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Climate & Energy
Sustaining Water Resources and Other Forest Ecosystem Services in the Era of Climate Change
V. Alaric Sample

Throughout Earth’s history, its climates have been changing, and biotic systems have mutated, migrated, and otherwise adapted as tectonic shifts have reconfigured the continents, and polar ice caps have ebbed and flowed across the latitudes through succeeding glacial cycles (Botkin et al. 2007). In our own era, there is growing evidence that changes in climate that in the past have taken place over the course of millennia are now taking place in a matter of decades (Stager 2011). These accelerated changes in climate are challenging the ability of both human civilization, and the natural systems on which it depends, to adapt quickly enough to keep pace (GAO 2007; GAO 2009). Through efforts like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, leading scientists around the world have focused their energies on understanding the nature and implications of these changes, and the world’s governments are striving to develop the institutions and resources to enable timely and effective actions to mitigate and adapt to changes that are anticipated or already under way.

Forests are vulnerable to both direct and indirect effects of climate change. The direct effects of drought, elevated temperatures, and changing precipitation patterns can be seen in reduced tree growth, lower survival rates in tree seedlings and young growth (Williams, Allen, Macalady et al. 2012), and reforestation failures in the wake of timber harvests, wildfires, and natural disturbances. The loss of certain more climate-sensitive tree species within a forest can change the overall species composition or mix, eliminating food sources and habitat for native wildlife species (Caro et al. 2011).

Forests that are already under a high degree of environmental stress from these direct effects of climate change are more vulnerable to its indirect effects (Allen, et al. 2010). Forests in many parts of the world are experiencing extraordinary and often unprecedented levels of mortality from insects and disease. Incidents involving even endemic or native pests and pathogens, which would normally kill only a small fraction of the trees in a forest, are in some regions causing near 100-percent mortality over areas of thousands of square miles. The resulting large volume of dead and dying trees invites wildfires that themselves are unprecedented in size and severity. Following events such as these, the harsher climate makes reforestation and ecological restoration that much more difficult and prone to failure, often leading to increased soil erosion, stream sedimentation, impacts on terrestrial and aquatic habitat, and damages to water supplies, storm water control, and flood mitigation.

The people and organizations charged with conserving and sustainably managing the world’s forests are at the forefront of efforts to understand and address these challenges. As stated in a recent report by a group of federal natural resource management agencies and nonprofit organizations, “Rapid climate change is the defining conservation issue of our generation... Indeed, preparing for and coping with the effects of climate change -— an endeavor referred to as climate change adaptation -— is emerging as the overarching framework for conservation and natural resource management.” (Glick et al. 2011).

turtleConserving biological diversity in the world’s forests is a particular challenge as both plant and animal species are prompted to follow the climate-driven movement of the ecosystems and habitats in which they evolved (Lovejoy and Hannah 2005; Hannah 2012; Ward 2007). Ecological communities disassemble as species capable of migrating do so, and those that are not remain behind. Those that can migrate now must traverse landscapes that in earlier epochs were not filled with highways, cities, farms, and other manifestations of a rapidly expanding human population that is very new on the geologic time scale (Marris 2011; Zalasiewicz et al. 2010). Designated parks, refuges, reserves, and other traditional approaches to protecting habitat are less effective when the focal species themselves are on the move (Kareiva, Lalasz and Marvier 2011).

This is prompting biologists, resource management professionals, and policymakers to consider new approaches to conservation planning focused on large landscapes (Rouget et al. 2006)—vast areas that stretch from Yellowstone National Park to the Yukon (Clark and Gaillard 2001; Levesque 2001), or from the southern Appalachians to Labrador. These immense landscapes encompass not just wildlands and rural areas, but cities and towns. For these landscape-scale conservation strategies to be environmentally, economically and socially sustainable—and politically possible—new governance models must be developed to facilitate an unprecedented level of communication, coordination, cooperation, and collaboration.

For thousands of communities across the nation, forests are key to maintaining adequate supplies of clean water to meet municipal, agricultural, and industrial needs. Forests in the headwaters and riparian areas of the nation’s rivers and streams are a key component in the nation’s “green infrastructure,” providing low-cost, high-return protection of critically important water resources. Water supply, water quality, and maintaining snowpack to extend water flows into the summer months are critical considerations, especially in the western US where higher temperatures, prolonged droughts, and shifts in precipitation patterns are already causing economic and social disruptions. Cities and communities throughout the West are already facing serious water shortages, and these shortages become acute when wildfires burn through nearby forest watersheds, leaving critically important reservoirs choked with ash and sediment.

Cities and communities in the eastern US face an additional set of water issues linked to climate change effects on forests. Many parts of the East are expected to experience higher levels of precipitation as the climate changes, but with more of it coming in the form of extreme storm events, severe enough to cause significant flooding, property damage, and loss of life (Milly et al. 2008). The importance of forests for flood mitigation is well known. Devastating floods, caused largely by deforestation in the Appalachian highlands and northern New England, were the major reason Congress passed the Weeks Act in 1911, authorizing the establishment of the eastern National Forests and the ecological restoration of these highlands.

But deforestation continues on the predominantly private forest lands in the East, not from exploitive logging but from urban sprawl and conversion of forests to other land uses. The losses add up over time, and the cumulative loss of forest cover begins to impact the ability to control floods and manage stormwater (Booth, Hartley and Jackson 2007). The prospect of an increasing number of extreme storm events makes forest land conservation even more critically important in areas like the headwaters of the Delaware River, which provides clean drinking water to 16 million people daily, from New York City to Philadelphia (Benedict 2006). With the effects of climate change a growing concern, the conservation and restoration of forests will play an essential role in reducing future flood damage to municipal water supplies, power plants, and other businesses and communities all along the Delaware and other major rivers throughout the East. Government leaders throughout the region are discovering that, of the limited options they have for meeting the challenges of climate change, conserving the self-renewing “green infrastructure” that forests represent is by far the most effective and cost-efficient approach to protecting water supply and controlling future flood damage.

The kinds of effects that climate change is already beginning to have on forests are largely outside the experience and expertise of today’s forest managers and scientists (USDA Forest Service 2008). The magnitude of these changes and the speed with which they are taking place are essentially unprecedented in their lifetimes. The knowledge on which the science of forest management is based has been developed largely over the past two centuries through research carried out during a period of assumed climate stability. Successfully meeting the challenges of forest conservation and sustainable management in an era of accelerating climate change may require the reconsideration of many of our basic assumptions about the way forest ecosystems function, and how they respond to large-scale, long-term influences such as climate change (USDA Forest Service 2010). Stimulating a new evolution of sustainable forestry science and practice will enable forest managers to play a supportive role in adapting to climate change, to maintain critical values such as water resource protection, or to buy more time for vulnerable species to migrate or adjust to climate transitions.

Golden Mantled GroundsquirrelVulnerability assessments that encompass terrestrial and aquatic habitat, biodiversity, vegetation management, hydrology, and forest road systems are essential to understanding the potential effects of climate change on forest ecosystems as a whole, and the implications for the range of environmental, economic, and social values and services that forests provide (Halofsky et al. 2011). The importance of focusing on large regional landscapes is already stimulating new levels of cooperation and collaboration among federal and state land management agencies, private forest owners, and conservation organizations. Recent initiatives such as the North Cascadia Collaborative Partnership in the Pacific Northwest are combining the resources of multiple agencies to create a better understanding of the likely effects of climate change at the regional scale, and developing strategies for both managing and adjusting to these effects (Raymond, Peterson and Rochefort 2013). Privately-led initiatives such as the Yale Mapping Framework are identifying sites that will be most resilient to the effects of climate change (Anderson and Ferree 2010; Anderson, Clark and Sheldon 2011), and potentially playing a key role in managing climate transitions while minimizing the loss of native biodiversity (Kareiva, Lalasz and Marvier 2012; Paquette and Messier 2010).

This new knowledge base cannot be developed by scientists working in isolation. In order for this information be readily useful and to make a difference on the ground where it counts, it must be developed in the context of actual forest management planning and decision making. Budgets and human resources will always be limited for forest managers, whether on public lands or private. Resource managers need decision support tools that allow them to integrate vulnerability assessments with action strategies, to establish reasoned priorities and to make the best-informed decisions possible (Swanston and Janowiak 2012; Peterson et al. 2011). Resource managers must be able to utilize these tools to determine what they need to do differently—now and in the future—and whatmanagement practices will work best locally as part of an overall strategy for mitigating and adapting to climate change.

V. Alaric Sample is President of the Pinchot Institute in Washington, DC.

Allen, C. A., et al. 2010. A global overview of drought and heat-induced tree mortality reveals emerging climate change risks for forests. Forest Ecology and Management 259(4):660-684.

Anderson, M. and Ferree, C. 2010. Conserving the Stage: Climate Change and the Geophysical Underpinnings of Species Diversity. PloS ONE 5(7): e11554. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0011554. http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0011554

Anderson, M.G., M. Clark, and A. Olivero Sheldon. 2011. Resilient Sites for Terrestrial Conservation in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic Region. The Nature Conservancy, Eastern Conservation Science. 168 pp.

Benedict, M., and McMahon, E., 2006. Green infrastructure: linking landscapes and communities. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Booth, D. B., Hartley, D., and Jackson, R., 2007. Forest Cover, Impervious Surface Area, and the Mitigation of Stormwater Impacts. Journal of the American Water Resources Association, 38(3), 835-845.

Botkin, D. et al., 2007. Forecasting the Effects of Global Warming on Biodiversity, BioScience 57(3):227-236. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1641/B570306

Caro, T., Darwin, J., Forrester, T., Ledoux-Bloom, C., and Wells, C. 2011. Conservation in the Anthropocene. Conservation Biology 26(1): 185-188

Clark, T. and Gaillard, D. L. 2001. Organizing an effective partnership for the Yellowstone to Yukon conservation initiative. In; Species and ecosystem conservation: an interdisciplinary approach. Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies Bulletin, 105, 223-239.

GAO. 2007. Climate Change: Agencies Should Develop Guidance for Addressing the Effects on Federal Land and Water Resources. GAO-07-863. Washington, DC: US General Accountability Office.

GAO. 2009. Climate Change Adaptation: Strategic Federal Planning Could Help Government Officials Make More Informed Decisions. GAO-10-113. Washington, DC: US General Accountability Office.

Glick, P., Stein, B., and Edelson, N. 2011. Scanning the Conservation Horizon: A Guide to Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment. Washington, DC: National Wildlife Federation. 168 pp.

Halofsky, J, Peterson, D., O’Halloran, K., and Hoffman, C. (eds.). 2011. Adapting to Climate Change at Olympic National Forest and Olympic National Park. General Technical Report PNWGTR-844. Portland, Oregon: USDA Forest Service.

Hannah, L. (ed.). 2012. Saving a Million Species: Extinction Risk from Climate Change. Washington, DC: Island Press. 411 pp.

Kareiva, P., Lalasz, R. and Marvier, M. 2011. Conservation in the Anthropocene. Breakthrough Journal, Vol. 2. (Fall 2011). Web access: http://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/journal/past-issues/issue-2/conservation-in-the-anthropocene/

Kareiva, P., Lalasz, R., and Marvier, M. 2012. Anthropocene Revisited. Breakthrough Journal 1(4) (Fall 2012).

Levesque, S. L., 2001. The Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative: Reconstructing Boundaries, Biodiversity, and Beliefs. In: Reflections on Water: New Approaches to Transboundary Conflicts and Cooperation, 123-62.

Lovejoy, T and Hannah, L. (eds.). 2005. Climate Change and Biodiversity. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Marris, E. 2011. Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World. New York: Bloomsbury Press. 210 pp.

Marris, E., Kareiva, P., Mascaro, J., and Ellis, E. 2011. Hope in the Age of Man. Opinion. New York Times, December 7, 2011.

McKibben, W. 1989. The End of Nature. New York: Random House. 226 pp.

McKibben, W. 2010. Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. New York: Times Books.

Milly, P., Betancourt, J., Falkenmark, M., Hirsh, R., Kundzewicz, Z., Lettenmaier, D., and Stouffer, R. 2008. Stationarity is Dead: Whither Water Management? Science, 319:572-574.

Paquette, A. and Messier, C. 2010. The role of plantations in managing the world’s forests in the Anthropocene. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 8: 27-34. http://dx.doi.org/10.1890/080116

Peterson, D., Millar, C., Joyce, L., Furniss, M., Halofsky, J., Neilson, R., and Morelli, T. 2011. Responding to Climate Change in National Forests: A Guidebook for Developing Adaptation Options. General Technical Report PNWGTR-855. Portland, Oregon: USDA Forest Service.

Raymond, C., Peterson, D., and Rochefort, R. 2013. The North Cascadia Adaptation Partnership: A Science-Management Collaboration for Responding to Climate Change. Sustainability 2013, 5, 136-159; doi:10.3390/su5010136. www.mdpi.com/journal/sustainability

Rouget, M., Cowling, R. M., Lombard, A. T., Knight, A. T., & Kerley, G. I. 2006. Designing Large-Scale Conservation Corridors for Pattern and Process. Conservation Biology, 20(2), 549-561.

Stager, C. 2011. Deep Future: The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth. New York: St Martin’s Press.

Swanston, C. and Janowiak, M. (eds.). 2012. Forest Adaptation Resources: Climate Change Tools and Approaches for Land Managers. General Technical Report GTR-NRS-87. Newtown Square, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station. 121 p.

Ward, P. 2007. Green Sky: Global Warming, the Mass Extinctions of the Past, and What They Can Tell Us About Our Future. New York: HarperCollins.

Victor, D. 2005. A Vision for World Forests: Results from the Council on Foreign Relations Study. In: Price, W., Rana, N., and Sample, V.A. (eds.), Plantations and Protected Areas in Sustainable Forestry. New York: Haworth Press. 156 pp.

USDA Forest Service. 2008. Forest Service Strategic Framework for Responding to Climate Change. Web only: www.fs.fed.us/climatechange/documents/strategic-framework-climate-change-1-0.pdf

USDA Forest Service. 2010. National Roadmap for Responding to Climate Change. Web only: www.fs.fed.us/climatechange/pdf/roadmap.pdf

Williams, A., Allen, C., Macalady, A. et al. 2012 Temperature as a potent driver of regional forest drought stress and tree mortality. Nature. Published online: 30 September 2012 | doi: 10.1038/nclimate1693. www.nature.com/natureclimatechange

Zalasiewicz, J., Williams, M., Steffen, W., and Crutzen, P. 2010. The New World of the Anthropocene. Environmental Science & Technology 44 (7), pp 2228-2231.
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