America’s intense focus on western wildfires has recently centered on one question: Does it matter if they are being caused by climate change? While Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has drawn attention for his comments suggesting that it doesn’t much matter, others have also made a similar case. After all, if we have broad agreement on the major actions needed in our forests, do we need to agree on the root cause?
While this line of thinking is not ill-intentioned for our forests, it could be nothing less than a death sentence for them. It is absolutely essential that every single action we take in our forests is informed by our best projection of future climate change. Instead of restoring forests to some former condition, we actually need to “pre-store” them to thrive in a different and often harsher future climate than they face today. That shift in mindset will make all of the difference.
Here are five reasons why the same action done with or without climate change in mind could have very different results for America’s forests.
1. Climate change alters priority locations for action.
A key principle of forest management is to use resources where there is the best combination of high need and high likelihood for lasting success. When it comes to climate-driven stresses on forests like drought, pests, and fire, the risk maps are changing before our eyes. Hockey great Wayne Gretzky used to say, “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it is.” The only way that we will prioritize the right locations for action in our forests is to use climate change science to target priority areas that anticipate future conditions.
2. Climate change requires using old tools in new ways.
Across the forest community, we have gained increasing consensus that our stressed forests now need much more active management than before. This includes activities like thinning forests that are prone to drought or pest infestation as a defensive strategy. But how radically do we have to intervene? This depends on the scale of change you are willing to consider, and climate science is the key to making the right decisions. In some places we might be “pre-storing” forests to a condition we have never seen before to survive radical threats like permanent mega-drought.
3. In some places you need to let climate change win.
This does not mean giving up on our forests entirely in those locations where the current forest is dramatically out of alignment with projected future conditions. In these most vulnerable places we can still create healthy, resilient forests by transitioning it to a new composition and structure that will be resilient to future climate shifts. This requires targeted climate adaptation strategies like using seed stock from more southerly ranges of those tree species currently present on a site, or even planting entirely new tree species that only exist farther south today. These trees will better handle the changing conditions of a warming climate, like drier conditions. Lest you think this is some last-ditch science experiment for the future, some foresters are already accepting these realities, and using tools like the USDA Climate Change Tree Atlas to shift their planting and management to favor climate-resilient trees.
4. Climate risks to forests go beyond increased wildfire.
While western forests are undeniably the canary in the coal mine for climate change, serious climate changes and threats are also afoot in other regions. By climate necessity, some southern forests are already changing to become more drought tolerant. The Northeast is girding for a life-and-death struggle with the hemlock wooly adelgid, aided in its spread by warmer winters. If we only focus on the most visible stresses on forests, such as western wildfires, and fail to make the climate change connection there, we will never get attention and investment to the full range of climate change threats to forests across America.
5. If you don’t name the root problem, you won’t fix it.
Finally, if we don’t acknowledge that climate change is killing our forests, then we won’t address the root cause of climate change, which is carbon emissions and other greenhouse gases. This includes focused efforts to use forests to slow climate change by capturing carbon directly from the atmosphere. If we define the problem as climate change, then it will be natural to integrate carbon capture and storage strategies as part of planning for future forest management.
It is good news that we have reached this point in the public debate about managing our forests, because it means we are starting from a point close to convergence on the interventions that are needed. Public and private leaders from all perspectives are coming to appreciate the full value of our forests, and the urgency of making unprecedented investment in how we care for them.
But to be successful our actions must be climate-informed. Let’s make sure that future interventions in our forests take full advantage of climate change science and climate adaptation strategy to “pre-store” our forests for climate change instead of restore them for past conditions. We have a bumpy future ahead, and we urgently need our forests to be a resilient resource in the face of constant change.
Jad Daley is president & CEO of American Forests, as well as the co-founder and current co-chair of the Forest-Climate Working Group.