The news from our western wildlands is once again grim. Wildfires fueled by extreme drought, low humidity and high winds are again ravaging western lands, causing mass evacuations, destroying forests, homes and, in some cases, lives.
If you are looking for a canary in the coal mine on climate change, look no further than America’s forests. Now that the changing climate is creating a new normal for our forests, the way we care for them must adapt.
Fire management offers a case in point. For much of the 20th century, foresters saw fire as the enemy, which lead to the suppression of periodic natural fires, leaving our forests much more densely stocked with trees.
Then along came climate change. Extreme weather events like prolonged drought and heatwaves have turned these fire-suppressed forests into bone-dry tinderboxes. Nowhere is this more evident than the arid western U.S., where tens of millions of forest acres are succumbing to escalating drought, pests and catastrophic fire. Wildfires burn hot enough to sterilize soil across huge expanses — a rarity that has become routine.
But it’s not only western forests. A recent University of Florida study found that southeastern forests are already seeing a changing mixture of tree species in response to prolonged drought. Dangerous forest pests are reaching farther north into New England as its climate warms. New stresses are coming to all of America’s forests.
Though forests might seem a distant concern to many Americans, we all have much to lose when forests are at risk. Forests produce more than half of our drinking water and provide 2.4 million jobs, among many other public benefits.
Less widely understood is that U.S. forests and forest products capture and store 14 percent of U.S. carbon emissions each year. But this climate-slowing power of forests could be hindered — or even reversed — as forests die and release carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere.
Fortunately, cutting-edge science tells us that we can protect forests from the worst effects of climate change while bolstering their power to capture and store carbon. But only if we embrace new thinking and bold action.
Protecting our forests from climate change will often require active forest management, including harvesting dead and dying trees, reforestation, reintroducing controlled fire and other measures.
Consider California’s forests, where 129 million trees have died since 2010, with roughly 85 percent of those located in the Sierra Nevada. If we do nothing, many areas will experience fires so intense that they cannot be reforested and will transition to a shrub ecosystem. The best hope for sustaining forests like those in the Sierra will be to thin areas with dead and declining trees, while restoring a more resilient forest and using controlled burns more frequently.
As two long-time conservationists, we don’t offer this prescription lightly. Many environmentalists have long resisted calls for more active forest management, and accepting active management in one place doesn’t make it the right approach everywhere. There are some forests, including old-growth and wilderness areas, that can be managed with a light touch or no touch at all — even in a changing climate.
Still, even if Americans can come together to embrace climate-smart forestry, it won’t come for free. This is where government action comes in.
Congress has taken an important first step to provide needed resources by enacting a “Fire Funding Fix” as part of the FY2018 Omnibus appropriations bill. The Fire Fix will allow the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to stop diverting funds away from forest management to pay for increasingly expensive fires, a practice that resulted in well over half of the agency’s budget being devoted to firefighting.
While the Fire Fix will provide additional resources to support forest restoration on America’s 193 million acres of national forests, we must do much more. Congress should look to the Farm Bill being debated right now to provide additional resources to empower similar efforts from states, tribes and private landowners. And over the long term, Congress will need to substantially bolster USFS funding so that the agency can rebuild its staff and forestry resources to adequately confront the climate crisis on our forests.
Climate change should be the catalyst for all those who champion conservation of America’s forests — environmentalists, forest industry, local communities and government agencies — to come together and support a hands-on approach to help our forests achieve long-term health and resilience. The question is whether we will shift our thinking and resources quickly enough to keep up with climate change. Our forests await the answer.
Jad Daley is president & CEO of American Forests, as well as the co-founder and current co-chair of the Forest-Climate Working Group.
Robert Bonnie is a Rubenstein Fellow at Duke University, and former Undersecretary for Natural Resources and the Environment, U.S. Department of Agriculture.