Climate change trends in the Pacific Northwest already point to where snowpack levels, fish survival and wildfire frequency are headed.
But how snow, fish and wildfire might combine to affect lakeside picnicking is a work in progress. That’s why roughly 100 federal, state, tribal and private land managers packed into Missoula's Holiday Inn Parkside this week to write a climate-change vulnerability and adaptation plan.
“For a while, a lot of people thought there was too much uncertainty around climate change,” said David Peterson, a research biologist with the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station in Seattle. “But we’re pretty sure about some things. With temperature, different models predict different magnitudes of increase, but they’re all predicting it will get warmer. For snowpack, we’ve got good evidence over the past 60 years that it’s declining and will continue to decline. Most of the West is arid – there’s going to be a lot of competition for that moisture.”
The Monday-Tuesday workshop in Missoula was one of five taking place this month across Forest Service Region 1, which stretches from the Idaho Panhandle across Montana to North Dakota and includes part of South Dakota and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
The goal is to get everyone looking at everyone else’s research and draw connections, Peterson said. For example, participants at the recent workshop in Bismarck, North Dakota, noted that hotter summers are driving more people to lakes for recreation. Are the boat ramps, fish populations and irrigators ready for that increased use?
“It’s like the ripples you get when you throw a stone in a pond,” Peterson said. “Snowpack touches water quality and fisheries populations and flooding. We’re trying to create a climate-change context for land managers. We’re saying these are the things to keep in the back of your mind in addition to the 10 other things you’re already thinking about.”
The Vulnerability and Adaptation draft report looks at dozens of topics, grouped along vegetation, wildlife, recreation and “ecosystem services” lines. Douglas fir trees and Canada lynx cats have a high likelihood of losing habitat as snowpack and soil moisture levels change. Ponderosa pine has a relatively low vulnerability to a hotter, drier climate, although it could see increased competition from grasses.
“That could lead to more forage for ungulates and livestock,” said Barry Bollenbacher, regional silviculturist for the Forest Service Region 1 headquarters in Missoula. “So we need to think about what impact could come from that in grazing or timber production.”
Ecosystem services are the things humans like or want from the landscape – things like drinking water, timber, hunting and hiking opportunities and carbon storage. The strong potential for wildfire to become two or three times more frequent by 2050 presents planning problems for all kinds of land managers, Peterson said.
The draft report under review in Missoula will eventually be refined to a version ready for final review in mid-2015. It’s likely to be published in 2016, after which it will become a major resource for things like national forest plans, wildfire budgeting and economic development on public lands.
“There’s no 100 percent certainty to this, but that’s why we buy insurance policies,” Peterson said. “Climate change doesn’t make wholesale changes on land management. It’s more of a fine-tuning thing.”