean returning to the past, but rather learning from the past as we look toward a future that, in many places and many respects, will be very different from today.

Our approach to restoration is adaptive. It’s like preparing for a long and difficult trip, planning for every contingency, taking all the risks and uncertainties into account, then being prepared to cope with the unexpected. Through restoration, the Forest Service is conditioning and repairing the key functions of ecosystems across landscapes so they can withstand the stresses and uncertainties associated with our new management environment.

Based on work by Dr. Millar and others, adaptive restoration has three components:

  • first, building ecosystem resistance to climate-related stressors;
  • second, increasing ecosystem resilience in recovering from severe disturbances driven by climate change;
  • and third, facilitating landscape-scale ecological transitions in response to changing environmental conditions.

Resistance tools provide for short-term protection for high-value resources, such as a human community or an endangered species. Resistance is designed to prevent losses. Tools include treating fuels, acquiring conservation easements, and providing refuge for endangered species.

Resilience tools are longer term and broader in scale. They are designed to help ecosystems recover from disturbances by returning to a healthier condition. Examples include recovering endangered species, returning fire to the landscape, and restoring disturbance-adapted native ecosystems.

Transitions are the longest term approach. Transition tools are designed to help ecosystems shift to a state that is better adapted to new environmental conditions. Examples might include assisted migration, adding to landscape diversity, and establishing ecosystems in new locations.

Resistance, resilience, and transitions are tiered to increasing levels of environmental change. Managers will need ways of assessing change and choosing the most appropriate response or blend of responses based on the relative risks, vulnerabilities, and likelihood of success. Above all, we must recognize that ecosystems are dynamic and that change is inevitable.

Many restoration tools are already in use, especially for resistance and resilience. On the Olympic National Forest, for example, we expect more severe storms, so we are fixing culverts and moving recreational facilities in anticipation of floods. Across the West, we have many examples of returning fire to its natural role and restoring disturbance-adapted native ecosystems such as open ponderosa pine woodland. We have similar restoration projects for prairie on the Great Plains, for oak savanna in the Midwest, and for longleaf pine in the South.

Restoration projects like these clearly respond to climate change. Ecosystems such as longleaf pine or open ponderosa pine tend to be better adapted to climate-driven stressors and disturbances. These projects show that much of what we are already doing helps ecosystems adapt to a changing climate. They also show that we already have both science and a cadre of trained and experienced professionals who can make a difference on the ground. When designing restoration plans and projects, it is essential that we factor in climate change to ensure that we are increasing the adaptive capacity of ecosystems.

But in the long run, many ecosystems will need to change or move in response to changing environmental conditions. As the Southwest becomes hotter and drier, for example, ponderosa pine in some areas might move upslope into areas now covered by mixed-conifer forest. We are still working on a suite of transition tools, but I will set forth one hypothetical scenario of how we might facilitate transition for ponderosa pine.

  • First, land managers would work with researchers to plan for the eventuality of upslope movement. Part of that would be anticipating any surprises and threshold effects.
  • At the same time, we would monitor for climate change impacts while raising public awareness of the associated complexities, risks, and uncertainties.
  • We might also conserve and develop local seedstocks and prepare to help plant and animal communities migrate while conserving species at risk.
  • Finally, when the time is right, we might realign site management with changing conditions by planting new mixes of vegetation on upslope sites, in the process increasing ecosystem diversity across the landscape.

Let me be clear. I am not necessarily suggesting that any unit adopt this particular set of measures. Those decisions need to be made in the field. But we do have an array of potential tools that we can use to help species and ecosystems adapt to changing environmental conditions; and some of them, such as working with scientists to plan and monitor, can—and probably should—be used right away.

Climate Change Mitigation

A few words about mitigation. As I see it, adaptation and mitigation go together. You can’t have mitigation unless you have adaptation; and if you have adaptation, then you’re bound to get mitigation. The two are linked, and mitigation is predicated on adaptation.

Over the past century, the United States has successfully addressed climate change simply by stabilizing our forest estate. We have turned America’s forests from a net carbon source into a net carbon sink, and the Forest Service has played a role in that. In 2006, America’s forests offset about 12.5 percent of the carbon dioxide that Americans emitted.

But climate change threatens to turn that around. On the one hand, increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will accelerate forest growth and carbon uptake; on the other hand, climate change will worsen drought, wildfire, insects, disease, and other disturbances. One study estimated that the fires we had from 2002 to 2006 released 213 million metric tons of carbon per year, up to 6 percent of total human carbon emissions. Climate change threatens to upset the natural balance in forests between emissions and sequestration, pouring more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. That’s why adaptation is key: Effective, sustained climate change mitigation will depend on the ability of America’s forest ecosystems to adapt to a changing climate.

The Forest Service promotes mitigation in three ways. One way is through carbon sequestration and storage in forest soils and vegetation and in wood products. The most effective tool for that is keeping working forests healthy and productive. Protecting open space also promotes adaptation, for example by conserving habitat connectivity.

Another way of mitigating climate change is to indirectly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, for example through the use of bioenergy to offset fossil fuel emissions. Woody biomass is carbon neutral, and when used as energy it replaces fossil fuels, reducing greenhouse gas buildups. Bioenergy will never be the primary management objective for the national forests, but restoration often has woody biomass as a byproduct—another win/win solution. It just makes good sense to use this material rather than to pay someone to pile and burn it.

The third way is to directly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, for example by reducing our own environmental footprint. That’s where our Sustainable Operations initiative comes in, but we also have other tools. Some research suggests that restoring native fire-adapted ecosystems can maximize the carbon sequestered and stored onsite over time, mainly by reducing losses due to disturbances. Examples include longleaf pine in the South and open ponderosa pine woodland in the West. Other research questions that, and further studies are underway.

In any case, if a net carbon expenditure is needed in exchange for a healthier, more resilient ecosystem, then we will make it, partly for the sake of more sustainable carbon stores over time, and also because we manage for many goods and services other than carbon.

An All-Lands Approach

So we already have some tools for both adaptation and mitigation. They are complementary or mutually reinforcing, and we are already using them. No matter how effective we are, a piecemeal approach will not be enough. No single entity, acting alone, can come to grips with a challenge so vast, complex, and far reaching as climate change. We need an all-lands approach.

Climate change highlights the need for broad-scale approaches—for conservation on a landscape scale. Landscape-scale conservation is an approach to managing land at the level of watersheds, ecoregions, or broad geographic areas. It gives land managers the scope and the flexibility to address the full range of complexity, risk, and uncertainty associated with climate change.

This cannot happen on a piecemeal basis. Landscape-scale conservation requires working with partners across borders and boundaries. The National Forest System contains only 20 percent of the nation’s forests. Fifty-seven percent are in private landownership, and another 23 percent are in state, tribal, county, municipal, and other federal ownerships. Forest ecosystems typically form mosaics—mosaics of plant and animal communities and mosaics of landownerships and human communities. This is true not only in the East, but also in the West, where the critical issues are the same—forest health, invasive species, fire and fuels, water quantity and quality, and wildlife habitat connectivity. Such issues neither begin nor end at national forest boundaries.

The Forest Service has therefore adopted an all-lands approach to conservation through cross-boundary partnerships. Science/management partnerships are a key part of the mix. We need to integrate our research, management, and landowner assistance programs to address climate change in high-priority landscapes across the country. The 2008 Farm Bill requires the states to identify landscapes critical to the future of conservation. Based in part on the results, the Forest Service will work with the states and other partners to protect and restore a series of landscapes that are valuable, vulnerable, and amenable to collaborative planning and management.

Rising to the Challenge

To summarize, climate change and other major drivers have placed us in a whole new land management environment. The nation’s forests and grasslands are at risk due to the effects of climate change and other major drivers of landscape change. But the Forest Service is already doing much to help ecosystems adapt. We can and will do more, but we cannot succeed alone.

Success will require a series of collective endeavors among all of you here—coalitions of organizations and individuals working collaboratively across broad geographic areas, with the full knowledge and support of the American people. In such collective endeavors, the Forest Service will play a supporting role, acting as convener and facilitator and providing a multitude of resources, including science and science-based solutions, while bringing all of our authorities to bear.

So as we ponder the adaptation challenges ahead, I would ask all of us to think big. We need to think across broad spatial and temporal scales … across programs and Deputy Areas … across agencies and ownerships … across borders and boundaries of all kinds. Above all, we need to think about how to integrate our goals and our efforts through partnerships … how to build synergies across landscapes, capitalizing on our mutual strengths and resources.

Thank you again for taking the time to be here. We look to you to lead the way in adaptive restoration, and I look forward to seeing the results of this workshop.


Wiedinmyer, C.; Neff, J.C. 2007. Estimates of CO2 from fires in the United States: Implications for carbon management. Carbon Balance and Management 2:10, 10.1186/1750-0680-2-10. Available at http://www.cbmjournal.com/content/2/1/10, last accessed March 2010.