Climate Change and...

Silviculture and Climate Change

Preparer: Paul Anderson, Resource Management and Productivity Program, PNW Research Station. 

Newer (2011) version of this paper is available here.


Under some predictive scenarios, changes in climate may occur that will exceed the capacity of existing forest tree populations to adjust physiologically and developmentally. Furthermore, climate changes may occur at rates that will exceed the capacities of forest species to evolve in place to adapt to new conditions or to migrate to more favorable, future environments (Aitken et al. 2007). Being relatively long-lived, the forest trees living today will probably compose much of the forests of the next century. Long-term adaptation to climate changes will require healthy and productive forests in the short term.

Hundreds of thousands of acres in the Pacific Northwest are dense, overstocked forests with low structural and compositional diversity (Tappeiner et al. 2002). Such dense forests are prone to declines in tree vigor when the abundance of vegetation exceeds the capacity of the site to provide essential environmental resources such as water, nutrients, or light. Dense, uniform forest canopies are typically associated with lesser amounts of understory vegetation of relatively few species and may provide quality habitat for fewer organisms than more structurally and compositionally diverse forests (Wilson and Puettmann 2007). The susceptibility and resilience of these forests to fire or pest disturbances, as well as their ability to adapt to meet future climate challenges may be compromised by a lack of vigor or diversity.

It is important to determine what management actions can be undertaken to enhance forest ecosystem health and productivity in a changing climate.

Likely Changes

Under many climate change scenarios, increased temperature and increased frequency of summer drought may result in more stressful forest environments owing to, among other reasons, an increased evaporative demand combined with limited soil moisture (Spittlehouse 2003). Likely affects of increased moisture stress include reduced growth and productivity and decreased vigor of forest stands. Declines in vigor may make forest more susceptible to large-scale pest attacks and more frequent or severe fires. Furthermore, existing plant species or genotypes may be poorly adapted to future climate conditions during all or various parts of their life cycles, resulting in increased risk of regeneration failures and altered trajectories of forest growth, development, and productivity. Projections for increased ambient air temperatures as well as increased frequency of seasonal drought may have substantial consequences for instream and riparian microclimates and habitats and the unique ecosystem functions provided by riparian systems (Anderson et al. 2007, Olson et al. 2007).

Options for Management

Active management of forest vegetation may increase forest resistance and resilience to climate changes and mitigate some ecosystem responses to climate changes. Silvicultural practices can be applied and modified adaptively as climate and disturbance regimes change over time. Several long-term, large-scale silviculture experiments are underway that are providing a strong base of scientific knowledge and tools needed by managers to address climate change issues (Oliver 2000, Ritchie 2005, Poage and Anderson 2007). Based on existing and developing knowledge, the following management options can be recommended:

  • Thin to avoid overstocked stands susceptible to increased mortality from drought, insects, disease and wildfire. Maintain lower densities of canopy foliage as site resources, particularly soil moisture, become more limiting
  • Underplant thinned stands with adapted species or genotypes when advanced regeneration is unacceptable for future conditions. Although understory regeneration is often limited in dense second-growth stands, overstory density management may provide opportunities to introduce regeneration better suited to a future climate through underplanting.
  • Provide structural features at stand and landscape scales to meet the varying habitat requirements of plants and animals. Provide diversity of stand structures favoring a greater diversity of species and genotypes across the landscape.
  • Use vegetative buffers to mitigate effects of harvest on stream and riparian microclimates and habitat. Protect unique instream and riparian habitats by maintaining riparian functions of energy and nutrient exchange, filtration, bank stabilization, and wood production. manage for prompt revegetation with adapted plant communities. Attain site occupancy with desired species or genotypes before weedy or invasive species establish. Explore options for establishing species or genotypes better adapted to future environments and disturbance regimes.
  • Promote development of mixed-species or multiprovenance forests. Decrease risks associated with major pest outbreaks and promote greater genetic diversity and more broadly adapted populations. Consider deploying a mixture of seedlings including some provenances adapted to more stressful environments.
  • Where practiced, use intensively managed plantations as an opportunity to facilitate the migration of adapted genotypes or species. Regeneration cycles characteristic of commercial timber production may provide an opportunity to relatively rapidly distribute commercial species and genotypes better adapted to future environments.

Recommended Reading

Chan, S.S.; Larson, D.J.; Emmingham, W.H. [et al.]. 2006. Thinning effects of overstory and understory development in young Douglas-fir stands in the Oregon Coast Range, USA. Canadian Journal of Forest Research. 36: 2696-2711.

Larson, J.B. 1995. Ecological stability of forests and sustainable silviculture. Forest Ecology and Management. 73: 85-96.

Millar, C.I.; Stephenson, N.L.; Stephens, S.L. 2007. Climate change and forests of the future: managing in the face of uncertainty. Ecological Applications 17: 2145-2151.

Oregon Forest Resources Institute. 2007. Forests, carbon and climate change: a synthesis of science findings. Portland, OR. 182 p. (

Skinner, C.N. 2007. Silviculture and forest management under a rapidly changing climate In: Powers, Robert F., tech. editor. Restoring fire-adapted ecosystems: proceedings of the 2005 national silviculture workshop. Gen. Tech. Rep. PSW-GTR-203, Albany, CA: Pacific Southwest Research Station, Forest Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture: p. 21-32.

Spittlehouse, D.L.; Stewart. R.B. 2003. Adaptation to climate change in forest management. British Columbia Journal of Ecosystems and Management. 4: 1-11.

Useful Links

USFS Climate Change Atlas

Western Forests Climate Change Taskforce

References Cited

Aitkin, S.N.; Yeaman, S.; Holliday, J.A.; Wang, T.; Curtis-McLane, S. 2007. Adaptation, migration or extirpation: climate change outcomes for tree populations. Evolutionary Applications. 1: 95-111.

Anderson, P.D.; Larson, D.J.; Chan, S.S. 2007. Riparian buffer and density management influences on microclimate of young headwater forests of western Oregon. Forest Science. 53(2): 254-269.

Oliver, W.W. 2000. Ecological research at the Blacks Mountain Experimental Forest in northeastern California. Gen. Tech. Rep. PSW-GTR-179. Albany, CA: U.S. Department of Agriculature, Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Research Station.

Olson, D.H.; Anderson, P.D.; Hayes, M.P.; Frissell, C.A.; Bradford, D.F. 2007. Biodiversity management approaches for stream riparian areas: perspectives for Pacific Northwest headwater forests and amphibians. Forest Ecology and Management. 246: 81-107.

Poage, N.J.; Anderson, P.D. 2007. Large-scale silviculture experiments of western Oregon and Washington. Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW-GTR-713. Portland, OR: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station. 44 p.

Ritchie, M.W. 2005. Ecological research at the Goosenest Adaptive Management Area in northeastern California. Gen. Tech. Rep. PSW-GTR-192. Albany, CA: U.S. Department of Agriculature, Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Research Station.

Spittlehouse, D.L. 2003. Water availability, climate change and the growth of Douglas-fir in the Georgia basin. Canadian Water Resources Journal. 28: 673-688.

Tappeiner, J.C. II.; Emmingham, W.H.; Hibbs, D.E. 2002. Silviculture of Oregon Coast Range forests. In: Hobbs, S.D.; Hayes, J.P.; Johnson, R.L. [et al.], eds. Forest and stream management in the Oregon Coast Range. Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University Press: 172-190.

Wilson, D.S.; Puettmann, K.J. 2007. Density management and biodiversity in young Douglas-fir forests: Challenges of managing across scales. Forest Ecology and Management. 246: 123-134.

Recommended Citation

Anderson, Paul. 2008. Silviculture and Climate Change. (May 20, 2008). U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Climate Change Resource Center.

bottom right