UM Public Lands Conference: Climate Change Sends Forest Managers into Unknown Territory

From the Missoulian here.. note to readers.. the U of M has allowed us to post the papers from this conference here on our blog. I am expecting to get them next week.

While the U.S. Forest Service grinds away at a new planning rule to manage its forests, the forests themselves face an entirely separate timetable of change.

“We’re approaching the no-analog future – we haven’t been here before,” Missoula attorney and law professor Jack Tuholske told the Friday session of the 34th annual Public Land Law Conference at the University of Montana. In a time when the calving of gigantic ice floes off Greenland glaciers could affect rainfall in the Rocky Mountains, we can’t rely on doing things the way we did before, he said.

That’s especially true in America’s forests. UM entomology professor Diana Six ran through recent research showing the progress of pests like mountain pine beetles, which are spreading across acres 10 times bigger than previous outbreaks.

“As things warm up, everything for the insects speeds up,” Six said. A 2-degree increase in average temperature doubles the rate bugs like the pine beetle reproduce and consume resources, she said. Similar bursts are happening in spruce, pinyon and fir forests in the United States, and many other tree species elsewhere on the planet.

“That means forest restoration may no longer be appropriate,” she said. “You can’t force something back to existing conditions when they no longer exist.”

That could pose big challenges to land managers who expect to harvest certain numbers of trees, support local communities and jobs, and depend on watersheds for drinking water.

University of California-Berkley law professor Eric Biber warned that intensive baseline monitoring of forest conditions needed to be in place before new policies had a chance of proving their effectiveness. But although the Forest Service has some of the world’s largest and best archives of forest data, even that is incomplete.

Furthermore, Biber warned that the monitors themselves must be carefully chosen and watched. For example, forestry biologists would have a good handle on the needs of tree species, but conservation biologists might know better how to serve the animals that depend on those trees.

And both could be vulnerable to the whims of political leaders, budget crunches and their own scientific disciplines, Biber said. He cited research on Forest Service fire policy in the early 20th century, in which the country wanted fires controlled and evidence of beneficial fire effects was overlooked.

“They didn’t want scientific information that made the political arguments more difficult,” Biber said.


Dan Kemmis, director of the Center for the Rocky Mountain West and former Missoula mayor, suggested looking beyond the local trees to see the worldwide forest.

“It’s just not possible to think seriously or clearly about managing forests without looking at the global economy,” Kemmis said. “The imperatives of debt reduction are faced by every country in the world. And that will affect land management in severe ways.”

To adapt to that, Kemmis advised agencies like the Forest Service to collaborate more with citizens who can guide it to the most needed and effective projects. That could also help avoid future lawsuits and “analysis paralysis” in decision-making, he said.

“The Forest Service needs to reduce its nonproductive activities,” Kemmis said. “I don’t know how to do that effectively without involving citizens in the problem-solving on the forest.”

Region 1 Forester Leslie Weldon echoed that idea, saying the Forest Service was trying to build the interests of local recreationists, businesses and groups into its planning. But she also warned that the Department of Agriculture (which oversees the Forest Service) expects at least 5 percent budget cuts in each of the next two years. Prioritizing projects and monitoring efforts will become harder as the money gets tighter, she said.

“Can public land law really function as a Swiss Army knife,” with individual blades for urban sprawl, job demands, species loss, climatic change and scientific incompleteness, UM law professor Ray Cross asked at the end of the gathering. Conference speakers were split, he said, with some believing policy could handle those challenges and others arguing that political tradeoffs, budget constraints and natural change would overwhelm any paper solution.

“Do we despair?” Cross asked. “We know nature will be here long after this.”

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3 thoughts on “UM Public Lands Conference: Climate Change Sends Forest Managers into Unknown Territory”

  1. So to summarize our plight:
    The USFS now openly admits it has mismanaged public forests on a very large scale under the guise of providing jobs to communities (even though the timber output of national forests represents 5% or less of total national timber products, and those heavily subsidized timber jobs have been contributing to our massive national deficits through unsustainable taxpayer subsidies.)

    It is widely recognized by the international scientific community (IPCC AR4) that deforestation is a major contributor to global warming (through land use changes, extensive clearcutting practices, failure to maintain road systems on these forests, etc.), and this has resulted in massive releases of carbon emissions, and significantly compromised carbon sequestration and carbon sink functions of forests — contributing significantly to the acceleration of global warming.

    These anthropogenic causes of global warming have been understood yet advanced as tried-and-failed economic rationales while the national economy is almost totally dependent upon the continued combustion of fossil fuels which is driving global warming and ocean acidification. Given these are the fundamental underlying causes, it would be expected our economic and energy policies would be changed swiftly as a matter of priorities.

    Why? Because Global Warming is now demonstrating positive feedbacks through loss of albedo, insect outbreaks, thawing permafrost, severe droughts resulting in extensive wildfires, etc.,– all which further accelerate runaway, catastrophic, irreversible climate change, representing an irrefutably clear and present danger to all life as we know it on the planet.

    Given these realities, where will meaningful solutions be applied? To economic policy? To energy policy? Not so far — and the hour is late. There has been no meaningful corrections to economic or energy policy effected by Congress to deal with these issues thus far. However, there are nonetheless big changes being imposed and hinted at elsewhere such as the UM Public Lands Conference with statements like:

    “It’s just not possible to think seriously or clearly about managing forests without looking at the global economy,” Kemmis said. “The imperatives of debt reduction are faced by every country in the world. And that will affect land management in severe ways.”

    In other words, let’s ignore the causes of our problems, and use the effects as an opportunity to further advance agendas of defunding of government, deregulation, privatization and corporate outsourcing, as IF somehow, this would have a meaningful mitigating effect in stemming irreversible, catastrophic, climate disaster.

    “Do we despair?” Cross asked. “We know nature will be here long after this.”

    How comforting.

  2. There’s no doubt global warming is occuring, but how much man is to blame…I’m still out on. A couple years ago I was reading a roadside interpretive sign in Glacier Park that was describing the distant glacier. It told me that the glacier used to be right across the valley, but started to “recede in 1850”. Was there man made global warming going on in 1850? Ask all the participants above if they “know what caused the little ice age”? You know, the cold period from 1600-1850(??) Not a one of them will say “with certainy” what caused the little ice age, but they will turn around and say with certainy man is causing this “global warming”.

    Computer models are a joke. They can do a damn good (and much improved)job at predicting tomorows weather- but fall apart more than a week out.

    I’m suspicious when “gangs of scientists” gather to proclaim. Who remembers the “energy crisis” of the 70’s. Didn’t all the accepted science say we should be running out of oil by now?
    –How about “eugenics”. That “science” was once all the rage suported by presidents and kings. You don’t here much about it now since Hitler iplemented it.
    –How about acid rain? It must be true, National Geographic had several issues devoted to it in the 80’s. But it turns out the lakes weren’t dying, the forests weren’t dying, and Nat. Geo didn’t do a cover story about that. But the cost to put on scrubbers wasn’t to burdensom. And Wyoming coal wouldn’t have boomed without the science. And the statues in public places are now secure.The cost to implement carbon sequestration, wind and solar will be a much more expensive story. Hence the boom in natural gas production that the experts all said was supposed to be running out by now.
    Anyway, the above conference is a science unto itself, secure knowing a public pension awaits.

  3. Dueling socio-economic conspiracy theories are MUCH more interesting and contentious than site-specific forest stewardship. “Global warming” and drought should make it clear that the present climate simply cannot support the present density and species compositions of our forests. Pretending we can have “humanless forests”, when more and more careless people reach farther and farther into preserved tinderboxes, is not logical. THIS is reality, even MORE than “global warming”. Basically, our National Forests are “growing firewood with which to heat our atmosphere”. We need forests that survive stupid humans, and our current forests have NOT “been doing great for millions of years” (as many preservationists love to say).

    We plan for 100-year floods but, how come we don’t plan for mitigation of the equally-inevitable 100-year droughts? There is only so much water to go around, and shouldn’t that water go to the most important trees, which harbor endangered species? Instead, some wish to let “Mother Nature” rebalance our human-impacted forests in ways we humans will probably not like. In fact, burning and dying forests have become a political football, used in hatred, wishing that both red AND blue states “burn, baby, burn”.

    Seeing the desire of people to watch wildfires burning their enemies out (as per the LA Times) is quite disturbing. Why has politics come to this?!?!? There is substantial hatred in wanting American’s homes to burn. There is substantial disconnects in value judgements to block public safety and environmental health in the name of “gaia”, or whatever your deity is named (and whatever side of the aisle you are on).


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