Dealing with Climate Change Realities: Where, Who and How Proactive?

Pines, spruces and firs are all suffering attacks from different beetles, and aspens are dying, too, prompting officials and environmentalists to rethink management of what rises among the dead trees. Photo: White River National Forest

This piece in New West on the White River and bug kill, plus a couple of days Martin and I spend in a discussion on landscape scale restoration and collaborative groups, made me think about what Jan Burke and Sloan Shoemaker were quoted as saying in this article:

But it’s not just pine beetles. A spruce beetle epidemic is on the rise. The Douglas fir beetle is taking a toll. So is a phenomenon called sudden aspen die-off.

“I think we are in for a period where we’re going to see some pretty dramatic changes happening,” Shoemaker said, “but that doesn’t mean there’s a crisis or it’s unhealthy or there’s something wrong.”

Over time, forests change slowly, he said, but when they change, they change dramatically. That’s what’s happening now, he said, and we just happen to be around to see it.

“It’s kind of a privilege to be observing a natural laboratory that otherwise we don’t have an opportunity to observe,” Shoemaker said.

The forest may come back differently than before. If it’s warmer, that may mean more deciduous trees, like aspen or Gambel oak, Burke said.

She said she would like to see the Forest Service play a role in encouraging more of a mixture on the forest.

“I’m not saying we’ll get out there and do gardening on 2.2 million acres, but you don’t stand down and do nothing,” Burke said. “By the same token, you don’t stand up and say you’re going to do something everywhere. But somewhere in the middle, there’s a stewardship role.”

Shoemaker is skeptical.

“I think we just need to step back and see how things are going to change and respond,” he said, “but we have a hard time doing that.”

That’s a great conversation to have, but I have a couple of questions..

–Things are changing faster than forest plans could keep up with, so are forest plans passe in this time of rapid change? (formal mechanism for planning)

— When a new climate induced problem shows up, how do we know the right scale to address it? (scale for planning)

— If you had landscape scale collaborative groups, would rapid or slow changes due to climate change just be one more thing to consider in their landscape planning?

And I have to say it is easy for me to agree with both Jan and Sloan on this. Yes, someone should be thinking about what actions we might take to deal with these changed conditions, but we should be very careful about what we actually invest in to deal with changes, and carefully consider the potential payoffs and alternative uses of the funding. The reason for my hinkiness is a great respect for the ability of Nature not to do as humans (however expensive and intricate the models) predict. I am all for investments that are good under current conditions as well as a variety of unknown future conditions. That’s why I am such a fan of TU’s approach “Protect, Reconnect and Restore.” Even if we simply saved some of the funding we put into hosting meetings, seminars, conferences and reading papers on “adapting to climate change” and built that funding into actually Protecting Reconnecting and Restoring,  it’s possible that the environment would be better off in both the short and long runs. At least I think it’s worth consideration when we gauge the desirable degree of proactivity in dealing with climate change.

4 thoughts on “Dealing with Climate Change Realities: Where, Who and How Proactive?”

  1. In “Resilience Thinking”..Walker and Salt try to give us tools for thinking about resilience in ever changing systems. They say “the adaptive capacity of a social-ecological system is enhanced when complex issues can be dealth with by a network of loosely connected stakeholders located at different levels of society. Such a dynamic structure allows for flexible coordination and cross-scale responses to solving problems because there is experimentation and learning going on across the network”….”such experimentation……stimulates innovation and contributes to creating feedback loops at different scales”. something to consider in response to your question about forest planning in a rapidly changing system…they also mention keeping the system “open”…also something to think about in terms of FACA chartered committees for forest planning….

    I, too, have been thinking about lessons from the past and how they square with climate change and the realities of these big fires and insect pandemics…in terms of “long range planning”…without a monitoring (quick feedback loop) program which involves all actors and a quick change mechanism, I’m afraid we will be making plans which are appropriate for only a limited time….maybe not as long as it takes us to write them….and since the plans become legal “restrictions” based upon standards and guides, we may be locking ourselves into managing for a past, not the present or the future….

    So, for the next few generations, maybe we will need to keep the forest planning collaborative as an on-going co-management structure for monitoring and adaptation??

  2. Sharon, I think there are a number of “no regret” strategies similar to TU’s that are often lost or overlooked as we grapple with how to address such a complex phenomenon, especially considering the uncertainty inherent in future climate change projections and the impact themselves. Many of these strategies have already been accepted conservation practices for decades, for example those built upon concepts of island biogeography. I’d suggest two broad strategies, perhaps spun with today’s terminology, that have broad applicability: conserving the geophysical stage (see and enhancing regional connectivity. These and other approaches are more fully discussed in a climate change adaptation primer (see developed by The Nature Conservancy.

  3. I agree with Marek in terms of how to possibly respond.

    I also understand the need for adaptation and flexibility (and some breed of adaptive management), and why such things as climate, among other uncertainties, can challenge rational comprehensive (forest) planning.

    But climate and uncertainty can also become a convenient way for agencies to simply dodge or postpone tough decisions that have to be made at some point. And why exactly do such uncertainties preclude the need for clear, enforceable standards and guidelines (e.g., soil, viability, aquatics, etc.)?

    Plans should make some commitments by the agency. And such commitments are necessary, in planning and in life. I made a commitment to travel last week despite all the uncertainties involved in the decision, from missing my plane to choking on a pretzel during the flight. If one of these things happened, I’d go back to the drawing board (or not in case of pretzel) and re-assess. The point is that I don’t let the inherent uncertainty of life prevent me from making a few basic decisions and commitments along the way. We also make long-term commitments, like saving for education or retirement, despite all uncertainties involved. My point, I guess, is to suggest that climate change and uncertainty need not preclude the writing of meaningful forest plans…or basic social contracts.

    (A big important footnote: none of this applies to interactions with my 8 year old son. In that context, I reserve the god-given right to say “we’ll see” as much as I like. Maybe this is because my 8 year old takes commitments by his father quite seriously and has a variety of clever ways in which he can enforce them).

  4. My personal opinion is that the effects of climate change are over-hyped and the effects are not that predictable. However I believe adaptive management is a good thing. Some of the assumptions that were made for forest management or lack of, need to be re-examined. Applying management schemes from the forests of western Oregon and Washington and applying them to the Intermountain West is not the best. For instance the 1960’s and 1970’s clearcutting of every other block of timber and leaving unmanaged stands in between in the Intermountain West . The present trend of preserving all of the un-managed stands and letting nature take its course, needs to be re-evaluated. The large mega-fires of the 1990’s and 2000’s and the bark beetle epidemics, all point to the need for adaptive management.
    Blaming large fires and bark beetle on climate change is a classic case of hype, and ignores the effects such as 70 years of fire suppression, and large expanses of even-aged mature lodgepole pine. People tend to want one reason and one answer, when the reality is much more complex.


Leave a Comment