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Ogmius Newsletter

Forests of the Future: Why Private Landowners Are A Key Piece of the Climate Challenge

by Angela Boag, 2018 Byerly Award Winner

Angela BoagAngela Boag is a PhD Candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder investigating the relationships between climate change, forest management and land ownership. She is the 2018 recipient of the Radford Byerly, Jr. Award in Science and Technology Policy



One summer day three years ago, I was curled up on my couch in Denver after three months of camping in rural eastern Oregon. I had spent the first summer of my PhD interviewing fifty private forest owners about how they managed their forests, including how – if at all – climate change affected their decisions.

While travelling through Oregon, I regularly checked the wildfire news to know where I should and shouldn’t be, and kept up the habit back home. That afternoon, I logged onto the national wildfire map and saw there was a huge fire just south of John Day, Oregon, where I had spent several weeks.

Further online research revealed that some of the people I interviewed had lost their homes in the inferno. Just two weeks previously, I had been sitting on their porch sipping lemonade, chatting about the history of their land and the ways they managed their trees. They had shown me the places they had thinned where they felt confident a fire wouldn’t spread, as well as those places they still felt were too dense and needed more work. The Canyon Creek Complex wildfire destroyed over 40 homes, the largest loss of property in Oregon in 80 years, and scorched 110,000 acres of public and private forestland.

Thousands of other families have experienced similar losses across the West, and fire scientists expect it to get worse. Large wildfires are becoming more common, in part because ongoing wildfire suppression policies have stopped the natural fire cycle. Regular fires historically reduced the amount of woody fuels on the landscape and created open meadows between forest patches. After 70 years of putting fires out, many forests have high densities of small trees, so when a wildfire ignites, it burns at high intensity across a huge area.

The other factor fueling more large wildfires is the changing climate. Warmer temperatures mean forests dry out more quickly in the summer, and heat waves combined with windy conditions create the perfect environment for massive, uncontrollable fires like those we saw in California this year. Humans are also starting fires more often as more people continue to move into the wildland-urban interface.

There is a lot of ire directed towards the federal government for the wildfire problem, but they are only one piece of the puzzle. Family forest owners own 38% of forestlands in the US and around 17% is owned by corporations focused on timber production. Only 31% of US forests are managed by the federal government. In the western US, where public forestland covers larger areas, private ownership still comprises 30% of forestland (Hewes et al, 2017). Therefore, by virtue of the large number of trees they manage and the carbon stored therein, private forest owners have a key role to play in adapting US forests to changing conditions. The U.S. Forest Service operates under a guidance to consider climate change in management decisions, however no such coordinated effort exists among private forest owners.

While wildfire is the in-your-face impact of climate change on forests, other impacts are also becoming evident. Shorter and warmer winters mean higher bark beetle populations as the beetles complete more generations in the growing season. And while warming is often the chief climate concern, more precipitation at specific times – particularly in spring – may mean more widespread disease and fungal infections in some tree species. So how do forest owners adapt?

Adaptation actions primarily aim to reduce vulnerability to increasingly likely natural disasters like wildfire, or increase capacity to respond to gradual change. Thinning trees back to densities similar to those pre-fire suppression can ease drought stress on individual trees and reduce wildfire severity. Thinning combined with prescribed burning has the most fuel reduction benefits, however most private forest owners are reluctant to implement prescribed burns on their land due to liability concerns.

Research indicates that many tree species will move to higher latitudes and elevations over this century, suggesting forest managers should begin thinking about replanting species post-fire or post-harvest that are “future-adapted” to projected climatic conditions.

Most forest owners I interviewed know thinning is important for wildfire mitigation, but lack a plan or funding to get the work done. Research shows that forest owners who get support for developing a forest management plan and access to cost-share and grant funding through state forestry agencies, university extension or non-profit organizations, are much more active managers. These are avenues through which best practices for climate change adaptation could be communicated.

In eastern Oregon, I found very few private forest owners who were concerned about climate change itself. Climate change is a highly politicized issue in rural Oregon as it is elsewhere in the US. Therefore, organizations supporting sustainable forest management by private forest owners may make more progress by focusing on the symptom of climate change, wildfire, rather than the cause. In the end, fuel reductions are still one of the first steps towards “climate-smart” forest management that almost all private forest owners need to take.

Hewes, Jaketon H.; Butler, Brett J.; Liknes, Greg C. 2017. Forest ownership in the conterminous United States circa 2014: distribution of seven ownership types – geospatial dataset. Fort Collins, CO: Forest Service Research Data Archive. https://doi.org/10.2737/RDS-2017-0007

Angela Boag, angela.boag@colorado.edu