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Forest Management and Climate Change Response
Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbell
8th National Conference on Science, Policy and the Environment
Washington, DC—January 16, 2008


Thank you. It is an honor to be here today among so many distinguished scientists. The topic we are addressing, climate change science and solutions, is critical for the future of our nation … and the world. History will judge the leaders of our age by how well we respond to the challenge of climate change. One way is through forest management.

Basis for Responding
Forests can make a difference. As you know, more carbon is stored in forests than in anything else but oceans, and the United States has the world’s fourth largest forest estate, behind only Russia, Brazil, and Canada. One-third of our land area is forestland. Our forests store a lot of the world’s carbon, and Americans are responsible for protecting that capacity.

A century ago, America’s forests were a net source of atmospheric carbon. Since then, our forest management has greatly improved, and our forests have become a net carbon sink. Today, America’s forests offset about 10 percent of our country’s carbon emissions. It could be more, depending on how we manage forests in the future.

Beyond carbon storage, forests supply many of our most basic needs, including 53 percent of the water in the contiguous United States. But we are seeing changes in temperature and in the timing, form, and amount of precipitation—changes that will deeply affect hydrologic functions as well as drought and fire regimes. Through its impact on forests, climate change could profoundly affect the well-being of our citizens.

For all these reasons and more, the Forest Service has been focusing on climate change research for a very long time now, about two decades. As part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, thirteen Forest Service scientists recently received the Nobel Peace Prize. But the foundations of our research actually go back a century. We began establishing experimental forests in 1908, and we have been doing place-based studies ever since. We now have 81 experimental areas nationwide, representing 85 percent of the forest types in the United States. We have decades of data on water, wildlife, wilderness, and other resources, much of it relevant to climate change.

Taking Action
Based on these strong scientific foundations, the Forest Service has been taking action to help ecosystems adapt to the inevitable effects of climate change. A good example comes from the Olympic National Forest in Washington, where researchers and managers did a case study exploring the implications of climate change for future forest management. In the future, the Olympic Peninsula will likely see less snow and more fires, floods, mass wasting, and stress on sensitive species. Just last month, in a possible sign of the future, a monster storm hit the Olympic Peninsula, washing out newly laid salmon eggs. The peninsula’s ecosystems can best adapt through landscapes and biota that are made as diverse as possible, thereby increasing ecological resilience. A key feature of our adaptation strategy is to maximize landscape and biological diversity.

Beyond adaptation, we are working with partners to protect and increase the amount of carbon stored in America’s forests. About six acres of forestland in ten are privately owned in the United States. If carbon markets were firmly established—and if they included sound mechanisms for forestry offsets—then private forest landowners could reap the rewards from sequestering carbon. They could profit from forestry projects that store carbon, and perhaps the markets would help keep forests in forests.

To that end, we are using the national forests to help validate the concept of carbon offsets from forestry. For example, on the Mendocino National Forest in California we removed excess woody materials on an area of forest and sent them to a bioenergy plant. Researchers are now measuring three potential kinds of carbon offsets: one, from avoided wildfire emissions; two, from net gains in carbon sequestration; and three, from avoided burning of fossil fuels. Based on the results, a private forest landowner might eventually be able to restore a forest by drawing on various income streams from carbon, along with income from materials removed.

Keeping forests in forests is key to protecting carbon stores, yet our nation develops thousands of acres of open space every day. To help stop the loss, the Forest Service recently released a national open space strategy. Part of the strategy is to help private forest landowners find the financial wherewithal to keep their lands forested and well-managed.

One way is by expanding markets for nontraditional forest products. In central Oregon, for example, there have been large fires due to biomass buildups in overgrown forests. People from various communities of interest came together to do something about it, and they found that woody materials could be removed and profitably used. But businesses needed a steady supply to justify investments, and the supply from both private and public lands was unpredictable.

With a grant from the Forest Service, the partnership established a “coordinated resource offering protocol,” or CROP. They brought suppliers in central Oregon together and figured out how much biomass each could supply. Then they coordinated delivery in a way that evened out the flow of small trees and other biomass. That created the basis for a whole range of businesses that utilize small-diameter materials, including a biomass power plant run by the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.

Science Needs
These are just some examples of what we are doing to address climate change. In every case, the key is strong partnerships between researchers and managers. Our ability to respond to climate change will absolutely depend on scientists and practitioners joining together. Areas of focus will be discussed at the breakout sessions tomorrow afternoon, but here are a few related issues:

  • One issue is uncertainty and how to manage it. We will need better ways of forecasting how ecosystems will change, how the changes will affect animals and plants, and what landscape-scale conditions are most likely to sustain ecosystems in a changing climate.
  • Another issue is the degree of public acceptance for active management. We will need social science to help us determine what the public will and won’t accept and how to manage public values and expectations.
  • A third issue is the direction that rural economies will take in an era of climate change. There could be new opportunities for carbon markets and forest-based industries. We will need corresponding social and economic science.
  • A related issue is how climate change will intersect with two other drivers—demographic change and globalization. We need science to help us understand the future under different scenarios. For example, one scenario might be high population growth, high climate change, and low economic growth. What would the future be like under such a scenario?
  • Another issue is the ability of today’s children to understand climate change. Will they be able to deal with the related science? We will need education science to help us explore such questions.
  • Finally, the prospect of biofuels raises a whole raft of related technical issues.

Climate change cuts across virtually every major issue we face in forest management—fire and fuels, invasive species, water resources, forest health, endangered species, outdoor recreation, and more. The Forest Service has a strong scientific basis for addressing climate change in all of these areas, and we have made a start.

However, climate change will remain a challenge for generations to come. It will take solid partnerships between researchers and managers to find solutions. Please join us in building those partnerships for the future of conservation.


US Forest Service
Last modified March 29, 2013

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