Case Studies

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Case Studies - Managing for a Changing Climate on the Olympic National Forest

CCSP, 2008: Preliminary review of adaptation options for climate-sensitive ecosystems and resources. A Report by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program and the Subcommittee on Global Change Research. [Julius, S.H., J.M. West (eds.), J.S. Baron, L.A. Joyce, P. Kareiva, B.D. Keller, M.A. Palmer, C.H. Peterson, and J.M. Scott (Authors)]. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC, USA, 873 pp.

Land management has been traditionally based on the precept that future environmental conditions will mirror past conditions. Climate change is turning this notion on its head. We can no longer assume that precipitation will fall in the same amounts and during the same time of year as in the past. Changes in temperature and precipitation set the stage for a broad range of other changes: from insect outbreaks and fire frequency, to the range and viability of specific species, both plant and animal.

Current management directives, from national legislation to individual forest plans, generally do not address the need to manage ecosystems so they are resilient to future environmental changes. The following case study for the Olympic National Forest evaluates the current management polices for their ability to accommodate climate adaptive management. It identifies opportunities and barriers for facilitating adaptation to a changing climate within the current management and political framework.

Summary of Findings

  • The management priorities of the Olympic National Forest are compatible with management activities that encourage adaptation to climate change and promote resilience to its impacts. Financial resources, however, do not allow these activities to be carried out on a large enough scale, and scientific uncertainty remains about the best adaptation strategies and practices.
  • The current political and regulatory contexts limit the adaptive capacity to current and future climate changes in several ways:
    • Failing to incorporate climate change into policy, regulations, and guidelines
    • Requiring lengthy planning processes for management actions regardless of scope
    • Adopting priorities and guidelines that are not clear or consistently applicable at national, regional, and forest levels
  • These limitations can be overcome by taking the following actions:
    • Developing a manager’s guide to climate impacts and adaptation techniques
    • Developing an ongoing science-management partnership focused on climate change
    • Incorporating climate change explicitly into national, regional, and forest-level policy
    • Re-examining the appropriateness of and regulations on climate change management
    • Creating clear, consistent priorities and regulations that provide guidance but allow for forest-level strategies and management actions that increase resilience and reduce vulnerability to climate change
    • Allocating resources sufficient for climate adaptation management
    • Increasing educational and outreach efforts to promote awareness of climate change impacts on ecosystem services

Expected Effects of Climate Change

Changes in temperature and precipitation in the Olympic National Forest will likely lead to lower snowpacks at middle and lower elevations, shifts in timing of spring snowmelt and runoff as well as increases in summer evapotranspiration (Mote et al. 2005, Hamlet in press). Runoff in winter (October to March) is likely to increase, and summer runoff (April to September) is likely to decrease (Hamlet in press).

For basins with vulnerable snowpack (i.e., mid-elevations), streamflow will likely increase in winter and decrease in summer. Higher temperatures and lower summer flows will have serious consequences for anadromous and resident fish species such as salmon, steelhead, bull trout.

Floods are likely to increase in frequency because the buffering effect of snowpacks will decrease and because the severity of storms is projected to increase (although less snow can decrease the maximum impacts of rain-on-snow events due to lower water storage in snow). Sea level rise will exacerbate flooding in coastal areas. Some effects, especially the timing of snowmelt and peak streamflow, are likely to vary substantially with topography.

Warmer summer temperature may lead to decreases in vegetative growth (Littell 2006, Nakawatase 2006), vigor, and fuel moisture in lower elevation (e.g., Douglas-fir and western hemlock) forests while increasing growth (Ettl and Peterson 1995, Nakawatase 2006) and regeneration in high elevation (e.g., subalpine fir and mountain hemlock) forests (Woodward et al. 1995). Warmer temperatures would also affect the range and decrease generation time of forest insects such as the mountain pine beetle (Logan 2003) as well as increase the area burned by fire in ecoprovinces of western \Washington and Oregon ecoprovinces (Littell 2006).

The distribution and abundance of plant and animal species will likely change over time (Zolbrod and Peterson 1999), given that paleoecological data show this has always been a result of climate variability in the range expected for future warming. This change may be difficult to observe at small scales, and will be facilitated in many cases by large-scale disturbances such as fire or windstorms that remove much of the overstory and "clear the slate" for a new cohort of vegetation. The regeneration phase will be the key stage at which species will compete and establish in a warmer climate, thus determining the composition of future vegetative assemblages and habitat for animals.

Thus, ecosystem services in Olympic National Forest are likely to be impacted by climate change. Water quality for threatened fish species is likely to decline as temperatures increase and, potentially, as increasing storm intensity causes road failures. Water quantity may decline in summer when it is most needed, as streamflow timing shifts with temperature changes. Air quality will decline if drought frequencies or durations increase and cause more area to be burned. Climate change influence on habitat for threatened species is less certain, but high elevation and currently rare species such as Olympic Marmot, bull trout, whitebark pine are likely to be more vulnerable.

Planning Within the Current Policy Environment

The Olympic National Forest (ONF) is a "restoration forest" charged with managing large, contiguous areas of second-growth forest. Objectives include

  1. Managing for native biodiversity and promoting the development of late-successional forests
  2. Restoring and protecting aquatic ecosystems from the impacts of an aging road infrastructure
  3. Managing for individual threatened and endangered species as defined by the Endangered Species Act or other policies related to the protection of other rare species

Most management activities are focused on restoring old-growth forests and waterways, minimizing the impacts related to unmaintained logging roads, controlling invasive species, and monitoring environmental conditions.

Collaboration with other agencies occurs and is a cornerstone of the Northwest Forest Plan. Without clear consensus on climate change, differing mandates, requirements, and strategies could potentially lead to cross-boundary difficulties in solving problems, but there is no evidence that this is currently a problem.

Planning guidelines for ONF are structured by several mandates:

  • National Forest Management Act (NFMA)
  • The Northwest Forest Plan (NWFP)
  • National Environmental Planning Act (NEPA)
  • Regional Forest Service policy
  • Public comments

NEPA planning is carried out at a site-specific level. This makes it difficult to incorporate regional climate change information into environmental assessment or impact statements (EA/EIS) because of substantial uncertainty about climate change predictions, especially precipitation, at sub-regional scales.

Adaptation to climate change is not yet formally addressed in the forest plan or included in most management activities. With respect to climate change, current management objectives essentially attempt to confer resilience by promoting landscape diversity and biodiversity. Several tools for promoting resilience are currently available to forest managers:

  • Minimize the impacts of roads, bridges, and culverts to restore aquatic systems
  • Silvicultural treatments such as thinning and planting with different species, or from different seed zones
  • Treat invasive species
Fire is an unlikely tool because of the low historical area burned, limitations of the Clean Air Act, and low funding levels.

Land designations affect the use of these tools. Late-successional reserves and wilderness have less leeway than adaptive management areas because there are more explicit restrictions on land use and silvicultural treatment. Second-growth forests are primarily managed with thinning, and silvicultural treatments have been used to create 0.5-2 ha openings for the benefit of elk. The ONF has funding to treat about 600 ha/yr, but the forest has initiated a strategic plan to maximize the efficacy of treatments that do occur.

Managing Proactively for Climate Change

Little scientific information or specific guidance is available to guide adaptation to climate change on the Olympic National Forest (ONF). The scope of possible adaptation, clear strategies for successful outcomes, and the tools available to managers are all limited. Under current funding restrictions, most tools would need to be adapted from management responses to current stresses.

Future impacts on ecological and socioeconomic sensitivities can result in potential tradeoffs or conflicts. Short-term impacts must be weighed against long-term gains. Fish species may be vulnerable to failures of unmaintained, closed roads caused by increased precipitation/storminess, but road rehabilitation may produce temporary sedimentation and may invite invasive weeds. Given climate change and limited resources, it may be necessary to prioritize management actions with the highest likelihood of success at the expense of those that divert resources and have a less certain outcomes.

Generally, success of climate adaptation strategies should be defined by their ability to reduce the vulnerability of resources to a changing climate while attaining current management goals. Effective strategies include prioritizing treatments with the greatest likelihood of being effective (resources are too limited to do otherwise) and recognizing that some treatments may cause short-term detrimental effects but have long-term benefits. For structures, using designs and engineering standards that match future conditions (e.g., culvert size) will help minimize future crises. Specific strategies likely to be used in ONF terrestrial ecosystems are to increase landscape diversity, maintain biological diversity, and employ early detection-rapid response for invasive species.

Landscape diversity can be achieved by several means:

  1. Targeted thinning (increases diversity, can decrease vulnerability by increasing tree vigor, and can reduce vulnerability to disturbance)
  2. Avoiding a "one-size-fits-all" toolkit and using a variety of treatments even if new prescriptions are required
  3. Creating openings large enough for elk habitat but small enough to minimize invasive exotics
  4. Considering preserves at many elevations, not just high elevation wilderness
  5. Considering "blocking" ownerships (through land trades) to reduce edges, maintain corridors and consolidate habitat

Biological diversity may be maintained by the following:

  1. Planting species in anticipation of climate change. For example, planting species from different geographical locations and nursery stock from outside current seed zones. There must be credible rationale, however, for using seed and seedlings other than local, native plant species.
  2. Maintaining within-species diversity
  3. Providing corridors for wildlife.

Early detection-rapid response focuses on solving small problems before they become large, unsolvable problems. The ONF strategic plan currently uses this tool for invasive species, recognizing that proactive management to treat a small patch is more effective than waiting to treat a large-scale invasion. Early detection-rapid response may also be appropriate for climate change because it could allow managers to respond quickly to the impacts of extreme events (disturbances, floods, windstorms) with an eye toward adaptation.

Using Disturbances as an Management Opportunity

Large-scale disturbance can cause sudden and major changes in ecosystems, but can be used as occasions to apply climate adaptation strategies. The Olympic National Forest (ONF) is currently buffered from climate-related disturbances already evident in drier forests, but age-class studies and paleoproxy evidence indicate large-scale disturbances occurred in the past on the Olympic Peninsula.

On the ONF, the amount of young forest (as a result of 20th century harvest) is both a risk and an opportunity. Large disturbances such as fire, insect outbreaks, and disease that may occur in the future could be used to influence the future structure and function of forests. Carefully-designed management experiments for adapting to climate change could be implemented. There is a clear need to have concepts and plans in place in anticipation of large fire and wind events so that maximum benefit can be realized.

What Is Needed to Facilitate Proactive Management?

A long-term, management-science partnership and decision-specific scientific information are needed to facilitate climate adaptation management. Forest managers on the Olympic National Forest (ONF) specifically asked for a manager’s guide to climate change that highlights important scientific concepts and techniques.

Critical gaps in scientific information hinder adaptation by limiting assessment of risks, efficacy, and sustainability of actions. Managers would also like assistance interpreting climate and ecosystem model output so that the context and relevance of model predictions can be reconciled with managers’ priorities for adaptation. Managers identified a need to determine effectiveness of prevention and control efforts for invasive species; monitoring is critical (and expensive). There is a strong need for data on genetic variability of key species as well as recent results of hydrologic modeling relative to water supply, seasonal patterns, and temperature. In contrast, managers pointed out that ONF collects data on a large array of different topics, many of them important, but new data collection should be implemented only if it will be highly relevant, scientifically robust, and inform key decisions.

Regional Planning

An important opportunity for adapting to climate change at the regional scale is the coordinated development of forest plans between ONF, Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, and Gifford Pinchot National Forest. This planning effort is targeted to being in 2012, and would facilitate further cooperation and planning for adaptation in similar ecosystems subject to similar stressors. ONF has implemented a strategic plan that has similar capacity for guiding prioritization and can incorporate climate change elements now, rather than waiting for the multi-forest plan effort. By explicitly addressing resilience to climate change (and simultaneously developing any science needed to do so) in the ONFP, ONF can formalize the use of climate change information in management actions.

A second, related opportunity is to integrate climate change management with region-wide guidelines of the Northwest Forest Plan (NWFP). The legacy of the 20th century timber economy in the Pacific Northwest has created ecological problems, but also opportunities. Landscapes predominately in early seral stages are more easily influenced by management actions such as targeted thinning and planting than late seral forests. There is an opportunity here to anticipate climate change and prepare for its impacts with carefully considered management actions.

By anticipating the impacts of climate change on forest ecosystems (such as shifts in disturbance regimes), the revised forest plans can become an evolving set of guidelines for forest managers.

Collaboration Among Agencies

Sometimes, collaboration among multiple organizations is an underutilized opportunity. ONF staff believe that the "stage is set" for continued and future collaboration between organizations and agencies on the Olympic Peninsula. Climate change and ecosystems do not recognize political boundaries, and significant adaptive leverage can be gained by cooperation. Initiatives by coalitions and partnerships can include climate change (e.g., the Puget Sound Partnership) and are conducive to an environment in which adaptation actions are well supported. In some cases, working with other agencies can improve the likelihood of success by increasing overall land base and resources for addressing problems.

Barriers to Proactive Climate Management

  1. Lack of financial resources
  2. Policies and regulations that do not recognize climate change as a significant problem or stressor
  3. Lack of a strong management-science partnership

National and regional budget policies and processes are a significant barrier to adaptation and constrain the potential for altering or supplementing current management practices to enable adaptation to climate change. Current emphasis on fire and fuel treatments in dry forest systems has greatly reduced resources for stand density management, pathogen management, etc. in forests that do not have as much fire on the ground but may be equally vulnerable in the future.

Multiple agency collaboration can be difficult because of conflicting legislation, mandates, and cultures, but such collaboration is likely to be a hallmark of successful adaptation to climate change. Certainly increased collaboration between scientists and managers could streamline the process of proposing testable scientific questions and applying knowledge to management decisions and actions.

Policies, laws, and regulations that are based on a more static view of the environment do not consider the flexibility required to adapt to changing conditions outside historical observations. The National Forest Management Act (NFMA) puts limitations on management actions and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) delays implementation of actions. The Endangered Species Act (ESA) requires fine-scale management for many imperiled species and this may be unrealistic in a rapidly changing climate.

Given the rate of climate change and the resource limitations for land management agencies, it may be more sustainable and financially efficient to protect systems and landscape diversity than to plan for and protect many individual species. The Norhtwest Forest Plan (NWFP) partially embraces this strategy, but does not focus specifically on climate change. The Clean Water Act could become an important barrier in the future as stream temperatures increase; this may result in unattainable standards that constrain management actions. NEPA, the ESA, the CWA, and the NWFP all focus on historical reference points in comparatively static environments, but climate change warrants looking to future impacts and the need for preparation.

Future Barriers

Future barriers to climate adaptation management may arise with the interaction of current policy restrictions and the potential need to adapt to climate-related changes in ecosystem processes. Fire is not a currently an authorized management tool on the Olympic National Forest, but may be of value as conditions change.

The benefits of wildland fire use (likely limited on the ONF to natural ignitions within wilderness areas), however, would need to be weighed against the cost of authorization. Authorization to use this tool in the short term would require a Forest Plan amendment and associated NEPA process. A less costly alternative is to include fire in the 2012 Forest Plan revision effort. Benefits would be limited to fire that could be approved within the confines of the ESA and other regulations. Olympic National Park recently completed a fire management plan that authorizes wildland fire use but has restrictions related to ESA requirements. For ONF, the role of fire in management would also be limited by the ESA and concerns of adjacent non-Federal neighbors.

Characterizing and Measuring Resilience to Climate Change

The ecosystem stressors the Olympic National Forest manages for currently (table 1) are likely to be exacerbated by climate change, but little work has focused on quantifying the direct links between the climate system and future ecosystem services on the Olympic Peninsula. Current resilience to climate change is only describable qualitatively. Past timber harvest has resulted in a very large area of lower elevation forest consisting of second-growth in an ecosystem that was characterized by more heterogeneous (and presumably more resilient) old-growth. This landscape homogenization has occurred in other forest types, and, at least in theory, results in less resilience to climate-mediated disturbances. However, such characterization is at the moment speculative.

Aquatic ecosystems are probably less resilient, and measuring resilience there is similarly underdeveloped. This uncertainty points to a need for adaptation specific research that attempts to quantify ecosystem resilience to the anticipated impacts of climate change.


The Olympic National Forest is at a crossroads. The effects of climate change on forest ecosystems and natural resources are already detectable. Adapting to those changes and sustaining ecosystem services is an obvious and urgent priority, yet adaptive capacity is limited by the policy environment, current allocation of scarce resources, and lack of relevant scientific information on the effects of climate change and, more crucially, on the likely outcomes of adaptive strategies. Adaptive management is one strategy for learning how to predict, act on, and mitigate the impacts of climate change on a forest ecosystem, but if there is no leeway for management actions or those actions must occur quickly, then adaptation options are limited in the current environment. ONF staff indicated that if they were managing for climate change, given what they know now and their current levels of funding and personnel, they would continue to emphasize management for biodiversity. It is possible, for example, that they might further increase their current emphasis on restoration and diversity. Another possible change, reminiscent of the earlier Forest Service priorities, would be to emphasize the role of forests as producers of hydrological commodities.

Key components of climate adaptation management include the following:

  1. A vision of what is needed and removal of as many barriers as possible
  2. Increased collaboration between agencies, managers, and scientists at multiple scales
  3. Use proven strategies such as early detection-rapid response

We envision a future in which the policy, planning, and scientific aspects of ecosystem-based management co-evolve with changes in climate and ecosystems. This vision requires trust, collaboration, and education among policy makers, land managers, and scientists as well as the publics they serve. Climate will continue to change, effects on ecosystems will be complex, and land managers will struggle to adapt to those changes with limited resources. Collaboration with scientists is certain to produce information that relates directly to on-the-ground decision making. Less certain is how opportunities for adaptation will be realized while retaining public support for resource management actions. The Olympic National Forest has already transitioned from producing commodities to producing ecosystem services, but our more ambitious vision of coevolution must progress rapidly in order for adaptation to keep pace with anticipated effects of climate change.


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