Managing Forests in an Era of Climate Change: Perspectives from the U.S. Forest Service

Gail Kimbell, Regional Forester, Northern Region
2008 Adaptation Conference, IUFRO
Umeå, Sweden
— August 25, 2008

[slide 1]  Good morning! It is an honor to be here. More than 30 years ago, when I started my career in forestry, I thought I’d spend my life working in the woods and talking about trees and forests. I never dreamed I would one day be focusing on climate. And yet nothing could be more important in the world we live in today.

The great American writer Mark Twain once said, “Climate is what we expect, weather is what we get.” Although weather is still what we get, the climate we expect is changing. We are in a whole new world. History will judge the leaders of our age by how well we respond to this challenge—how well we adapt to the effects of climate change. This conference is a needed and welcome opportunity to learn from one another, and I commend IUFRO for sponsoring it.

My remarks will center on what we are doing in the United States to address climate change through forestry. Since some of you might not be familiar with forests and forestry in the United States, I will begin with a short description.

U.S. Forest Landownership and the Role of the Forest Service

[slide 2]  The United States has roughly 300 million hectares of forestland, a vast forest estate ranging from boreal forests, to temperate rainforests, to dry pine woodlands, to northern hardwoods, to various other coniferous and deciduous forest types. We even have tropical forests in Hawaii and Puerto Rico. Fifty-seven percent of our forestlands are in private ownership and 33 percent in federal ownership. My agency alone, the U.S. Forest Service, manages about 20 percent of the forestland in the United States, called national forests.

[slide 3]  The lands managed by the Forest Service cover more than 77 million hectares. Not all of this is forestland; we also manage many rangelands. Almost every state has a national forest or a national grassland, but most of the land we manage is in the West.

In the East, 83 percent of the forestland is in private ownership. You might be surprised to hear that the U.S. government has no direct role in regulating private forestland. Individual states govern private forestry through state forestry laws, and state laws vary widely. However, the Forest Service does give technical and financial assistance to private forest landowners. Every state has its own forestry agency, and we work with the State Foresters to help private landowners manage their lands sustainably.

[slide 4]  The Forest Service also has one of the largest conservation research organizations in the world. We have 7 research stations and 81 experimental forests nationwide, representing 85 percent of the forest types in the United States. We have decades of data on forest cover, water, wildlife, wilderness, and other resources, much of it relevant to climate change. Many of our scientists have been working with yours on climate-related issues. Perhaps the best known example is the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

[slide 5]  Forestry in the United States was built on much older forestry traditions of other countries. The first Chief of the Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, traveled across Europe, including parts of Russia, then to Asia and into the South Seas seeking insights into forests and forestry. He believed that war was due to conflict over natural resources and that conservation was the key to peace. In these same traditions, we work with partners in 59 countries around the world on a wide range of conservation issues. We gain a tremendous amount from these partnerships.

[slide 6]  Connecting our research with our other responsibilities for land management and private landowner assistance leads to a very robust forestry organization overall. Our research and land management professionals work hand-in-hand to create new knowledge and to use leading science to solve the most vexing forest and conservation problems we face—and to open up exciting new forestry opportunities. We have roughly 35,000 employees working all over the country, from remote wilderness areas to great cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, with their urban forests. Our mission extends to all forests in the United States, public and private, and our research and management figure prominently in the forest-related legislation passed by the U.S. Congress and by state legislatures.

The Threat from Climate Change

[slide 7]  The international forestry community has deeply influenced how we see forests and forestry, partly through the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. Today, we see forests as providing four kinds of ecosystem services:

  • First, supporting services … like nutrient cycling, soil formation, and primary production. By one estimate, the world’s forests account for about half of all net primary production.
  • Second, provisioning services … such as wood, forage, and freshwater. Forests deliver 54 percent of our water supplies in the conterminous United States.
  • Third, regulating services … such as water purification, carbon sequestration, and erosion control. U.S. forests sequester 10 percent of the carbon emitted each year by human activities in the country. Urban forests and street trees contribute to energy savings, better air and water quality, reduced stormwater runoff, and local climate moderation.
  • And fourth, cultural services … including educational experiences and outdoor recreation. One study estimates that the total U.S. outdoor recreation economy is worth $900 billion annually, accounting for about 1 in 12 dollars circulating in the United States. Some of this recreation is spent in forested landscapes.

Forests provide all of these ecosystem services to people, and the role of forest management, as we see it, is to sustain the health and resilience of forests so they will continue to provide these services. Climate change threatens to disrupt the composition and structure of our forests, preventing them from providing the range of services we’ve come to expect. One such service is carbon sequestration, which is an important part of the solution to climate change.

One could say that climate change should really be called climatic disruption—disrupted patterns of hot and cold, wet and dry, calm and storm, drizzles and downpours, snowpacks and snowmelt—disrupted expectations and assumptions embedded in our forestry practices. Although some areas might benefit from climate change, climatic disruption will have disastrous consequences in many parts of the world. I will briefly describe some of the consequences we are dealing with in U.S. forests.

Direct Impacts

[slide 8]  Warming associated with climate change is greatest in interior continental areas, particularly at northerly latitudes. In the United States, the areas most affected are Alaska and the Interior West. Here and elsewhere, climate change is disrupting ecological processes and damaging forest ecosystems—directly in some ways and indirectly in others. First, some of the direct impacts.

[slide 9]  In the coastal rainforests of Southeast Alaska, something has triggered a massive die-off of Alaska yellow-cedar (Chamaecyparis nootkatensis), one of the state’s most valuable species. The problem began with changing snow patterns about a hundred years ago and then accelerated as the climate warmed. The cedar problem illustrates how difficult it will be to predict the effects of climate change. In this paradoxical case, we believe that the Alaska yellow-cedars are dying from a freezing injury to the roots due to a combination of warmer weather, reduced snowpacks insulating the roots, and brief cold snaps.

The vast boreal forests in the Alaska interior are also vulnerable to ecological change triggered by warming. Because permafrost is thawing, shallow-rooted black spruce forests have toppled over in many lowland areas. And because soils are drying in upland areas, white spruce forests are dying. We’re losing these forest types as other species replace these two species of spruce.

[slide 10]  Scientists have observed a trend in reduced mountain snowpacks across much of the high-elevation forests of the western United States and earlier spring snowmelt. The trend is very likely attributable, at least in part, to long-term warming. We expect the trend to continue. Earlier spring runoff and lower flows in summer and fall will reduce water availability downstream and have substantial impacts on our reservoir systems.

[slide 11]  A warmer climate also adds energy to storms; however, I need to be careful here—weather is tremendously variable, and no particular weather event can be ascribed to climate change alone. We do know that scientists predict that climate change will intensify storm activity—and that storm damage has devastated forests in the United States. For example, Hurricanes Hugo in 1989 and Katrina in 2005 destroyed up to 2 million hectares of valuable pine forests in the southern United States. These storms have reset ecological succession, and invasive species are now vying to claim the damaged areas.

Indirect Impacts

As destructive as these impacts are, they pale by comparison to the indirect impacts of climate change. These impacts come through normal forest stressors like drought, insects, and wildland fires. Climate change can raise the frequency and intensity of these stressors to the point where they cause lasting ecological damage or destruction and lead to perhaps irreversible ecological shifts, releasing vast amounts of carbon.

[slide 12]  First, drought. The IPCC concluded that climate change is likely to increase the severity of drought around much of the globe, including the western United States. Although the West is naturally arid, it is a fast-growing region, placing tremendous pressure on scarce water supplies. One of the main reservoirs in the region, Lake Mead, is down to around 50 percent capacity, and some experts doubt that it will ever be full again. One expert put it this way: “You can’t call it a drought anymore, because it’s going over to a drier climate. No one says the Sahara is in drought.”

[slide 13]  The impacts on forests are already clear. Drought has weakened trees, reducing their resistance to insect attack. At the same time, a warmer climate has greatly increased pine beetle activity. Two types of low-elevation pines, pinyon pine and ponderosa pine, have died on more than 2.5 million hectares due to a combination of drought and bark beetle infestations.

[slide 14]  At higher elevations and farther north, mountain pine beetle has killed lodgepole pine across vast landscapes. It is invading new territory as the climate warms. Mountain pine beetle is expected to march from the devastation in British Columbia eastward and southward across Canada’s boreal forest into the United States, while southern pine beetle could migrate northward from our southern states, invading new territory as well.

[slide 15]  These indirect impacts also interact with the effects of our previous management; for example, many fire-adapted forests in the United States have grown denser than they were historically, making them more susceptible to drought and insect attack. Overgrown forests and insect-killed trees, coupled with drought, are creating huge fire hazards. Wildfire activity in the West has quadrupled since the 1970s, releasing enormous amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. Intense fires can cause soil fertility loss and erosion that might take centuries to repair.

Strategic Framework

[slide 16]  Climate change has caused us to rethink forests and forestry in the United States. In the past, we tended to organize our strategies around separate stressors. We found individual, often mechanical solutions that we thought would work—fire breaks, for example, or spraying for pests. We did the treatments, then left.

[slide 17]  We can no longer think or operate that way. With climate change driving so much of what we see happening across the landscape, we must think and act in a more integrated fashion. We are in a whole new problem environment, where there are no simple answers, but rather a constant flux of interactions and feedback loops, with much uncertainty. We have to integrate our solutions to address a whole host of factors that are connected in new ways under conditions that are constantly changing. We have to think in terms of risks and tradeoffs.

What can we do? Someone recently put it this way: We have three choices—adaptation, mitigation, and suffering, and we will likely be doing some combination of all three.

[slide 18]  Our researchers have been working on climate change for about 20 years now, and our forest managers have been addressing climate change—without calling it that—for as long as we have been writing silvicultural prescriptions. We don’t have all the answers—far from it. And that’s why we are here—to learn from one another. Based on our experience so far, we have worked out a strategic framework to help us and our partners find integrated solutions to climate change. We have seven basic goals:

  1. [click]  One, science. We need to better understand the social, economic, and ecological implications of climate change. We have to expand our knowledge base to deal with new interactions and unexpected complexities. We also need a better scientific basis for deciding what actions to take—and a plan for shifting science resources to meet emerging problems.
  2. [click]  Two, adaptation. This is one of two fundamental areas where we can take action to address climate change. We can help forests adapt to the stresses of climate change so they can continue providing people with the ecosystem services they want and need. We can increase forest resilience and resistance, provide refugia, and facilitate migrations.
  3. [click]  Three, mitigation. This is the other basic area where we can take action. We can manage forests to reduce greenhouse gas buildups—through restoration activities and forest health improvements, by planting new forests and minimizing forest loss to other land uses, by managing forest growth to optimize carbon uptake potential, by increasing the amount of carbon stored in wood products, and by managing to reduce forest fire emissions.
  4. [click]  Four, policy. An organization as big as ours, managing diverse landscapes and operating within many emphasis areas, from research to private landowner assistance—not to mention all of the partners we involve—can easily become disjointed. We need policies that pull forest managers and other stakeholders together around key issues like climate change and around a common purpose—to sustain healthy forestlands for all of the benefits they provide. We are integrating climate change into all Forest Service policies, guidelines, and communications. The mission of the Forest Service is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. Climate change is now a consideration in everything we do.
  5. [click]  Five, operations. With 35,000 employees and with thousands of buildings and vehicles, we ourselves have a considerable impact on the environment. We are working to reduce our operational footprint.
  6. [click]  Six, education. We are working to help people better understand what it takes to sustain forests in an era of climate change and how forests help combat climate change. Our audiences range from elementary school students, to community leaders, to our own employees.
  7. [click]  Seven, alliances. No one of us can do it alone. We need strong partnerships with other federal agencies, other economic and social sectors, state and local governments, tribes, private landowners, and nongovernmental organizations. We also need partnerships across international borders and boundaries to meet the challenge of climate change.

In all seven of these areas, forestry organizations can work to address climate change on a landscape scale, through solutions that are integrated across borders and boundaries. I came here today to forge new partnerships and alliances, to learn from you how we can lead this effort together. In a smaller way, we are already building alliances to address climate change within the United States. Before closing, I will mention two examples—one from the state of Washington, the other from California.

Olympic Peninsula

[slide 19]  In the northwestern part of our country, there is a thumb of land that separates the city of Seattle from the Pacific Ocean. It’s called the Olympic Peninsula, and it has a national forest, a national park, and a national wildlife refuge. It has a cool, wet climate with very dense, very old rainforests with very big trees, like western hemlock and Douglas-fir. There are spectacular mountains, with lots of lakes and streams full of salmon and trout.

How will climate change affect these resources? As in many places, we have national and regional forecasts, but we really don’t know how the Olympic Peninsula will be affected or how to help its ecosystems adapt. So Forest Service scientists from the nearest research station came to the Olympic National Forest to study the area alongside national forest managers. Our researchers predicted that the Olympic Peninsula is likely to experience less snow; shifts in the timing of spring snowmelt and runoff; and more fires, floods, and stress on sensitive species. They and the managers they worked with suggested that the peninsula’s ecosystems can best adapt if we continue our emphasis on restoration and diversity. Scientists and managers agreed that a long-term management/science partnership on the forest is paramount for climate adaptation management, as well as cross-boundary collaboration with other land management agencies and forestry coalitions in the region. 

[slide 20]   This project met several goals of our climate change strategy. It expanded our knowledge. It helped to prepare an adaptation approach tailored to local needs. It contributed indirectly to mitigation by protecting forests and soils and the carbon stored in them. It met our policy goal of working across research and national forest management. It helped educate people on the Olympic Peninsula, including our own employees, about what we need to do to sustain local resources in an era of climate change. And it confirmed for us the importance of our local and regional partnerships, collaborative planning with other agencies, and the need for a stronger alliance between our scientists and land managers.

Alder Springs Project

[slide 21]  Another example of how we are forming alliances to address climate change comes from the state of California. California has several mountain ranges. One of them stretches north from San Francisco, parallel to the coast. Straddling this range are several national forests, including the Mendocino National Forest, where forest managers came together with researchers and other partners and a private company called Winrock International to design a study called the Alder Springs Project. Their purpose was to examine the concept of carbon offsets from forestry.

Forest managers removed excess woody materials from an area of forest and sent them to a bioenergy plant. Our scientists are now measuring three potential kinds of carbon offsets: one, from avoided wildfire emissions; two, from avoided burning of fossil fuels; and three, from gains in carbon sequestration through increased forest growth. Based on the results, a private forest landowner might someday be able to provide three climate benefits with a forestry project: one, restore a forest to a healthier condition, thereby making it more resilient to the impacts of climate change; two, sequester carbon and get paid for it; and three, substitute biofuels for fossil fuels.

[slide 22]  This project, again, meets several goals in our climate change strategy. It expands our science. It contributes to both adaptation and mitigation. It fulfills our policy of working across research and forest management. It serves as a demonstration area for educating private landowners and the public, and it involves alliances with outside partners and other sectors.


[slide 23]  Mark Twain once said of himself, “I was seldom able to see an opportunity until it had ceased to be one.” The opportunity to address climate change is still here—if we do not delay. Together, we can seize this opportunity simply by pursuing the goal of sustainability. If we can maintain and restore healthy, resilient, productive forest ecosystems, then we will have achieved four important climate-related goals:

  • Forests will be able to successfully adapt to climate change.
  • Forests will continue to provide ecosystem services that people want and need.
  • Forests will be mitigating climate change by sequestering carbon and by preventing carbon release through land use conversion or poor management practices.
  • And we will be keeping options open for future generations. Ultimately, that is what it is all about—keeping options open, not letting climate change take away choices for children—for the citizens, scientists, and leaders of the future.

[slide 24]  Much remains to be done. Research of all kinds is needed to understand the effects of climate change, down to the ecoregion or even landscape scale, and to help managers find the best ways to respond. We need to make goals like adaptation and mitigation understandable and measurable. Much of the groundwork still needs to be laid for harnessing the power of the marketplace to mitigate climate change through forestry—and to make woody biomass competitive as energy, particularly as liquid fuel.

Strong alliances are needed in all of these areas. Climate change, by definition, is a global problem with presumably global solutions. It will require close international partnerships among researchers, forest managers, and citizens. By exchanging ideas, clues, and concepts, we can stay ahead of the many twists and turns that climate change will surely bring to the road ahead. By standing together to help our forests adapt, we can manage the unexpected. Meetings like this are vital incubators for the strong alliances we will need. The Forest Service is ready to work with you anywhere in the world to help find global solutions. When history delivers its verdict on the leaders of our age, I hope it will be that we found the solutions together.

Primary production is the production of chemical energy in organic compounds by living organisms, principally through the sun’s energy and the process of photosynthesis. This is the basis of the food web: All life on earth is directly or indirectly dependent on primary production. Net primary production is gross primary production minus respiration.

U.S. Climate Change Science Program, SAP 4.3 (chapter on water) (released 2008).

Our operational footprint includes energy and water consumption, vehicle emissions (our carbon footprint), recycling and waste prevention, and green purchasing.


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