Climate Change Mitigation in a New Management Environment

Tom Tidwell, Chief
National Forest System Climate Change Workshop
Washington, DC
— January 28, 2010


Good morning! Welcome to this workshop, and thank you for taking the time to be here.

Climate change is one of the great challenges of our age, a challenge that will be with us for generations to come.  In some ways, we are only just starting to come to grips with it, and that is why you are here.

A New Management Environment

Climate change places us in a whole new management environment.  In managing the national forests and grasslands, we have long dealt with complexity, risk, and uncertainty, but they are compounded by climate change.  Fire and fuels, invasive species, water shortages, water pollution, land-use change, human population growth—a whole host of factors figure in.  Each factor affects the others in endless feedback loops; and each, in turn, is affected by climate change.

That very interconnectedness amounts to complexity of a whole new order of magnitude.  Just to grasp it requires a new way of thinking and seeing.  As climate drivers change, so do ecosystem stressors.  As natural systems change in response, so do the ecosystem services they provide.  Climate change challenges us to rethink the couplings—the way things are interconnected.  At the Forest Service, we are increasingly seeing the challenges we face through the prism of climate change, bearing in mind all the interconnections.

As the climate changes, ecosystems are increasingly subject to damage, degradation, and destruction.  People can no longer take for granted all the benefits they get from forests and grasslands, such as clean air and water, wood products, opportunities for outdoor recreation, habitat for fish and wildlife, and more.  Climate change has therefore become a focal point for the Forest Service:   It threatens our very ability to fulfill our mission.

Mitigation Context

In 2008, we developed a Strategic Framework for Responding to Climate Change, outlining seven strategic goals.  Two key action goals are adaptation and mitigation, and they are linked; in pursuing one, we take the other into account.  For example, in managed forests we might choose tree species or genotypes adapted to a changing climate in order to achieve maximum carbon uptake with minimum loss to disturbance over time.  For the Southeast, research suggests that the native longleaf pine might have advantages over other southern pines.

Climate change highlights the need for broad-scale approaches—for conservation on a landscape scale.  Landscape-scale conservation is an approach to managing land at the level of watersheds, ecoregions, or broad geographic areas.  It gives land managers the scope and flexibility to address all the complexity, risk, and uncertainty in our new management environment.  Interactions among ecosystem components and stressors such as fire, insects, and drought create systemic risks that can produce cascading failures, especially in an era of climate change.  Management action at the appropriate landscape scale can better address the corresponding risks.  The goal is to maintain the ability of landscapes to adapt to changes shaped by climate, demographics, global markets for wood, and other large-scale drivers.

Again, the longleaf pine ecosystem comes to mind.  Longleaf pine is one of the broad landscapes that the Forest Service is working with partners to restore, partly to improve the ability of the landscape to adapt to changing conditions.  By climate change adaptation, we mean increasing ecosystem resistance and resilience to climate-related stressors—and, where necessary, facilitating landscape change in ways that sustain the ability of ecosystems to deliver all the services that people want and need.  That includes carbon sequestration and storage.

Mitigation Potential

Within that context, bearing in mind that adaptation and mitigation are linked, there is much we can do on the National Forest System to mitigate climate change.  America’s forests, including wood products, offset about 12 percent of our nation’s carbon dioxide emissions each year, and we need to protect that capacity.  In some places, we might be able to manage forests to take up and store even more carbon.  We can also offset fossil fuel use through biomass utilization for energy and through substituting wood for more energy-intensive materials such as steel and concrete.

I am pleased to see Research, State and Private Forestry, the National Forest System, International Programs, and so many of our partners working together to develop protocols for assessing the mitigation capacity of the national forests and grasslands.  I believe this work will be relevant across all of our nation’s forests.  This workshop will lay the foundations for future assessments of the role of public lands in responding to climate change.  It is essential that our policies be based on sound science and the best available information about forest and grassland conditions.  It is equally important that you develop protocols that are consistent with international standards to uphold our credibility.

In our research, we strive for “science you can use.” In the same vein, I urge you to keep in mind how the assessment protocols you develop can best serve our land managers.  How can they improve their decisions in our new management environment, given all the complexity, risk, and uncertainty they face? What information will we need over the next few decades, and how can we begin to obtain it?


In closing:   Again—thanks!  I thank every one of you for taking the time to support the Forest Service … to support forests and forestry all across our nation.  Thank you for showing the kind of leadership needed to open a dialogue about the role that forests can play in climate change mitigation.