The Changing Role of US Forest Management in Response to Climate Change
A new direction for the US Forest Service
In a memo (pdf) sent on November 20, US Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell told his regional offices and station directors that "responding to the challenges of climate change in providing water and water-related ecosystem services is one of the most urgent tasks facing us as an agency. History will judge us by how well we respond to these challenges." Referring to how the challenge will alter future forestry management, Tidwell said that "Climate change is dramatically reshaping how we will deliver on our mission of sustaining the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation's forests and grasslands for present and future generations."
Tidwell's memo follows up on the strategic framework for responding to climate change released last month, and seeks to integrate that framework into the agency's day-to-day operations. Tidwell has proposed dividing the country into five planning regions, asking his managers and area directors to work together to create "aggressive and well-coordinated" area-specific action plans for landscape conservation.
Much of the planning work is already underway, but Tidwell is urging his agency to expand their work into "full blown regions, stations and area action plans" addressing water as "fundamental outcome set."
"The plans should seize opportunities to integrate activities and be innovative," Tidwell wrote in his email. "They should become blueprints for integrating climate change and watershed management. They should use climate change as a theme under which to integrate and streamline existing national and regional strategies for ecological restoration, fire and fuels, forest health, biomass utilization, and others."
Tidwell also intends on naming a "climate change executive" to oversee implementation of the strategic framework through the action plans.
Forests and national climate policy
Testifying before a Senate subcommittee earlier this month, Tidwell emphasized the growing need for climate change as a fundamental consideration for sound forestry management.
While healthy, functioning forests may serve as a means to sequester carbon, under current practices, many of our Western forests are at risk of turning from a carbon sink to a carbon source,” Tidwell said. “Projections indicate that while these forests continue to sequester more carbon in the short-term,” Mr. Tidwell said, “in 30 to 50 years, disturbances such as fire and insects and disease could dramatically change the role of forests, thereby emitting more carbon than currently sequestering.”
Some private forests are now marketed as "carbon sinks" that will play a vital role in whatever cap-and-trade legislation might eventually become law. Research suggests that American forests store 15 percent or more of the country's CO2 emissions, and can be cultivated to store even more. By growing larger, more resilient trees, some say, forests might be able to sequester 50 percent more carbon and become an important "bridge" to when the country has theoretically moved away from a fossil fuel-based energy economy.
But controversy over proper forest management persists, with government agencies and scientists still grappling with understanding and measuring how forests store and release carbon. Some newer "environmentally friendly" methods of removing cleared brush and small trees for biofuel may release more carbon when used as transportation fuel than if the material were simply burned in the woods. But others counter that thinning and fire prevention practices now underway will have long-term benefits, even if carbon is released in the short-term.
You can regain that emitted carbon and actually put on even more carbon by redirecting the growth in the forest to the large trees that you leave in the forest — and you avoid the substantial emission of carbon you’d have in a wildfire,” said research ecologist Malcolm North at the Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Research Station and an associate professor of forest ecology at the University of California, Davis.
But Beverly Law, a professor of global change forest science at Oregon State University, cautioned forest managers not to presume that fire prevention measures will always necessarily enhance a forest's ability to act as a carbon sink.
There’s this opinion out there that when people see smoke from fire, they think it’s all going up in smoke — well, no, it’s not,” Law said, referring to low-intensity fire that are common for forests in dry areas like parts of California and central and eastern Oregon. “Only 5 percent of the total ecosystem carbon is going up in smoke. When you talk about trying to prevent that, it’s not as big a carbon pulse to the atmosphere as people think.”
Many, including professor Law, say that forest management policy needs to be tailored to each individual forest, weighing the risk of carbon release in wildfires to the "carbon cost" of fire prevention.
Which gets us back, in a way, to Tidwell's memo calling for area specific action plans for federal forest management, an idea that has been generally accepted as a step in the right direction.
First, it gives scientists a co-leadership role in determining the agency's climate change plans," said Wilderness Society's Mike Anderson. "Second, it emphasizes the importance of watershed protection and restoration, which is an often overlooked climate change issue. Third, the bioregional approach should result in plans that take a broad view of climate change impacts in different parts of the country. Finally, the short timeline suggests that the chief means business and expects quick, science-based action."