Managing Forests in Response to Climate Change

Statement of Kit Batten

Science Advisor, Office of the Deputy Secretary

U.S. Department of the Interior

Oversight Hearing on Forests and Climate Change

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee

Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests

November 18, 2009


Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today to discuss the impacts of climate change on the ecosystems managed by the Department of the Interior, including forests and woodlands, wetlands, and many others.I am Dr. Kit Batten, Science Advisor to the Deputy Secretary of the Interior.

My testimony today highlights the impacts of climate change on these lands and describes how sustainable public land management can help forests and other ecosystems adapt to and mitigate climate change.

The Department manages over 500 million acres of land – one-fifth of the nation's land mass – and these lands include many types of ecosystems, from coastal estuaries to riparian corridors along our nation's rivers to prairie wetlands to alpine forests.The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs all oversee the management of forest land in the refuges, parks, public and tribal lands under their jurisdictions.Forests and other lands and waters managed by the Department's bureaus provide critical ecosystem services, such as wildlife habitat for a variety of species, clean air and water, biodiversity, pollinator services, cultural heritage resources, recreational opportunities, forest products, and mineral and energy resources.

Potential Climate Change Impacts to Forests

Perhaps no resource management issue is as complex and challenging as climate change.Climate change affects biota, water, ecosystems, cultures, and economies.The Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) notes that climate change is expected to affect precipitation patterns, vegetation types and distribution, wildlife habitat and behavior, wildfire frequency and risk, sea levels, and the spread of pests and diseases.These, in turn, will affect a broad range of human activities.

With specific regard to forest and woodland plant species, a recent report by the U. S. Climate Change Science Program and the Subcommittee on Global Change Research predicts that these lands will respond in different ways to changes in temperature, precipitation, and other factors related to climate change.[1]With warmer temperatures, tree species may respond by migrating both northward and to higher altitudes.Species with restricted ranges may be most vulnerable, while species with broader climate tolerances may be able to adapt more easily.Alpine forests are at risk of loss because there will be no place for them to migrate.However, forests in the Pacific Northwest, west of the Cascades, may benefit by increased growth if both temperature and precipitation increase as forecasted in some climate change models.Interior Northwest forests may suffer as warmer winters decrease the retention of snowpack.

Species composition of forests also may change dramatically.Climate change may favor drought-resistant species such as juniper in some areas.Juniper woodlands are expected to migrate into higher elevation forests and could compete with other forest types for moisture..In addition, changes in biodiversity are possible with changes in species mix and habitat.Southwest woodlands are at high risk of conversion to desert shrub and grassland.Wildlife and plant communities may migrate as temperature, habitat, and water resources change.Climate change may result in increased establishment of invasive species such as tamarisk that not only pose a risk of displacing native plant species but can also consume water in already dry areas, leading to increased competition for this limited resource.

Finally, forest seed production could be impacted due to its cyclical nature and response to temperature and precipitation.Seedling establishment, survival, growth, and vigor are all critically dependent on available soil moisture, and would be reduced during periods of increased drought.Insects, pathogens, invasive species, drought, and increased wildfire activity are all risks for forests and woodlands as a result of climate change.

Current Landscape Changes

In fact, the Department's land and wildlife managers are already confronting the impacts of climate change on the lands they manage.Reduced snowpack combined with earlier melting and runoff – particularly in the Northwest and Mountain-West – is leading to decreased recharge of groundwater systems, increasing stress on public water systems and altering river flows, temperature, depth, and other characteristics of spawning environments for fish.[2]Our Arctic parks, refuges, and public lands are seeing some of the earliest impacts of climate change – for example, melting sea ice threatens marine mammals as well as coastal communities, and contributes to a warming feedback loop – melting ice reduces albedo, which only leads to greater melting of sea ice.Thawing permafrost not only destabilizes buildings, roads, and facilities and disrupts the structural basis of large regions of interior lands, but also leads to even greater amounts of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide and methane, which only reinforce the warming cycle.

Vegetation in some places has converted to more drought-hardy species[3] and, in some instances, species numbers have been reduced or lost.[4]Our scientists are also noting changes in abundance and distribution of species, including changes in migration patterns; the expansion of pests and invasive species; increased vulnerability to wildfire and erosion; and overall changes in carrying capacity and the ability of ecosystems to support different species populations.[5]Many of the iconic wildlife species that the Department manages from the Arctic to the Everglades will see their habitat and ranges affected by global climate change.

In the interior forests of the Rocky Mountain States, a combination of warmer winters over the past decade, drought stress, and a prevalence of over-mature, over-stocked, even-aged single species forests have created perfect conditions for a proliferation of bark beetles.The stressed condition of the forests makes them more susceptible to fatal insect attack.[6]Approximately 800,000 acres of BLM-managed forestlands in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho are suffering from mountain pine beetle attack and are at risk of widespread mortality.The effects of bark beetle infestation can also be seen in forests in Rocky Mountain, Yellowstone, and other western national parks.Similarly, pinyon pine forests have experienced widespread mortality from bark beetle attack in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona.As noted in the previous paragraph, forestlands suffering from these stresses – especially in combination with drought -- are also more susceptible to wildfire, increasing the threat of catastrophic fire in the wildland-urban interface areas across the West.

Adaptation and Mitigation Strategies

Climate change adaptation strategies can enhance the ability of ecosystems, such as forests and woodlands, to withstand, or adapt to, current and projected climate change impacts.For example, a healthy forest—a species-diverse, multi-aged forest, with proper stocking densities—is resilient in response to environmental stresses, better able to resist insect attacks and diseases, and less vulnerable to catastrophic wildfire.Restoring forest health on our public lands through active management is one way to promote adaptation to climate change.

The Department of the Interior is on the front lines of protecting our country's water, land, marine, fish, wildlife, tribal, and cultural heritage resources from the effects of climate change we are witnessing – from the Arctic to the Everglades.The realities of climate change will require the Department to change how we manage the resources we oversee.To assure that our climate change adaptation strategies are grounded in sound science, Secretary Salazar has created a new climate change strategy for the Department through Secretarial Order #3289 (September 14, 2009):"Addressing the Impacts of Climate Change on America's Water, Land and Other Natural and Cultural Resources."This Order establishes a new Department-wide strategy to address climate change, with an emphasis on climate change science, adaptation, and mitigation.

This Order also recognizes that the Department must rely on important partnerships to respond to climate change, including the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the National Science and Technology Council, the U.S. Global Change Research Program, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Defense, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Tribal governments, State and local governments, universities, non-governmental organizations, and private landowners.

Specifically, the Order establishes the following:

·DOI Climate Change Response Council:Composed of the Secretary (Chair), Deputy Secretary (Vice-Chair), Counselor to the Secretary (Vice-Chair), Assistant Secretaries, Bureau Directors and the Solicitor, the Council will help coordinate activities within and among the Department's agencies and bureaus to develop and implement an integrated strategy for responding to climate change impacts involving the resources managed by the Department.

·Regional Climate Change Response Centers:Eight Regional Climate Change Response Centers will deliver climate change impact science, modeling, and forecasting to DOI natural and cultural resource managers within a region; synthesize, integrate, and communicate climate change impact data gathered by the Department and external partners; develop management-relevant adaptation tools that the Department of the Interior's resource managers and its partners can use when managing resources in the face of a changing climate; and help to educate the public about climate change impacts within the region.

·Landscape Conservation Cooperatives:Interior bureaus and agencies, guided by theClimate Response Council, are working to stimulate the development of a network of collaborative "Landscape Conservation Cooperatives."These cooperatives will work interactively with the relevant DOI Regional Climate Change Response Centers and help coordinate landscape-scale adaptation efforts with federal, Tribal, state, and local governments, and private landowner partners.

·DOI Carbon Storage Project:DOI is working to develop measurement and verification methodologies and carry out assessments of carbon storage in geologic formations (geological carbon sequestration) and in plants and soils (biological sequestration) in a manner consistent with the Department's responsibility to provide comprehensive, long-term stewardship of its land, water, marine, fish and wildlife, and cultural heritage resources.

·DOI Carbon Footprint Project:DOI is developing a unified greenhouse gas emission reduction program, including setting a baseline and reduction goal for the Department's greenhouse gas emissions and energy use.

As an example of what this will look like on the ground, the BLM is conducting a series of eco-regional assessments to improve our understanding of the existing condition of BLM-managed landscapes, identify potential impacts from climate change, and develop and implement strategies and conduct on-the-ground restoration projects on the public lands to help native plant (including forest) and animal communities adapt to climate change.These assessments will work with and contribute data to the Regional Climate Change Response Centers and be used in conjunction with climate change models to aid BLM and other managers within Landscape Conservation Cooperatives in developing regional adaptation strategies that promote sustainable land stewardship across the landscape.

Strategies to protect forest ecosystems managed by DOI focus primarily on increasing the resilience and the natural capacity of these forests to adapt to new conditions.Key strategies are to reduce stressors and encourage diversity, such as through fire management and control of invasive plants, forest pests, and pathogens.Successful adaptation efforts must involve cooperation and collaboration with adjacent lands and partners.

The same sustainable management activities used on our public lands to restore forest health and help forests adapt to climate change impacts can also contribute to minimizing GHG emissions. Forestlands play an important role in climate change mitigation by sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis and then storing this carbon in tree biomass, soils, and wood products.Forests can also provide biomass for energy production, which can supplant the use of fossil fuels that emit greater amounts of GHG.The use of biomass (e.g., waste material from timber harvest) as a substitute for fossil fuels for generating power is expected to increase as bioenergy facilities come on-line.

Biological Carbon Sequestration

Forests, range lands, wetlands, and other landscapes play a vital role in the carbon cycle.These natural systems take in and store carbon dioxide in plants and soils.Secretarial Order 3289 established the DOI Carbon Storage Project through which the Department is developing methodologies for both geological and biological carbon storage, and is working with states, Tribes, localities, private landowners, and other stakeholders to execute on-the-ground restoration projects that sequester carbon, consistent with our existing stewardship responsibilities.

The Department is actively engaged with partners, including the Trust for Public Land and the Conservation Fund; energy and other industrial companies, and the Carbon Fund, who are interested in acquisition and restoration projects resulting in carbon sequestration.Our partners secure lands and sponsor habitat restoration through carbon sequestration value in the form of credits, as calculated through methods developed by Environmental Synergy, Inc. and the Conservation Fund.These partnerships have so far added 40,000 acres of restored habitat to the National Wildlife Refuge System and restored more than 80,000 acres of native habitats benefiting, fish, wildlife, and migratory bird populations in bottomland hardwood forests.More than 22 million trees have been planted through this partnership.

In the Sacramento Delta of California, USGS and partners are developing a process to "farm carbon" by restoring wetland vegetation and re-hydrating and restoring organic peat soils.Carbon farming works through the sequestration of carbon in native plants such as tules and cattails, which in turn decompose very slowly and create new peat soil.This effort is not only sequestering carbon, but is also providing wildlife habitat and increasing the elevation of the soil surface in restored areas, decreasing the stress across Delta levees.Additional scientific work is necessary to learn how to maximize growth rates and minimize decomposition rates, verify greenhouse gas benefits over several years, and minimize any potential adverse environmental impacts, such as methane and nitrous oxide emissions.

In addition, the Fish and Wildlife Service is exploring new habitat restoration techniques that could encourage carbon sequestration in the Florida Everglades and across the expansive pocosin wetlands of the Carolinas.A project at Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife refuge involves verifying carbon sequestration benefits of the pocosin hydrology restoration work that began in the 1900s.

In accordance with responsibilities mandated in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, the Department (through the U.S. Geological Survey) is developing a methodology to measure and assess biological carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas fluxes, and will use this methodology to conduct a national assessment of ecosystem carbon storage and greenhouse gas fluxes.This methodology will be released in 2010.

Scientists, using geospatial data, remote sensing applications, and ecosystem modeling, have developed research and working models to describe storage and fluxes of carbon in relationship to climate change and land use for large-scale landscapes.These efforts will be expanded into a national framework that is adaptive, incorporating new information about carbon cycling and sequestration as it becomes available.Best management practices for carbon sequestration in saline and fresh-water wetlands, soil and sediments, permafrost areas, hardwood and coniferous forests, grasslands and rangelands are needed for use by public, Tribal, and private land managers.

Opportunities & Challenges

The Department is working to increase its ability to monitor, assess, forecast, and respond to landscape changes over time, implementing programs to address climate change on a broad scale.Restoring the health and maintaining the resiliency of our nation's public lands (including forest and woodland ecosystems) is crucial to ameliorating and adapting to the effects of climate change.Much has been learned as this effort has evolved.Most importantly, the Department has recognized that landscape-scale problems require landscape-scale responses.The impacts of climate change do not distinguish between lands managed by different federal agencies.

The various bureaus at the Department of the Interior are working with each other and external partners to adapt our forest and woodland management programs to anticipate and adapt to the effects of climate change and mitigate the potential impacts across all lands.As mentioned earlier, coordination is one of the keys to our success.Secretarial Order #3289 establishes a new Departmental strategy to promote Department-wide coordination as well as coordination with outside partners on climate change science and resource management strategies for understanding and responding to climate change impacts.


Climate change is impacting all of our ecosystems, including our forests and woodlands.The development of successful science-based adaptation and mitigation strategies is critical to the health of these resources and the human communities, and fish and wildlife that are dependent on them.

Again, thank you for the opportunity to testify today.I am happy to answer any questions that you might have.



[1] Climate Change Science Program, The effects of climate change on agriculture, land resources, water resources, and biodiversity in the United States, Backlund, et al. (2008).

[2] Stonestrom, D.A. and J.R. Harrill, Ground-water recharge in the arid and semiarid southwestern United States-climatic and geologic framework. U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper, 1703-A: 27 (2007); IPCC Fourth Assessment Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability (2007); Barnett, T. P., and D. W. Pierce (2008), When will Lake Mead go dry?, Water Resour. Res., 44, (2008).

[3]Backlund, Peter, (2008).

[4] IPCC Fourth Assessment WG II (2007).

[5] IPCC Fourth Assessment WG II (2007); Parmesan (2006) Ecological and Evolutionary Responses to Recent Climate Change, Annu. Rev. Ecolo. Evol. Syst. 37: 637-69.

[6] Bentz, B., J. Logan, J. MacMahon, C. Allen, et al. 2009. Bark beetle outbreaks in Western North America: Causes and consequences. Chicago, IL: University of Utah Press. 42 pp. Also Logan J.A.; Powell J.A. 2001. Ghost Forests, Global Warming, and the Mountain Pine Beetle (Coleoptera: Scolytidea). American Entomologist. 160-172; Kurz, W.A. et al. Mountain Pine Beetle and Forest Carbon Feedback to Climate Change;Campbell, Elizabeth M. 2007. Climate change, mountain pine beetle, and the decline of whitebark pine, a keystone species of high-elevation ecosystems in British Columbia, Canada. Ecological Society of America meeting, August 2007, San Jose, CA.