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Climate and Forests: Land Managers Must Adapt, and Conservationists, Too

The case for adaptive management by land management agencies has been in the making for a long time, and takes on a new urgency with the changes being forced by the emissions from consumer and industrial combustion of fossil fuels. The case for adaptive conservation by non-governmental organizations takes on its own urgency for the same reason. 

As conceived so far, adaptive management implies adaptation by land management agencies such as the USDA Forest Service. By now, it’s clear as clear can be that, among others, the Forest Service simply must adapt to the new conditions of heat and drought driven by emissions from consumer and industrial combustion of coal, oil, and natural gas. Taken down to cases, the agency must adapt by recognizing which species are unlikely to persist under increasing emissions, and by shifting its management emphasis to species that might hang in there.

At least some in the Forest Service “get it.” For example, consider this November 1, 2016 assessment by Randy Johnson, U.S. Forest Service Research and Development Program: “Forests are changing in ways they’ve never experienced before because today’s growing conditions are different from anything in the past. The climate is changing at an unprecedented rate.” Johnson thus asks, “When replanting a forest after disturbances, does it make sense to try to reestablish what was there before? Or, should we find re-plant material that might be more appropriate to current and future conditions of a changing environment?”

Ya can’t always get what ya want

By forcing change on the set of conditions — temperature, rainfall, snowfall, wind, etc. — that we summarize as climate, we’ve been forcing change on the forests. Put most simply, climate change forces forests to change. The first result is that we’re increasingly unlikely to keep the kind of forest we have, let alone restore one we had. The second result is that the Forest Service has to be careful about the promises it makes when describing desired future conditions.

Stressing that further change for forests is inevitable, Millar and Stephenson have pointed out that “triage exercises will almost certainly be necessary” in part because change in temperate forests can include “major transformation of vegetation types, some resulting in novel ecosystems relative to recent centuries.”

Similarly, Golladay et al have suggested that the time has come for a shift to managing for “novel ecosystems, i.e., species combinations with no analog in the past.” Instead of managing for some ideal future forest that people might desire, Golladay et al urge managers to aim for what’s achievable in a context of inevitable change.

Adaptiive conservation’s day is here, now

Forest conservationists must also adapt, specifically with their own need to give more attention to novel ecosystems. A paper published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, argues that, “Conservation organizations must adapt to respond to the ecological impacts of global change.”  

In a related press release,  the article’s lead author Paul Armsworth argues that, “If you are an organization that has focused on conserving particular species in a particular place, as many of today’s conservation organizations are, then something has to give — either you need to change your business model or revisit your conservation priorities. And neither is going to be easy for some of these groups.”  

However difficult the needed change will be,  the demands for due diligence and fiduciary duty bring some important legal implications if and when conservationist promises to supporters can no longer be kept.

Getting real won’t be easy

Responding to inevitable change of forests isn’t going to be a cakewalk for either the Forest Service or the conservation community. As an article in Science pointed out in its April 21, 2017 issue, ecosystem management or conservation is a “wicked problem,” and one that “must avoid two traps: falsely assuming a tame solution and inaction from overwhelming complexity.”

There is, however, one thing that the forest conservation community can do that the Forest Service can’t — advocate openly and actively for energy policy. This is a necessary step when we pause to consider energy policy’s power to shape the forests.  So far, however, forest conservationists I’m familiar with haven’t taken that step. Unless and until that step is taken, forest conservationists may fight the good fight to save forests from logging only to lose them to the harsh new conditions we summarize as climate change.

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