Mature & Old-growth Forests Hold Keys to Adapting to Climate Change

The following press release and article come from the Geos Insitute. – mk

Ashland, Oregon – Scientists released new findings today on the importance of mature and old-growth 
forests in preparing the Klamath-Siskiyou region of southwest Oregon and northern California for global 
climate disruptions. Published in the January edition of The Natural Areas Journal (Volume 32: 65-74)
by the Natural Areas Association, the study calls on regional land managers to protect mature and old-growth 
forests as an insurance policy for fish and wildlife facing mounting climate change pressures from 
rising temperatures, declining snow levels, and reductions in fog along the coast.  Click here to read the article.

The project was led by the Ashland-based Geos Institute who brought together scientists with
 back grounds in climate change science, Klamath-Siskiyou regional ecology, and conservation planning to
 comb through data on temperature and precipitation changes and to develop recommendations to help 
adapt ecosystems while the ecological and economic costs are relatively low.

According to Dominick DellaSala, Chief Scientist & President of Geos Institute, who led the project
 team, “for millennia our region’s mature and old-growth forests have been a wellspring for nature and
 they now hold the keys to sustaining the very ecosystem benefits we will increasingly depend on for 
fresh water, clean air, and viable fish and wildlife populations as global climate disruptions increasingly 
impact our area.”

One of the authors of the study, Reed Noss, Professor of Conservation Biology at the University of
 Central Florida, underscored the importance of the studies findings for land managers. “Climate change,
 combined with habitat loss and fragmentation, is the greatest threat we face to nature. This study shows
 that land managers can reduce impacts of climate change by protecting older forests in a region whose 
biological diversity has been recognized globally as among the top ten coniferous forests on earth.”

The study used computer mapping and extensive data sets on regional climate and wildlife distributions to 
determine what areas are most likely to hang on to their local climatic conditions for wildlife seeking
 refuge from rising temperatures and changes to precipitation caused by climate change disruption. Old growth 
and mature forests, with their closed canopies and moist environments, are predicted to remain cooler for longer periods of time, therefore providing refuge for species that depend on these conditions.

Key Findings:
• Based on related studies undertaken by Geos Institute and partners, climate disruptions in the
 Rogue basin, for instance, will likely include: (1) an increase in average annual temperatures 
from 1 to 3° F by around 2040 and 4 to 8° F by around 2080; (2) substantial increases in
 summer temperatures of 7 to 15° F by 2080; and (3) snow turning more often to rain in lower
 elevations with a decrease in average January snowpack and corresponding decline in spring 
runoff and stream flows. Other studies document significant reductions in fog along the coast,
 which pose risks to coastal redwoods.

• While all of the regions’ older forests are important, those on north-facing slopes and in canyon 
bottoms, lower- and middle-elevations, and wetter coastal mountains will provide for cooler, 
moister conditions as the rest of the region heats up.

• Several areas deserve immediate conservation attention because they contain high 
concentrations of older forests with preferred climatic conditions, including along the southern
 bend of the Klamath River Northern in California; lower slopes of the Klamath River from 
around China Point eastwards to Hamburg in California; northern slope of the Scott Bar 
Mountains and along the lower Scott River in California; coastal areas in Oregon and in the
 foothills behind the redwood belt in northwestern California; the Middle Smith River in
 California; areas west of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, southwest Oregon; southeastern 
watersheds of the Siskiyou Mountains (e.g., Dillon and Rock Creek area, California); and the 
northern Siskiyou Mountains to western Siskiyou Crest region, California. These areas are
 likely to serve as wellsprings of nature as the climate increasingly shifts.

• BLM landholdings in western Oregon are noteworthy as they contain over 1.6 million acres of 
mature and old-growth forests, which are critical for threatened species like the spotted owl and
 marbled murrelet, and 1.8 million acres of habitat critical to coho salmon recovery. These are
 some of the last low-elevation forests in the region that can still function as a climate refuge but 
are at the biggest risk from logging proposals being championed by Congress.

• Reducing non-climate stressors from logging, roads, and other land uses is the single most
 important adaptation measure that land managers can take now to reduce climate related 

17 thoughts on “Mature & Old-growth Forests Hold Keys to Adapting to Climate Change”

  1. And, encouraging huge, stand-replacing fires can add up to 300 TONS of potent GHG’s…. PER ACRE!!!!!!! Even if you pencil in a mere 10 tons per acres, the Biscuit fire spewed 5,000,000 TONS of GHG’s into our upper atmosphere, and spread out over the Pacific Ocean, where plants cannot possibly re-sequester them. Un-stewardship has its supremely costly impacts, which preservationists want you to ignore. Impacts to wildlife are additionally horrendous, harming habitats for a VERY long time, if not wiping them out, altogether. The Biscuit Fire incinerated an untold amount of actual nests, along with the nesting habitats of both spotted owls AND northern goshawks, along with any other endangered species that depend upon that kind of habitat for their survival. Just seeing a bird within the area doesn’t mean it is nesting, since they ARE territorial in nature. The loss of the limited nesting habitat is multiplied by that fact. Preserving the unnatural conditions also preserves the hazards to such species. Pretending that fires burning in forests, with decades of fire suppression and impacted by climate change, is simply not “natural”. Intervention is necessary, and the challenge is how that intervention must proceed.

    When fires are allowed to burn for weeks and weeks, the smoke impacts humans for hundreds and hundreds of miles away. When I was doing aspen surveys on the Salmon-Challis NF, twice the smoke from California fires were severely impacting the air in Nevada, Idaho and even Wyoming. People get sick, businesses close, tourists stay away, children and the elderly have to stay indoors, smoke penetrates people’s houses, and gets into their furnishing. The impacts of unfettered wildfires doesn’t justify the reasoning to abandon stewardship, using all the tools in the forester’s toolbox..

    All too often, logging impacts are based on the 80’s style of clearcutting and highgrading. This is disingenuous and leads to poor scientific management. Pretending that we will go back to that style, in the face of new science and public policy is misleading and abhorrent..

    • It’s fairly easy to know what’s likely true from what’s not true by simply reading Larry’s counter-factual posts, then finding the truth in the 180 degree opposite direction.

      Larry, it’s OK to have opinions, but best to be clear when you are stating opinion versus facts and evidence. If you want to discuss facts try reading some science now and then, such as:

      Mitchell, Harmon, O’Connell. 2009. Forest fuel reduction alters fire severity and long-term carbon storage in three Pacific Northwest ecosystems. Ecological Applications. 19(3), 2009, pp. 643–655
      ABSTRACT: ” … reducing the fraction by which C is lost in a wildfire requires the removal of a much greater amount of C, since most of the C stored in forest biomass (stem wood, branches, coarse woody debris) remains unconsumed even by high-severity wildfires. For this reason, all of the fuel reduction treatments simulated for the west Cascades and Coast Range ecosystems as well as most of the treatments simulated for the east Cascades resulted in a reduced mean stand C storage. … ”

      Note: this is not an aberrant result. See also:

      Reinhardt, Elizabeth, and Lisa Holsinger 2010. Effects of fuel treatments on carbon-disturbance relationships in forests of the northern Rocky Mountains. Forest Ecology and Management 259 (2010) 1427–1435. (“Although wildfire emissions were reduced by fuel treatments, the fuel treatments themselves produced emissions, and the untreated stands stored more carbon than the untreated stands even after wildfire.” and even considering carbon stored in wood products derived form treated stands.)

      John L Campbell, Mark E Harmon, and Stephen R Mitchell. 2011. Can fuel-reduction treatments really increase forest carbon storage in the western US by reducing future fire emissions? Front Ecol Environ 2011; doi:10.1890/110057 (“In a nutshell: • Carbon (C) losses incurred with fuel removal generally exceed what is protected from combustion should the treated area burn; • Even among fire-prone forests, one must treat about ten locations to influence future fire behavior in a single location; … • Only when treatments change the equilibrium between growth and mortality can they alter long-term C storage; …
      Conclusions – Across a range of treatment intensities, the amount of C removed in treatment was typically three times that saved by altering fire behavior.”)

      And if you want to talk about habitat instead of carbon, the results are roughly similar. That is because carbon biomass is a rough proxy for habitat for species that prefer to live in dense forests with high canopy cover and abundant dead wood (e.g., marten, fisher, goshawk, pileated woodpecker, and spotted owls). Therefore, more habitat will be lost than saved by logging to avoid fire effects. The cumulative effects of logging plus fire are worse than the effects of fire alone. This is a fact supported by evidence, not an opinion.

      The Wildlife Society 2010. Peer Review of the Draft Revised Recovery Plan for Northern Spotted Owl. November 15, 2010. (“Under what scenario might treatments that open forest canopies lead to more closed canopy spotted owl habitat? The direct cost to close forests with treatments that open them is simply equal to the proportion of the landscape that is treated. This reduction in closed canopy forest can only be offset over time if the ratio of forest regrowth to stand-replacing fire is below 1 (5-8 times more fire than today), and shifts to above 1 with the treatments (and most or all standreplacing fire in treated sites is eliminated…”)
      Geos Institute 2011. “Effects of Fire and Forest Treatments on Future Habitat of the Northern Spotted Owl: A White Paper Produced by the Geos Institute.” (“the FIA data illustrate a broad pattern of forest resilience to current fire regimes in the Pacific Northwest. In fact, forests would have to experience a more than threefold increase in fire in the Klamath and nearly an eightfold increase in the Cascades before positive net growth in relation to fire would cease… As long as net growth of forests outpaces losses to high-severity fire, treatments that cause habitat to be downgraded will diminish habitat for closed, late-successional species, such as spotted owls, even if treated areas experience no high-severity fire.”)

      • When ultra high temperatures are recorded deep into the soils, and ALL organic matters is consumed, that adds HUGE amounts of C and N, as well as more GHG’s into our upper atmosphere. There is a well-recorded study from the Biscuit, which includes pre and post-fire soil samplings in the same exact spots, that prove significant additional amounts of those soil depletions, and atmospheric additions. Soil ws recorded as being “vaporized”, with higher bulk densities, hydrophobicity and depleted nutrients. Additionally, those soils cannot re-absorb those vaporized gases, further adding to the problems to our atmosphere. In places where high-intensity wildfires have occurred, the net growth of forests is clearly negative, with re-burns and brushfields dominating the landscapes for decades, and maybe even a century.

        Again, the use of intensive logging practices to produce faulty exaggerated data is such a common thing in the academic world. It clearly is a form of cherrypicking… which cherrypicked peers will buy into, as a kneejerk response, rejecting objectivity. Projects which thin from below restore tree densities and species composition closer to the balanced forests of the pre-European era. Opening stands, through modern thinning projects, to those historic conditions add no increased fire dangers or risks, compared to historical conditions.

        The “Fire Triangle” tells us about the relationship of fuels, to air, to heat. Since we cannot control the air and the heat, we MUST manipulate the fuels to reach sustainable levels of manageable fuels. We MUST manage those fuels, with the reality of accelerated fires of ANY kind of ignition. Indeed, man-caused ignitions will continue to rise, starting farther and farther into the backcountry. It is a fact that cannot be ignored. Pretending that fuels buildups can be mitigated with wildfires, without impacting wildlife habitat has been proven to be a false panacea. Oregon has seen all-time historical highs in wildfires and intensities.

        Regarding wildlife habitats, hundreds of actual nest sites were incinerated on the Biscuit, a supposed “wet, westside rainforest” described as not needing management. Alas, those nest sites had been used and re-used by owls and goshawks for so very long. A VERY large chunk of their essential and rare nesting habitat will be gone for decades. ensuring that those birds will remain endangered for a VERY long time. Again, this is a huge failure of the Endangered Species Act to save essential nesting habitat. When studies don’t differentiate between nesting and foraging habitats, I have to question the validity of such studies. Owls use MANY kinds of forests, and even clearcuts, as foraging habitats. However, they are QUITE specific in parameters for nesting habitat. They need closed-in forests to keep their predators at bay. (Although goshawks will eat the smaller spotted owls, and steal their nests.)

        Of course, the very wet forests have little need for thinning, and that owl nesting habitat doesn’t need thinning. Using studies that lump foraging habitat into nesting habitat is faulty, flawed and politically-slanted cherrypicking, so common from preservationists. Additionally, ignoring the wide array of benefits to modern thinning projects while focusing on just one aspect of the short term impacts is even more cherrypicking. There are plenty of scientists out there who would like to see man removed from public forests, and will, seemingly, pervert science to their own selfish wants.

        All I ask for is a fair, comprehensive compilation of site-specific science, to decide what is best for a particular piece of ground. I don’t trust the peer reviewers, especially when they have never seen a an overstocked, unhealthy stand of trees, or the mushroom cloud of a catastrophic firestorm.

        • Larry, You clearly did not read the papers. You just assume there was something nefarious with the research because you disagree with the results? Nobody said that fire does not alter habitat, but the point you seem to be missing is that the effects of fire in unlogged forests are less harmful to carbon and wildlife than the combined effects of fire plus logging in forests that are treated in an attempt to modify fire. Don’t forget that fire still occurs in forests that are logged to reduce fire hazard. Fire behavior is not modified nearly as much as many people say. See M. A. Cochrane, C. J. Moran, M. C. Wimberly, A. D. Baer, M. A. Finney, K. L. Beckendorf, J. Eidenshink, and Z. Zhu. 2012. Estimation of wildfire size and risk changes due to fuels treatments. International Journal of Wildland Fire.

          Regarding your Biscuit “facts,” there’s another study for you to read: Law, B.E., Turner, D., et al 2004. Disturbance and climate effects on carbon stocks and fluxes across Western Oregon USA. Global Change Biology (2004) 10, 1429-1444.

          It shows that:
          — 1) During typical years, forest fires in western Oregon remove only about 1/50th as much carbon from the forest as logging.
          — 2) The Biscuit fire was not a typical fire year, but logging in western Oregon (mostly on non-federal lands) still transfers more carbon out of forests every year than the Biscuit fire (~5.5 TgC/yr from logging vs. ~4.1 TgC from Biscuit).
          — 3) Carbon emissions from the Biscuit fire equal only about half of the net carbon absorbed via photosynthesis in the forests of western Oregon that year (~4.1 TgC from Biscuit vs. ~8.2 TgC/yr uptake from forest growth mostly on federal lands protected by the Northwest Forest Plan).

          Should we fear Biscuit-like fires that occur once in a lifetime, or should we fear industrial forestry that removes more carbon and habitat year after year after year?

          • The study I spoke of, which shows intense soils damages, is here. The study is a comprehensive example of how high intensity firestorms impact forestlands, and our climate much more seriously than other scientists have perceived, or even imagined.



            Direct evidence of the effects of intense wildfire on forest soil is rare because reliable prefire data are lacking. By chance, an established large-scale experiment was partially burned in the 2002 Biscuit fire in southwestern Oregon. About 200 grid points were sampled across seven burned and seven unburned stands before and after the fire. Fire-related soil changes — including losses of soil organic and inorganic matter — were so large that they became complicated to measure. The 51 Mg ha–1 of loose rocks on the soil surface after fire suggests erosion of 127 Mg ha–1 of fine mineral soil, some of which likely left in the fire plume. After accounting for structural changes and erosion with a comparable-layers approach, combined losses from the O horizon and mineral soil totaled 23 Mg C ha–1 and 690 kg N ha–1, of which 60% (C) and 57% (N) were lost from mineral horizons. Applying a fixed-depth calculation — commonly used in previous fire studies — that disregards structural changes and erosion led to underestimates of loss of nearly 50% for C and 25% for N. Although recent debate has centered on the effects of postwildfire forest management on wood, wildlife habitat, and fuels, this study indicates that more consideration should be given to the possible release of greenhouse gases and reduction of future forest productivity and CO2 uptake.”



            The clearest effect of intense wildfire on our plots, which has also been widely noted across the Biscuit fire,2 was a substantial increase in the amount of near-surface rocks on the burned plots — there was 51 ± 8 M ha–1 (mean ± 95% CI) of loose rocks on the soil surface after the fire. (Fig. 5). …

            The second notable effect of high-intensity fire was the major loss of soil organic matter at the soil surface that extended into the mineral soil, and corresponding losses of soil C and N. In the uppermost comparable layer 1 (the O horizon and mineral soil to 3.7 cm), soil C decreased by 19 ± 2 Mg ha–1 from the prefire sampling value in 1992 (Fig. 7 left side, Table 4 method 1). A small but significant (p <0.05) amount of C (2.5 Mg ha–1) was lost from the two deepest layers combined (4 and 5). If all C in the prefire O horizon (9 ± 1 Mg ha–1) was combusted, then 60% of the soil C loss came from mineral soil layers.

            Soil N losses were also large, 547 ± 79 kg ha–1. No significant subsurface soil N losses were seen, but an increase of 40 ± 32 kg ha–1 was observed in layer 3. If all N in the prefire O horizon (226 ± 21 kg ha–1) was volatilized, then 57% of the soil N loss came from mineral soil layers."

            Oregon has suffered HUGE wildfires in multiple years, with some of them burning in untouched Wilderness which was never logged before. Again, you seem to use the most intensive logging examples, instead of modern thinning projects, which thin densities from below, retains minimum canopy cover, and enhances the most fire resistant old growth trees in the forests. Intense wildfires, including reburns, often completely consume old growth forests.

            I will be posting a photographic history of the Foresta area, in Yosemite National Park. In just 20 years, fire adapted old growth pine forests, never logged, were incinerated completely. Also, the Biscuit saga is far from over, with re-burns on the 96% of the unsalvaged burned area being at risk of further damages, impacts and highly significant GHG emissions.

            Many of today's studies are designed to yield only preferred political results. The Biscuit study reveals important insights to never before seen, measurable and highly-significant impacts on the same exact plot locations.

          • I was on the webinar today on the Cochrane paper. I recommend the webinar to all. It goes into the details of the procedures and the findings (which is that fire behavior IS modified).

            They said that they would post the webinar, I hope they post the questions, too as the questions and answers were very interesting.

            Tree- I don’t know what industrial forestry you are talking about.. are you thinking that cutting trees has such negative impacts that it shouldn’t be done? Even for WUI fuel treatments?

            • Speaking of the Cochrane paper, TreeC123 says, qualifying your remark:

              Don’t forget that fire still occurs in forests that are logged to reduce fire hazard.Fire behavior is not modified nearly as much as many people say.[emphasis added]

              I’m not sure I gleaned Tree’s impression from the paper. Maybe I need to view the webinar.

              What I did glean from the Cochrane et al. paper is how very much they had to massage both the modeling “parameters” and the data used in the simulations to glean the results. Maybe this is standard practice in this type modeling, but it did give me pause, and did reinforce my earlier contention that we are very early in the game re: wildland fire modeling—particularly for areas larger than “stands”—and that we ought to be careful in placing too much confidence in the predicitive power of the models.

              And as Cochrane et al. conclude

              It should be stressed, however, that the millions of hectares of fuels treatments, and the concomitant changes in fire effects when they burn, represent novel disturbance regimes that will have unknown effects on ecosystem composition, structure and processes, even if they do serve to mitigate fires of uncharacteristic size or severity.

          • Also, during “typical years” in Oregon, these days, not a whole lot of logging goes on within Forest Service lands. Are you saying that more GHG’s from that miniscule logging is 50 times more than the ten year average wildfire emissions. I don’t think that is true.Also, what about the uptake of carbon from thinned stands? Funny you don’t mention the increased mega-emissions of GHG’s coming from rotting wood, enhanced by 10 years of increased bark beetles, as well.

            Simply put, catastrophic firestorms are VERY bad for forests and climate, and thinning projects are not very bad for forests, or our atmosphere.

          • One study assumes: “Methods include low thinning, which removes the smallest-diameter trees first, and selection thinning, which removes the largest trees, among many others (Agee and Skinner 2005).”

            No “thinning” projects in the Forest Service reduces fuels by eliminating the largest trees. Maybe that is an Aussie thing? Making assumptions based on removing the largest trees are going to yield faulty conclusions, in the real world of “thinning projects”.

            Also, “. A preconception exists that fuel treatments may have little or no effectiveness under extreme fire conditions (Bessie and Johnson 1995), but this contention is strongly disputed (Agee and Skinner 2005) with recent evidence from the Rodeo and Chediski fires confirming that, even under extreme weather conditions, wildland fire severity can be mitigated by fuel treatments (Finney et al. 2005; Cram et al. 2006).”

            Seems QUITE clear to me that even impacts from severe wildfires are mitigated by modern thinning projects, which utilize “whole tree yarding”, eliminating logging slash from the forests, altogether. Of course, the devil is in the details.

          • TreeC123 says,

            Don’t forget that fire still occurs in forests that are logged to reduce fire hazard.Fire behavior is not modified nearly as much as many people say.[emphasis added]

            I’m not sure I gleaned this from the paper. Can you elaborate?

            • I cited the Cochrane paper to show that fuel reduction does not eliminate wildfire. It just tweaks fire around the edges. This is common knowledge among people who know fire, but it’s not how fuel reduction is portrayed by those who want aggressive landscape fuel treatments.

              Cochrane says “fuels treatments reduced the average size of any given wildfire by an estimated 7.2%, with amount of change correlated with the proportion of the landscape treated…” Cochrane also shows that fuel treatments can sometimes make fire bigger instead of smaller. And if you want to have a greater impacts on fire, you have to treat a greater cumulative landscape area, which adds unavoidably to the wildlife and carbon impacts.

              That’s all to reinforce my point that it is important to look at “the combined effects of fire plus logging in forests that are treated in an attempt to modify fire.” When this is done, the effects of fire alone (without the adverse effects of logging) appear to be favorable.

              I am not against well considered fuel treatments (small trees) near homes and escape routes, or to protect individual large trees from direct competition in fire suppressed stands of old growth, but the Forest Service rarely conducts an honest analysis of the impacts of landscape fuel treatments.

              • Yes, YOU can choose to disregard the many varied documented benefits of well-designed thinning projects but, you will be marginalized in the face of overwhelming public and scientific support. Nowhere are you mentioning the restoration of sustainable tree densities or restoration of historic species compositions. Abandoning forests to “whatever happens”, in the face of “climate change”, arsonists, lightning busts, auto accidents, plane crashes, accelerated erosion, loss of critical habitats, increased flooding, incineration of cultural resources, loss of botanical sites, impacts to recreational trails, enhanced bark beetle infestations, plugged culverts, etc, etc, etc, etc.

                I suggest that you go to court to fight for your “beliefs”.

  2. Larry is describing a catch-22 situation. We now know that past (never to be repeated clear-cut logging and fire suppression) has set off a perfect storm for global warming. Larger and more frequent forest fires not only decimate forest habitats and accelerate ocean acidification, but it also reinforces the negative environment for even greater climate change.

    The past eco-econ battles over old-growth-spotted owl will be pale in comparison to the battles over old-growth-global warming.

    Between mother-nature and public education, the touted benefits of forest thinning and biomass energy on being carbon neutral or even carbon advantaged will soon disappoint us. Like they say in the econ business — there is no free lunch.

      • Sharon, I certainly will. It is not so complex an elaboration I have in mind as one that requires careful explaination. It also goes to the issues raised by Dave Iverson, Andy Stahl and CBD on the positive and negative aspects of the new planning rule. It begins with the original rule and the opportunity I had to interact with a member of the Committee of Scientists. I was a thrity-something forest economist at that time in Alaska. While the the forests, the Forest Service and society has continued to evolve there are some fundamental and persistent problems still at play. I will try to expand sometiime in the next few days. Thanks Great Blog.


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