Putting Out The Fire, Part Two: Can Humans Help Forests Adapt To Climate Change?

Aug 27, 2015

The U.S. Forest Service is sounding the alarm about the skyrocketing cost of wildfires. The agency now spends more than half its budget dealing with fires, compared to 16 percent in 1995. This week KUNR’s news team is looking at new ways to cope with wildfires in our series, Putting Out The Fire. In the second story we look at a controversial new strategy that could help forests adapt to warming climates. 

 


Half an hour east of Auburn, along a windy road deep in the Tahoe National Forest, the Foresthill Orchard seems like an unlikely place to be planting the seeds of the future.

“This is a western white pine, from British Columbia." 

Tom Blush, the U.S. Forest Service regional geneticist for the Pacific Southwest, is walking around the “assisted migration” section of the seed orchard. This is one of 48 sites where the British Columbia Ministry of Forestry is partnering with the U.S. Forest Service to test how various tree species might handle different growing conditions. The research has been underway since January 2013 and is already influencing forest management in the West.

Assisted migration is a relatively new idea and refers to the strategy of moving species around in anticipation of climate change. Blush describes himself as a strong advocate of the idea.

“In looking at the scientific literature I’m pretty sure climate change is happening rapidly and we need to get into the mindset of practicing assisted migration as a routine management effort,” Blush says.

The U.S. Forest Service practices what Blush calls “conservative approach,” moving seeds within the same species from one elevation to another. For example, his crew might take a Ponderosa Pine seed that grows well in Auburn and plant it about 1000 feet higher in elevation, near Grass Valley. For thousands of years, trees have migrated on their own, but with climate change happening more quickly than anticipated, humans are stepping in to help. 

“We’re pretty sure that warmer temperatures are coming, so our initial approach is to compensate for that by moving to a higher elevation where the temperatures are gonna be not as warm as they are down lower,” he says.

Some researchers are looking at even more aggressive strategies that would introduce new species to local forests, which Blush says the Forest Service isn’t quite ready for.

“We’re trying to be very conservative initially," he says. "We’re certainly not moving any species outside of its native range or anything like that yet.”

There’s been talk amongst  some local foresters of planting black oak in the region and Blush is open to that idea.

“Black oak may have a pretty good future," he says. "It’s on the trailing edge of the ponderosa pine species range and as ponderosa pine fades away in the lower elevations, black oak may start being more dominant.”

“These are drought-adapted, you know, species, conifers and stuff, and they physiologically are totally different, so I think there might be some watershed, hydrological consequences," counters Patricia Maloney, a tree geneticist with the UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center. "I would never plant black oak here.”

Although Maloney is fine with the idea of moving seeds around, she is not at all in favor of humans deciding which species should grow where. 

“Nature has a way of sorting its way out and humans – or many people – have this preconceived idea of like, ‘we want this forest type,’ but you know what? If the climate is changing, it’s gonna shift.”

Maloney is one of only a handful of critics speaking out against assisted migration. 

“I feel like sometimes I sit by myself on this argument about climate change and species and what they’re going to do," she says.  "I’ve always said you know tree species have enormous genomes and they’re genetic makeup is like they’ve got a bag full of tricks we’ve got no idea about.”

But if we’re going to lose forests to wildfires, Tom Blush and others at the U.S. Forest Service want to take the opportunity to replant them with seeds that are better adapted to a warmer future. 

Of course, that’s only possible when there’s enough funding for re-forestation. These days, Blush says, the increased number of wildfires is taking money away from everything else.