The Challenge of Climate Change in Managing Habitat for Fish and Wildlife

Dave Cleaves, Acting Deputy Chief, Research and Development
74th North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference
Arlington, VA
— March 17, 2009

It’s a pleasure to be here to talk about the implications of climate change for the future of America’s native fish and wildlife. This is something we care about deeply at the Forest Service, both in our personal lives and in our professional lives. We are discussing and debating this issue across the agency, and we have been for several years.

This is a thorny issue and, as you know, there is no final resolution in sight. With that said, the need is urgent, and there are things we can do. My purpose this morning is to share with you what we at the Forest Service have been thinking and learning about this issue.

A New Management Environment

Climate change places us in a whole new management environment. We have long dealt with risk and uncertainty; we have long understood, in the words of the ecologist Frank Egler, that “ecosystems are not only more complex than we think, they are more complex than we can think.” Complexity, uncertainty, and conflict have long confounded us; they are the three boogeymen of decision-making.

But layered onto that natural risk and uncertainty comes the risk and uncertainty associated with climate change—a whole new order of magnitude. Climate change dictates the need for a new way of thinking about natural resource management, including habitat management for fish and wildlife.

Take, for example, HRV. We now know for certain that stationarity cannot be assumed. Our management context will not vary around some conditional mean; rather, it will change in a whole new direction, as yet barely understood.

But that doesn’t render HRV irrelevant. There are good reasons, for example, why ponderosa pine woodlands, over thousands of years, evolved an open stand structure: It made them more resistant and resilient to drought, wildland fire, and insect attack, the very stressors we can expect more of with climate change. In fact, the decades of experience we have in managing forest stressors and restoring forest ecosystems have prepared us for addressing climate change—for helping ecosystems adapt and species survive.

It isn’t just climate change that shapes our new management environment. Fire and fuels, invasive species, water shortages, water pollution, land use change, population growth—a whole host of factors figure in. Each factor affects the others in endless feedback loops; and each, in turn, is affected by climate change.

That very interconnectedness amounts again to complexity of a whole new order of magnitude. Just to grasp it requires a new way of thinking and seeing. Climate change stresses challenge us in all three dimensions. As climate drivers change, so do ecosystem stressors. As natural systems change in response, so do the ecosystem services they provide. To process all these changes, we need new diagnostic models. There are no answers without good questions, and we need to be able to answer the right questions in the right way as they change.

Climate change challenges us to rethink the couplings—the way things are interconnected. At the Forest Service, we are increasingly seeing the challenges we face through the prism of climate change, bearing in mind all the interconnections. In this new management environment, as the climate changes, ecosystems are increasingly subject to damage, degradation, and destruction. People can no longer take for granted all the benefits they provide, such as clean air and water, wood products, opportunities for outdoor recreation—and, yes, habitat for fish and wildlife. Climate change has therefore become a focal point for the Forest Service: It threatens our very ability to fulfill our mission. We need a strategic response, including place-based strategies for conserving wildlife as the climate changes.

Strategic Framework

In 2008, the Forest Service adopted a Strategic Framework for Responding to Climate Change based on seven strategic goals in three broad categories: foundational, structural, and action. I will briefly discuss all three. But I want to stress that, like the challenges we face themselves, our goals are interconnected. The things we do to meet one goal tend to help us meet other goals as well, and I will show some of that interconnectedness. What is important is how we eventually make these goals (and our approaches to them) work together. They are complementary parts of a coherent response to climate change.

Foundational Goals

Our two foundational goals are science and education. We need sound science to understand climate change. We also need a public that is aware of climate change and that is willing, through its elected representatives, to provide resources to address climate change.

Fortunately, the Forest Service has a good foundation in climate change science, with broad-scale studies reaching back to the 1980s and with relevant data going back to the first experimental forests in the 1910s. But huge gaps remain, especially at the site-specific level. Researchers have begun working with individual forests to fill those gaps—to apply what we know about climate change to particular landscapes so that land managers can make better decisions.

Researchers have begun working with individual forests to fill those gaps—to apply what we know about climate change to particular landscapes so that land managers can make better decisions. For example, the Pacific Northwest Research Station has worked with the Olympic National Forest to plan for future conditions affecting wildlife and fish, such as Pacific salmon. Similarly, the Rocky Mountain Research Station is working with the Shoshone National Forest and neighbors in the Greater Yellowstone Area to plan for future conditions affecting American beaver as well as whitebark pine and the animals that depend on it, such as Clark’s nutcracker and grizzly bear.

Structural Goals

That brings me to the two structural goals in our Strategic Framework: agency policy and alliances with other organizations. Next to a firm foundation of science and public support, we need the right institutional structure to respond to climate change. It is our aspirational goal to incorporate climate change into all of the agency’s policies.

Fortunately, we have institutional strengths. The Forest Service manages 193 million acres of national forests and grasslands, including many broad areas. In these broader areas, we on our own can muster a coherent response to climate change on a landscape scale. Through partnerships forged by our State and Private Forestry organization, we can also influence management on almost 430 million acres of state, private, and tribal forestlands. Our Research and Development organization helps us integrate science into land management, and we have partnerships for forest research and management worldwide.

In dealing with climate change, however, the Forest Service also faces structural barriers. We typically leave most on-the-ground decisions to our local district rangers, letting them implement alternative land management strategies and learn from the outcomes. Historically, that has been an organizational strength, but climate change calls for coordinated management actions over large geographic areas, and our decentralized management structure might hinder that. We have to build alliances for decision-making even within the organization.

In fact, most of the nation’s forests and grasslands are a patchwork quilt of various landownerships, including checkerboard patterns in the West and fragmented federal landholdings in the East. Under such circumstances, engineering a coordinated response to climate change across landscapes and landownerships is extremely difficult—but necessary. Piecemeal solutions are a waste of time and money.

Other potential constraints have statutory roots. The federal budgetary process operates on an annual cycle. That can force land managers to alter priorities from year to year, whereas climate change might require a sustained response over decades or even centuries. Under the National Environmental Policy Act, Forest Service planning processes have typically taken 2 to 3 years for a project and up to 10 years for a forest plan. That can prevent a timely response to climate change. For example, a rapid response might be needed to keep from passing tolerance thresholds for species or ecosystems. Moreover, laws such as the Clean Water Act might not allow a climate change response that does long-term good but short-term harm to water quality or other resources. Dealing with rapid and unexpected changes can’t be done through outmoded, highly viscous policymaking and planning processes.

Ultimately, success will hinge on everyone pulling together across jurisdictions, and we have made a start. We have directed every national forest to take climate change into account in revising its land and resource management plan, partly to help coordinate programs across ranger districts. The Forest Service is also working with partners and scientists from across the country to create a broad framework for conserving fish and wildlife at local scales. That framework includes translating general recommendations into climate change adaptation strategies for particular landscapes, species, or ecosystems. Using such tools, various landowners and land managers can coordinate their responses to climate change. Again, we are meeting multiple goals for responding to climate change: science, education, adaptation, policy, and alliances.

Action Goals

So far, I have covered our foundational and structural goals for responding to climate change. Now we cut to the chase: What can we actually do on the ground? Our action goals are adaptation, mitigation, and sustainable operations. And all three hinge on a strong foundation in science and education as well as an institutional structure based on sound policies and strong alliances. This is key. All three kinds of goals—foundational, structural, and action—form three sides of the same triangle. All three sides must work together for our response to climate change to be truly effective.

Sustainable operations involve practicing what we preach by reducing our environmental footprint as an organization—emitting less carbon, using less energy, and so on. As conservationists, we have an obligation to lead by example. We have a plan in place, and we are making progress.

Adaptation and mitigation are at the core of our response to climate change. Our goal is to help natural systems adapt to climate-related stresses while continuing to deliver all the ecosystem services that Americans want and need. We also want to maximize carbon storage in natural systems by finding the optimal balance between carbon emissions and sequestration, making sure to take any tradeoffs with other ecosystem services into account.

Fortunately, these goals are generally linked: Systems that are well-adapted to climate-related stresses tend to store more carbon. Modeling in the Sierra Nevada, for example, found that open mixed-conifer forests with widely spaced large old trees are best adapted to the local fire regime and store the most carbon over time. In the Southeast, research suggests that the original open longleaf pine forests have advantages over forests dominated by other southern pines. We all know that the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker needs longleaf pine habitat; but longleaf pine forests are also better adapted to climate change. They are more resistant to wildland fire, pathogens, and insects; less prone to hurricane damage; and more tolerant of warmer, drier conditions. In addition, longleaf pine grows faster and might capture more carbon underground.

Again, adaptation and mitigation are integrated, and so must our management be. In many southeastern landscapes, for example, restoring longleaf pine forests might be our best bet for responding to climate change while optimizing critical wildlife habitat. 

Finding Common Ground

So there are things we can do in response to climate change while protecting critical habitat for fish and wildlife. The examples I have given—and there are many more—illustrate our efforts to reframe fish and wildlife management through the prism of climate change.

We are only just beginning. Many challenges, risks, and uncertainties remain. We are in a new management environment, and we need new approaches tailored to spatial and temporal scales unimaginable in the past. Coming to grips with climate change will take pulling together across borders and boundaries, putting aside petty grievances over lesser things, and focusing on the greater good. The future of America’s native fish and wildlife depends on nothing less.