Restoring our forests in the face of climate change

Posted by Renee Magyar on May 24, 2016

Team designs project to create resilient forests against drought conditions

A stand in the Ochoco National Forest has been thinned to increase its health and resilience to the effects of climate change.

Drought, especially prolonged or severe drought, can be a major stressor in forest ecosystems. When you combine drought with overstocked forest conditions, these forests become susceptible to insect attack or severe wildfires. The Blue Mountains are no exception. Climate trends in northeast Oregon and Washington are leading to extended late season drought and longer wildfire seasons – and the forests are losing against these conditions. The 2015 fire season set the record as the worst in U.S. history, totaling over 10 million acres burned nationally. The Blue Mountains alone reported more than 282,000 acres burned in wildfires.

The effects of large and severe wildfires not only impact communities, but also a variety of resources dependent on healthy forest ecosystems. Tree mortality impacts forest growth, how much carbon is captured and stored, the health of critical wildlife and fish habitat, water quality, and even the safety of recreational activities such as hiking or hunting.

The Forest Resiliency Project is being designed to set up our forests to be resilient against natural disturbances in the face of a changing climate. By reducing stand density across large landscapes (thinning the number of trees on an acre), adjusting species composition (altering the species of trees and other vegetation growing on a site), and creating mosaic forest patterns, we can create a more resilient forest ecosystem. 

We cannot control climate trends and drought, and we cannot know how climate change will affect a specific place, but we do know that some tree species are more resistant to drought and fire than others. By managing density and composition, forest managers support the growth of desired vegetation that can thrive under changing climate conditions. These treatments will reduce or mitigate drought-related stress and improve forest resilience. While reducing the number of trees might not necessarily affect overall water consumption, active management can reduce competition for nutrients and create healthier forests that are better able to resist drought stress, insect attack, and uncharacteristic wildfire.

Analysis from Ray Davis 2015. This graphic shows how dry conditions in Blue Mountains are predicted to increase in coming decades, making the forests more susceptible to wildfire and other effects of climate change.
Analysis from Ray Davis 2015. This graphic shows how dry conditions in Blue Mountains are predicted to increase in coming decades, making the forests more susceptible to wildfire and other effects of climate change.

Managing understory vegetation to reduce surface fuels in dry forests is an important component of maintaining a resilient forest. This project will use fire to safely remove excessive amounts of brush, shrubs, and trees, encourage the new growth of native vegetation, and maintain the many plant and animal species whose habitats depend on periodic fire.

In the face of a changing climate, the time is now to do things at a greater pace and scale. The Forest Resiliency Project is one approach to creating future resilient forests, and many organizations are also looking at ways to improve our forests’ ability to adapt to changing climates. For example, Communities and Forests in Oregon (CAFOR) is conducting research in the Blue Mountains of Oregon to provide an integrated assessment of community vulnerability and adaption to climate change. The findings from this study can be used to learn how the uncertainty of future conditions are factored into and prioritized for management decision-making in the Blue Mountains. 

These approaches are a first step, and we must continue to take greater action to restore our landscapes, increase fire’s beneficial effects, and reduce the exposure of homes and sensitive habitats to the unwanted effects of severe wildfires. 

Do you want to know what others are saying about this project? Find out more by visiting the public reading room. Additionally, you can find notes from recent public engagement sessions on the project public engagement website

This is the fifth of twelve issues of Features from the Blue Mountains Restoration Strategy brought to you by Sustainable Northwest and the U.S. Forest Service Blue Mountains Restoration Strategy Team. This monthly series highlights the environmental and economic challenges and opportunities present in the Blue Mountains region, and includes updates from the Blue Mountains Forest Resiliency Project.