Case Studies

Climate Change and...

Managing for a Changing Climate on the Tahoe 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 Tahoe 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

  • Few management policies of the Tahoe National Forest (TNF) specifically address climate change, but many practices are consistent with adaptive conditioning.
  • Proactive thinking by TNF staff about climate change and climate implications and support by line officers for broad science-based thinking and proactive behavior have prepared the TNF institutionally to move forward with proactive climate management.
  • A number of barriers to proactive climate management exist, including public opposition to active management, limited funding and staff capacity, checkerboard land ownership patterns, and current laws and policies that result in crisis management rather than long-term, phased management plans.
  • Adaptive capacity to respond to climate change could be possibly increased by developing integrated management strategies that specifically address the challenges and contexts implied by climate change; modeled simulations of future climates, species movement, and rates of change; and a scientific clearing house for climate information; among other ideas.

Expected Effects of Climate Change

The trend of temperature increase over the 20th century for California has paralleled the global pattern (IPCC 2007), although at greater magnitude (1.5-2°C; Millar et al., 2004; Western Regional Climate Center, 2005). Precipitation has not shown strong directional changes, but has been variable at annual and interannual scales (Cayan et al., 1998). Whereas multi-year droughts have been common in recent and past centuries (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2007), interaction of drought with increased temperature has resulted in greater stress to vegetation than under cooler climates of prior centuries. Forest insect and disease, mortality, and fire events have become more severe in Tahoe National Forest (TNF), as throughout the West (Logan and Powell, 2001, Westerling et al., 2006). Decreases in average snowpack up to 80 percent are documented throughout much of the West; snowpacks peak as much as 45 days earlier (Hamlet et al., 2005, Mote et al., 2005) and streamflows peak up to three weeks earlier in spring (Stewart, Cayan, and Dettinger, 2005) compared to the 1950s, based on an analysis of the last 50 years.

Many of the climate and ecological trends documented for the 20th century are projected to continue and exacerbate in the 21st century. Future climate scenarios and effects on water, forests, fires, insects, and disease for California are summarized in Hayhoe et al. (2004) and the California Climate Action Team reports (California Climate Action Team, 2005). All models project increased annual temperatures over California ranging from 2.3–5.8°C (range of models to show model uncertainties). Model projections also indicate slight drying, especially in winter; interannual and interdecadal variability is projected to remain high in the next century.

Snowpacks, however, are consistently projected to decline by as much as 97 percent at 1,000 m elevation and 89 percent for all elevations. The combined effects of continued warming, declining snowpacks, and earlier stream runoff portend longer summer droughts for TNF, and greater soil moisture deficits during the growing season. This would increase stress that an already long, dry Mediterranean summer imposes on vegetation and wildlife.

Coupling climate models with vegetation models yields major contractions and expansions in the cover of dominant vegetation by the late 21st century (Hayhoe et al., 2004; Lenihan et al., 2005). By 2070–2099, alpine and subalpine forest types are modeled to decline by 10 to 90 percent, shrublands by 75 percent, and mixed evergreen woodland by 50 percent. In contrast, mixed evergreen forest and grasslands are each projected to expand by 100 percent. The following conditions are expected to be exacerbated in TNF as a result of anticipated changes (Dettinger et al., 2004; Hayhoe et al., 2004; Cayan et al., 2005):

  • Increased fuel build-up and risk of uncharacteristically severe and widespread forest fire.
  • Longer fire seasons; year-round fires in some areas (winter fires have already occurred).
  • Higher-elevation insect and disease and wildfire events (large fires already moving into true fir and subalpine forests, which is unprecedented).
  • Increased interannual variability in precipitation, leading to fuel build-up and causing additional forest stress. This situation promotes fire vulnerabilities and sensitivities.
  • Increased water temperatures in rivers and lakes and lower water levels in late summer.
  • Increased stress to forests during periodic multi-year droughts; heightened forest mortality.
  • Decreased water quality as a result of increased watershed erosion and sediment flow.
  • Increased likelihood of severe floods.
  • Loss of seed and other germplasm sources as a result of population extirpation events.

Planning Within the Current Policy Environment

In addition to national laws and regional management directives, management goals and direction for the land and resources of the Tahoe National Forest (TNF) are specified by several overarching planning documents:

  • 1990 Tahoe National Forest Land and Resource Management Plan (LMP)
  • FPA—a plan that specifies goals and direction for the 11 national forests of the Sierra Nevada and the Modoc Plateau.
  • Herger-Feinstein Quincy Library Group Forest Recovery Act of 1998 provides specific management goals and direction for just the Sierraville Ranger District

Few, if any, management policies of the TNF specifically address climate change, but many practices are consistent with adaptive conditioning. Most post-disturbance treatments planned by TNF were developed to meet goals of maintaining ecosystem health (e.g., watershed protection, succession to forest after wildfire, and fuel reduction after insect mortality).

Current Approaches to Climate Adaptation Management

Although the Tahoe National Forest (TNF) has not addressed climate directly through intentional proactive management, staff have been discussing climate change and climate implications for many years. This proactive thinking has pre-conditioned TNF to taking climate into account in early management actions, and has started the discussion among staff regarding potential changes in strategic planning areas. Further, advances in integrated planning processes that may facilitate the incorporation of climate-related treatments, thus pre-adapting TNF institutionally to move forward with proactive climate management. The following examples of actions and opportunities demonstrate how the TNF is moving forward with dynamic management.

  • Staff support by line officers: The leadership team at TNF promotes broad science-based thinking and rewards adaptive and proactive behaviors. This practice clearly sets a stage where management responses to climate can be undertaken where possible, providing an incentive and the intellectual environment to do so.
  • Fireshed Assessment:The new Fireshed Assessment process is a major step toward integrated management of TNF lands. Effective implementation of this process already provides a vehicle for other dynamic and whole-landscape planning processes such as are needed for climate adaptation.
  • Fuel reduction projects: Strategies implemented by TNF as a result of FPA and Herger-Feinstein Quincy Library Group Pilot directions to reduce fuels and minimize chances of catastrophic fires are increasing the adaptability and resilience of TNF forests (Fig. 3.14). Strategically placed area treatments, a form of adaptive and dynamic approach to fuel management, are being tested on the adaptive management pilot of TNF.
  • Riparian management policies: New policies in the FPA for riparian and watershed management restrict road construction for timber management (e.g., near or across perennial streams). Helicopters are used for logging in all situations where roads cannot be built. This allows more flexibility, adaptability, and reduces fragmentation and watershed erosion.
  • Post-event recovery: Although certain kinds of standardized post-fire restoration practices (e.g., Burned Area Emergency Rehabilitation procedures) are not proactive in terms of climate-change management, a post-event recovery team at the Pacific Southwest regional level is investigating dynamic approaches to recovery after major disturbances. These approaches might include planning for long-term changes on disturbed sites and taking advantage of new planting mixes, broadening gene pool mixes, planting in new spacing and designs, etc.
  • Revegetation and silvicultural choices: In stand improvement projects and revegetation efforts, choices are being considered to favor or plant different species and species mixes. For instance, where appropriate based on anticipated changes, white fir could be favored over red fir, pines would be preferentially harvested at high elevations over fir, and species would be shifted upslope within seed transfer guides.
  • Forest Plan revision: The TNF LMP is due for revision. Climate considerations are being evaluated as the plan revision unfolds, including such options as flexible spotted owl (Strix occidentalis occidentalis) "Protected Activity Center" boundaries, species shifts in planting and thinning, and priority-setting for sensitive-species management.
  • Resisting planned projects that may not succeed under future climate conditions: Restoring salmon to TNF rivers is a goal in the current LMP (Fig. 3.15). With waters warming, however, future conditions of TNF rivers are not likely to provide suitable habitat for salmon. Thus, TNF is considering the option to not restore salmon. Meadow restoration is another example: Rather than proceeding with plans for extensive and intensive meadow restoration, some areas are being considered for non-treatment due to possible succession of non-meadow conditions in these locations.
  • Resilience management: All forms of proactive management that improve the resilience of natural resources are improving the TNF’s ability to adapt by decreasing the number of situations where TNF must take crisis-reaction responses.
  • Dynamic management: TNF staff is using available opportunities (i.e., under current policy) to manage dynamically and experimentally. An example is cases in which plans treat critical species’ range margins differently, favoring active management at advancing edges or optimal habitat rather than static or stressed margins.
  • Managing for process:TNF staff is also using available opportunities to manage for process rather than structure or composition in proposed projects; for example, those involving succession after fires, where novel mixes of species and spacing may reflect likely natural dynamic processes of adaptation.

Potential Proactive Management Actions

The ideas listed below were identified by Tahoe National Forest (TNF) staff as being examples of how management actions could be leveraged in the future to increase the TNF adaptive responses to climate change.

  • Conduct rapid assessments of current planning and policy: A science-based (e.g., U.S. Forest Service research team) rapid assessment or "audit" of existing TNF planning documents could focus on the level of adaptive capacity in managing for climate change, pitfalls, and areas for improvement in current TNF plans and operations. Such an audit could focus on current management direction (written policy); current management practices (implementation); and priorities of species (e.g., specific targeted species) and processes (fire, insects, and disease). The audit would recommend a set of specific areas where changes are needed and improvements could be made.
  • Audit the Sierra Nevada FPA: This would be a similar assessment to that above, but would be undertaken at the FPA scale. The FPA did not originally include climate, and the science consistency review highlighted this problem. A more comprehensive assessment of the FPA’s strengths and weaknesses is needed, with a call for revision as appropriate.
  • Make the TNF a pilot forest for the U.S. Forest Service Ecosystem Services program: Tapping into the ecosystems services market opportunities and acting as a pilot national forest within the ecosystems services goals and objectives may provide management flexibility needed for climate adaptation.
  • Increase size of management units: Increase sizes of management units on the forest, so whole landscapes (watersheds, forest types) could be managed in a single resource plan; decrease administrative fragmentation. Whole ecosystem management, rather than piecemeal by small management unit or by single species or single issue, would favor adaptability to climate-related challenges.
  • Increase water storage: To increase groundwater storage capacities, treatments to improve infiltration could be implemented. For instance, in TNF, consider decreasing road densities and other activities (evaluate grazing) in order to change surfaces from impervious to permeable.
  • Salvage harvest: To decrease erosion and sediment loss following disturbance, there is widespread need in TNF to salvage-harvest affected trees and reforest soon after disturbance. This is the plan at present, but it generally cannot be implemented in a timely manner because of the time required for NEPA processing and general public opposition.
  • Event recovery: Post-disturbance mortality and shrub invasion must be dealt with swiftly to keep options open for forest regeneration on the site. The means are known; the capacity (money, legal defense) is needed.

Opportunities to Enhance Current or Future Proactive Management

The activities listed below were identified by Tahoe National Forest (TNF) staff as current or potential future opportunities to enhance managers’ ability to proactively manage for climate change. Some of these activities are currently done on the TNF.

  • Year-round management: TNF is experiencing later winters (snow arriving later in the year), lower snowpacks, and earlier runoff. The TNF staff has taken advantage of these changes by continuing fuel treatments far beyond the season where historically these treatments could be done, enabling them to treat more acres.
  • Active dialog with the public: TNF has effectively maintained a capacity to implement adaptive projects when in-depth, comprehensive analysis has been done on NEPA process. In addition, intensive education of the interested publics through workshops, scoping meetings, face-to-face dialog, and informal disposition processes have helped develop support for plans (avoiding appeal). These activities are enabling TNF’s adaptive projects to be conducted.
  • Public education: Specifically, TNF was able to gain public approval to cut larger-diameter classes (needed for active management to achieve dynamic goals) than had been previously acceptable, through the use of 3-D computer simulations (visualizations), on-the-ground demonstration projects, field trips, and other field-based educational efforts. More opportunities exist to educate the local public about the scientific bases for climate change, the implications for the northern Sierra Nevada and TNF, and the need for active resource management.
  • Regional biomass and biofuels industries: Emerging carbon markets are likely to promote the (re-)development of regional biomass and biofuels industries. These industries will provide economic incentives for active adaptive management, in particular funds to support thinning and fuel-reduction projects.
  • Planning flexibility in policy: The existence of the Herger-Feinstein Quincy Library Group Pilot and the FPA Adaptive Management project on TNF mean that there is more opportunity than in most other Sierra Nevada NFs to implement active management, especially at broader landscape scales.
  • Add new staff areas: When capacity to add staff arises, new positions (climate-smart) may be added. Through incremental changes in staff, TNF may "reinvent and redefine" its institutional ability to better respond adaptively to novel challenges.

Barriers to Proactive Climate Management

The situations listed below were identified by Tahoe National Forest (TNF) staff as barriers that limit TNF’s capacity to respond adaptively to climate change.

  • Public opposition: Appeals and litigation of proposed active management projects directly restrict the ability of TNF to implement adaptive practices (Levings 2003). There is a large public constituency that opposes active management of any kind. Thus, no matter the purpose, if adaptive management proposals involve on-the-ground disturbance, these publics attempt to prohibit their implementation. The likelihood of appeals and litigation means that a large proportion of staff time must necessarily be used to develop "appeal proof" NEPA documents, rather than undertaking active management projects on the ground. This often results in a situation in which no-management action can be taken, regardless of the knowledge and intent to implement active and adaptive practices.
  • Funding: Overall lack of funds means that adaptive projects, while identified and prioritized, cannot be implemented. General funding limitations are barriers throughout TNF operations. The annual federal budget process limits capacity to plan or implement long-term projects.
  • Staff capacity: Loss of key staff areas (e.g., silviculture) and general decline in resource staff and planning capacity translate to lower capacity to respond adaptively to needed changes.
  • Scope of on-the-ground needs: The area of land needing active management is rapidly escalating and far exceeds staff capacity or available funds to treat it. This is a result of legacy issues (fire-suppression, land-use history, etc.), as well as responses to changing climates (increasing densification of forests, increasing forest mortality).
  • Crisis reaction as a routine planning approach: Inadequate TNF funding and staff capacity, combined with persistent legal opposition by external publics, force a continuous reactive approach to priority-setting. This results in crisis-management being the only approach to decisionmaking that is possible, as opposed to conducting or implementing long-term, skillful, or phased management plans.
  • Checkerboard land ownership pattern: The alternating sections of TNF and private land create barriers to planning or implementing landscape-scale management, which is needed for adaptive responses to climate challenges. Achieving mutually agreeable management goals regarding prescribed fire, road building, fire suppression, post-fire recovery, and many other landscape treatments is extremely difficult; thus, often no management can be done. This is especially challenging in the central part of TNF, where important corridors, riparian forests, and continuous wildlife habitat would be actively enhanced by management, but cannot be due to mixed ownership barriers.
  • Existing environmental laws: Many current important environmental laws that regulate national forest actions such as the Endangered Species Act, the National Forest Management Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act are highly static, inhibit dynamic planning, and impede adaptive responses (Levings 2003). Further, these laws do not allow the option of not managing any specific situation—such choices may be necessary as triage-based adaptation in the future. Finally, while coarse-filter approaches are more adaptive, many existing laws force a fine-filter approach to management.
  • Current agency management concepts and policies: Current agency-wide management paradigms limit capacity to plan in a proactive, forward-looking manner. For instance, the policies requiring use of historical-range-of-variability or other historical-reference approaches for goal-setting restrict dynamic, adaptive approaches to management. This problem was identified in vegetation management, dam construction ("100-year" flood references), and sensitive-species management (owls, salmon). Certain current regional policies and procedures limit adaptive responses. The Burned Area Emergency Rehabilitation, for example, is a static and short-term set of practices that does not incorporate the capacity to respond flexibly and adaptively post-fire, such as taking actions to actively move the site in new ecological trajectories with different germplasm sources and different species mixes.
  • Static management. Other current management paradigms that limit dynamic planning and managing include the focus on "maintaining," "retaining," and "restoring" conditions. The consequence of these imperatives in planning documents is to enforce static rather than dynamic management.
  • Air quality standards. Regional regulatory standards for smoke and particulates are set low in order to optimize air quality. These levels, however, limit the capacity of TNF to conduct prescribed fires for adaptive fuel reduction or silvicultural stand treatment purposes.
  • Changing community demographics: Changing demographics of foothill Sierran communities adjacent to TNF are moving toward less acceptance of smoke. Older and urban residents moving into the area in the past few years have little experience with fire and its effects, and have little understanding of or tolerance for smoke from prescribed fire treatments. Similarly, these residents are not apt to subscribe to Fire-Safe Council home ownership/maintenance recommendations, thus putting their homes and landscaping at high risk from wildfire.
  • Agency target and reward system: The current system at the national agency level for successful accomplishments (i.e., the reward system) focuses on achieving narrowly prescribed targets. Funds are allocated to achieving targets; thus simplistic, in-the-box thinking, and routine, easily accomplished activities are encouraged. There are few incentives for creative project development or implementation.
  • Small landscape management units: Fragmentation and inflexibility result from partitioning TNF into small management units; small unit sizes also restrict the capacity for full understanding of ongoing dynamics and process. For instance, even the adaptive management pilot projects under the FPA are too small to be meaningful under the conditions anticipated in the future—at least 20,000 acres are needed.

What Is Needed to Further Facilitate Proactive Management?

The ideas listed below were identified by TNF staff as being scientific, administrative, legal, or societal needs that would improve the capacity to respond adaptively to climate change challenges.

  • New management strategies: Operationally appropriate and practical management strategies to address the many challenges and contexts implied by changing climates are needed.
  • Scientifically supported practices for integrated management: Changing climates are anticipated to increase the need for integration and integrated plans. Input from the science community on integrated knowledge, synthesis assessments, and toolboxes for integrated modeling, etc. will improve the capacity to respond adaptively.
  • Projections and models: Modeled simulations of future climate, vegetation, species movements; rates of changes of all of these; and probabilities and uncertainties associated with the projections are needed.
  • Case studies: Case studies of management planning and practices implemented as adaptive responses to climate are needed. Demonstration and template examples would allow ideas to disseminate quickly and be iteratively improved.
  • Prioritize tools for managing a range of species and diverse ecosystems on TNF: Given the large number of species in the forest, it is impossible to manage all of them. Thus, new tools for adaptive decision-making are needed, as well as development of strategic processes to assist effective prioritizing of actions.
  • Dynamic landscape and project planning: Scientific assistance is needed to help define targets and management goals that are appropriate in a changing climate context. Additional work on probabilistic (?)management units, ranges of conditions likely, continuingly variable habitat probabilities, and habitat suitability contour mapping would be useful. Management planning guidelines that allow rules to change adaptively as conditions change need to be developed.
  • A scientific clearinghouse on climate information: A reference or resource center, such as a website, with current and practical climate-related material is in high demand. To be useful at the scale of individual forests such as TNF, the information needs to be locally relevant, simply written, and presented in one clear, consistent voice.
  • Scientific support and assistance to individual and specific TNF proposed actions: A consistent, clear voice from science is needed to help build the most appropriate and adaptive plans and actions. Clear scientific evidence that demonstrates both the appropriateness of proposed TNF actions and the problems that would result from no action is also needed. A website could include such information as brief and extended fact sheets, regional assessments, archives of relevant long-term data or links to other websites with climate-relevant data, model output and primers (climate-relevant ecological, economic, and planning models), training packages on climate change that can be delivered through workshops and online tutorials, and access to climate-based decision-support tools.
  • Seed banks: Seed banks need to be stocked to capacity to serve as buffers for fire, insects and disease, and other population extirpation events.


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