This website is the digital version of the 2014 National Climate Assessment, produced in collaboration with the U.S. Global Change Research Program.

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Welcome to the National Climate Assessment

The National Climate Assessment summarizes the impacts of climate change on the United States, now and in the future.

A team of more than 300 experts guided by a 60-member Federal Advisory Committee produced the report, which was extensively reviewed by the public and experts, including federal agencies and a panel of the National Academy of Sciences.

Explore the effects of climate change
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Forests

Climate change is increasing the vulnerability of many U.S. forests through fire, insect infestations, drought, and disease outbreaks. Forests play an important role in absorbing and storing carbon dioxide, but the rate of uptake is projected to decline.

Explore interactions between climate change and forests.

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Convening Lead Authors

Linda A. Joyce, U.S. Forest Service

Steven W. Running, University of Montana

Lead Authors

David D. Breshears, University of Arizona

Virginia H. Dale, Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Robert W. Malmsheimer, SUNY Environmental Science and Forestry

R. Neil Sampson, Vision Forestry, LLC

Brent Sohngen, Ohio State University

Christopher W. Woodall, U.S. Forest Service

Introduction

Forests occur within urban areas, at the interface between urban and rural areas (wildland-urban interface), and in rural areas. Urban forests contribute to clean air, cooling buildings, aesthetics, and recreation in parks. Development in the wildland-urban interface is increasing because of the appeal of owning homes near or in the woods. In rural areas, market factors drive land uses among commercial forestry and land uses such as agriculture. Across this spectrum, forests provide recreational opportunities, cultural resources, and social values such as aesthetics.1

Economic factors have historically influenced both the overall area and use of private forestland. Private entities (such as corporations, family forest owners, and tribes) own 56% of the forestlands in the United States. The remaining 44% of forests are on public lands: federal (33%), state (9%), and county and municipal government (2%).89 Market factors can influence management objectives for public lands, but societal values also influence objectives by identifying benefits such as environmental services not ordinarily provided through markets, like watershed protection and wildlife habitat. Different challenges and opportunities exist for public and for private forest management decisions, especially when climate-related issues are considered on a national scale. For example, public forests typically carry higher levels of forest biomass, are more remote, and tend not to be as intensively managed as private forestlands.1

Forests provide opportunities to reduce future climate change by capturing and storing carbon, as well as by providing resources for bioenergy production (the use of forest-derived plant-based materials for energy production). The total amount of carbon stored in U.S. forest ecosystems and wood products (such as lumber and pulpwood) equals roughly 25 years of U.S. heat-trapping gas emissions at current rates of emission, providing an important national “sink” that could grow or shrink depending on the extent of climate change, forest management practices, policy decisions, and other factors.39,68 For example, in 2011, U.S. forest ecosystems and the associated wood products industry captured and stored roughly 16% of all carbon dioxide emitted by fossil fuel burning in the United States.39

Management choices for public, private, and tribal forests all involve similar issues. For example, increases in wildfire, disease, drought, and extreme events are projected for some regions (see also Ch. 16: Northeast; Ch. 20: Southwest; Ch. 21: Northwest, Key Message 3; and Ch. 22: Alaska). At the same time, there is growing awareness that forests may play an expanded role in carbon management. Urban expansion fragments forests and may limit forest management options. Addressing climate change effects on forestlands requires considering the interactions among land-use practices, energy options, and climate change.97

Key Message 1: Increasing Forest Disturbances

Climate change is increasing the vulnerability of many forests to ecosystem changes and tree mortality through fire, insect infestations, drought, and disease outbreaks.

Supporting Evidence
close

Supporting Evidence

Process for Developing Key Messages

A central component of the process was a workshop held in July 2011 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service to guide the development of the technical input report (TIR). This session, along with numerous teleconferences, led to the foundational TIR, “Effects of Climatic Variability and Change on Forest Ecosystems: A Comprehensive Science Synthesis for the U.S. Forest Sector.”1

The chapter authors engaged in multiple technical discussions via teleconference between January and June 2012, which included careful review of the foundational TIR and of 58 additional technical inputs provided by the public, as well as other published literature and professional judgment. Discussions were followed by expert deliberation of draft key messages by the authors and targeted consultation with additional experts by the lead author of each message.

Description of evidence base

The key message and supporting text summarizes extensive evidence documented in the TIR, “Effects of Climatic Variability and Change on Forest Ecosystems: A Comprehensive Science Synthesis for the U.S. Forest Sector.”1 Technical input reports (58) on a wide range of topics were also received and reviewed as part of the Federal Register Notice solicitation for public input.

Dale et al.2 addressed a number of climate change factors that will affect U.S. forests and how they are managed. This is supported by additional publications focused on effects of drought and by more large-scale tree die-off events,3,4 wildfire,5,6,7,8,9 insects and pathogens. 3,4 Other studies support the negative impact of climate change by examining the tree mortality rate due to rising temperatures,10,3,11,12,5,13,14,4 which is projected to increase in some regions.4

Although it is difficult to detect a trend in disturbances because they are inherently infrequent and it is impossible to attribute an individual disturbance event to changing climate, there is nonetheless much that past events, including recent ones, reveal about expected forest changes due to future climate. Observational13 and experimental4 studies show strong associations between forest disturbance and extreme climatic events and/or modifications in atmospheric evaporative demand related to warmer temperature. Regarding eastern forests, there are fewer observational or experimental studies, with Dietz and Moorcroft15 being the most comprehensive.

Pollution and stand age are the most important factors in mortality. Tree survival increases with increased temperature in some groups. However, for other tree groups survival decreases with increased temperature.15 In addition, this study15 needs to be considered in the context that there have been fewer severe droughts inthis region. However, physiological relationships suggest that trees will generally be more susceptible to mortality under an extreme drought, especially if it is accompanied by warmer temperatures.16,17 Consequently, it is misleading to assume that, because eastern forests have not yet experienced the types of large-scale die-off seen in the western forests, they are not vulnerable to such events if an extreme enough drought occurs. Although the effect of temperature on the rate of mortality during drought has only been shown for one species,4 the basic physiological relationships for trees suggest that warmer temperatures will exacerbate mortality for other species as well.16,17

Figure 7.1: This figure uses a figure from Goetz et al. 201218 which uses the MODIS Global Disturbance Index (MGDI) results from 2005 to 2009 to illustrate the geographic distribution of major ecosystem disturbance types across North America (based on Mildrexler et al. 2007, 200919,20). The MGDI uses remotely sensed information to assess the intensity of the disturbance. Following the occurrence of a major disturbance, there will be a reduction in Enhanced Vegetation Index (EVI) because of vegetation damage; in contrast, Land Surface Temperature (LST) will increase because more absorbed solar radiation will be converted into sensible heat as a result of the reduction in evapotranspiration from less vegetation density. MGDI takes advantage of the contrast changes in EVI and LST following a disturbance to enhance the signal to effectively detect the location and intensity of disturbances (http://www.ntsg.umt.edu/project/mgdi). Moderate severity disturbance is mapped in orange and represents a 65%-100% divergence of the current-year MODIS Global Disturbance Index value from the range of natural variability, High severity disturbance (in red) signals a divergence of over 100%.18

New information and remaining uncertainties

Forest disturbances have large ecosystem effects, but high interannual variability in regional fire and insect activity makes detection of trends more difficult than for changes in mean conditions.21,22,23 Therefore, there is generally less confidence in assessment of future projections of disturbance events than for mean conditions (for example, growth under slightly warmer conditions).22

There are insufficient data on trends in windthrow, ice storms, hurricanes, and landslide-inducing storms to infer that these types of disturbance events are changing.

Factors affecting tree death, such as drought, warmer temperatures, and/or pests and pathogens are often interrelated, which means that isolating a single cause of mortality is rare.3,24,16,13,4,17

Assessment of confidence based on evidence

Very High. There is very high confidence that under projected climate changes there is high risk (high risk = high probability and high consequence) that western forests in the United States will be affected increasingly by large and intense fires that occur more frequently.5,6,7,8,9 This is based on the strong relationships between climate and forest response, shown observationally13 and experimentally.4 Expected responses will increase substantially to warming and also in conjunction with other changes such as an increase in the frequency and/or severity of drought and amplification of pest and pathogen impacts. Eastern forests are less likely to experience immediate increases in wildfire unless/until a point is reached at which warmer temperatures, concurrent with seasonal dry periods or more protracted drought, trigger wildfires.

Confidence Level

Very High

Strong evidence (established theory, multiple sources, consistent results, well documented and accepted methods, etc.), high consensus

High

Moderate evidence (several sources, some consistency, methods vary and/or documentation limited, etc.), medium consensus

Medium

Suggestive evidence (a few sources, limited consistency, models incomplete, methods emerging, etc.), competing schools of thought

Low

Inconclusive evidence (limited sources, extrapolations, inconsistent findings, poor documentation and/or methods not tested, etc.), disagreement or lack of opinions among experts

Increasing Forest Disturbances

Figure 7.1: Forest Ecosystem Disturbances Forest Ecosystem Disturbances Details/Download

Insect and pathogen outbreaks, invasive species, wildfires, and extreme events such as droughts, high winds, ice storms, hurricanes, and landslides induced by storms2 are all disturbances that affect U.S. forests and their management (Figure 7.1). These disturbances are part of forest dynamics, are often interrelated, and can be amplified by underlying trends – for example, decades of rising average temperatures can increase damage to forests when a drought occurs.10 Disturbances that affect large portions of forest ecosystems occur relatively infrequently and in response to climate extremes. Changes in climate in the absence of extreme climate events (and the forest disturbances they trigger) may result in increased forest productivity, but extreme climate events can potentially overturn such patterns.25

Factors affecting tree death – such as drought, physiological water stress, higher temperatures, and/or pests and pathogens – are often interrelated, which means that isolating a single cause of mortality is rare.3,24,16 However, in western forests there have been recent large-scale die-off events due to one or more of these factors,11,12,5 and rates of tree mortality are well correlated with both rising temperatures and associated increases in evaporative water demand.13 In eastern forests, tree mortality at large spatial scales was more sensitive to forest structure (age, tree size, and species composition) and air pollutants than climate over recent decades. Nonetheless, mortality of some eastern tree groups is related to rising temperature15 and is expected to increase as climate warms.14

dead trees in forest
Warmer winters allow more insects to survive the cold season, and a longer summer allows some insects to complete two life cycles in a year instead of one. Drought stress reduces trees' ability to defend against boring insects. Above, beetle-killed trees in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.

Future disturbance rates in forests will depend on changes in the frequency of extreme events as well as the underlying changes in average climate conditions.10,21 Of particular concern is the potential for increased forest disturbance as the result of drought accompanied with warmer temperatures, which can cause both wildfire and tree death. Temperatures have generally been increasing and are projected to increase in the future (see Ch. 2: Our Changing Climate). Therefore, although it is difficult to predict trends in future extreme events,22 there is a high degree of confidence that future droughts will be accompanied by generally warmer conditions. Trees die faster when drought is accompanied by higher temperatures, so short droughts can trigger mortality if temperatures are higher.4 Short droughts occur more frequently than long droughts. Consequently, a direct effect of rising temperatures may be substantially greater tree mortality even with no change in drought frequency.4

Figure 7.2: Effectiveness of Forest Management in Reducing Wildfire Risk Effectiveness of Forest Management in Reducing Wildfire Risk Details/Download

wildfires
Climate change is contributing to increases in wildfires across the western U. S. and Alaska.

Given strong relationships between climate and fire, even when modified by land use and management, such as fuel treatments (Figure 7.2), projected climate changes suggest that western forests in the United States will be increasingly affected by large and intense fires that occur more frequently.5,6,7,8,26,9 These impacts are compounded by a legacy of fire suppression that has resulted in many U.S. forests becoming increasingly dense.27,28,29,30 Eastern forests are less likely to experience immediate increases in wildfire, unless a point is reached at which rising temperatures combine with seasonal dry periods, more protracted drought, and/or insect outbreaks to trigger wildfires – conditions that have been seen in Florida (see Ch. 17: Southeast).

Rising temperatures and CO2 levels can increase growth or alter migration of some tree species;1,31,32 however, the relationship between rising temperature and mortality is complex. For example, most functional groups show a decrease in mortality with higher summer temperatures (with the exception of northern groups), whereas warmer winters are correlated with higher mortality for some functional groups.15 Tree mortality is often the result of a combination of many factors; thus increases in pollutants, droughts, and wildfires will increase the probability of a tree dying (Figure 7.3). Under projected climate conditions, rising temperatures could work together with forest stand characteristics and these other stressors to increase mortality. Recent die-offs have been more severe than projected.3,11 As temperatures increase to levels projected for mid-century and beyond, eastern forests may be at risk of die-off.14 New evidence indicates that most tree species can endure only limited abnormal water stress, reinforcing the idea that trees in wetter as well as semiarid forests are vulnerable to drought-induced mortality under warming climates.33

Figure 7.3: Forest Vulnerability to Changing Climate Forest Vulnerability to Changing Climate Details/Download

Large-scale die-off and wildfire disturbance events could have potential impacts occurring at local and regional scales for timber production, flooding and erosion risks, other changes in water budgets, biogeochemical changes including carbon storage, and aesthetics.34,35,36,37,38 Rising disturbance rates can increase harvested wood output and potentially lower prices; however, higher disturbance rates could make future forest investments more risky (Figure 7.4). Western forests could also lose substantial amounts of carbon storage capacity. For example, an increase in wildfires, insect outbreaks, and droughts that are severe enough to alter soil moisture and nutrient contents can result in changes in tree density or species composition.25

Key Message 2: Changing Carbon Uptake

U.S. forests and associated wood products currently absorb and store the equivalent of about 16% of all carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted by fossil fuel burning in the U.S. each year. Climate change, combined with current societal trends in land use and forest management, is projected to reduce this rate of forest CO2 uptake.

Supporting Evidence
close

Supporting Evidence

Process for Developing Key Messages

A central component of the process was a workshop held in July 2011 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service to guide the development of the technical input report (TIR). This session, along with numerous teleconferences, led to the foundational TIR, “Effects of Climatic Variability and Change on Forest Ecosystems: A Comprehensive Science Synthesis for the U.S. Forest Sector.”1

The chapter authors engaged in multiple technical discussions via teleconference between January and June 2012, which included careful review of the foundational TIR and of 58 additional technical inputs provided by the public, as well as other published literature and professional judgment. Discussions were followed by expert deliberation of draft key messages by the authors and targeted consultation with additional experts by the lead author of each message.

Description of evidence base

The key message and supporting text summarizes extensive evidence documented in the TIR, “Effects of Climatic Variability and Change on Forest Ecosystems: A Comprehensive Science Synthesis for the U.S. Forest Sector.”1 Technical input reports (58) on a wide range of topics were also received and reviewed as part of the Federal Register Notice solicitation for public input.

A recent study39 has shown that forests are a big sink of CO2nationally. However, the permanence of this carbon sink is contingent on forest disturbance rates, which are changing, and on economic conditions that may accelerate harvest of forest biomass.40 Market response can cause changes in the carbon source/sink dynamics through shifts in forest age,41,42 land-use changes and urbanization that reduce forested areas,43 forest type changes,44 and bioenergy development changing forest management.43,45,46,47 Additionally, publications have reported that fires can convert a forest into a shrubland or meadow,9 with frequent fires permanently reducing the carbon stock.48,49

New information and remaining uncertainties

That economic factors and societal choices will affect future carbon cycle of forests is known with certainty; the major uncertainties come from the future economic picture, accelerating disturbance rates, and societal responses to those dynamics.

Assessment of confidence based on evidence

Based on the evidence and uncertainties, confidence is high that climate change, combined with current societal trends regarding land use and forest management, is projected to reduce forest CO2 uptake in the U.S. The U.S. has already seen large-scale shifts in forest cover due to interactions between forestland use and agriculture (for example, between the onset of European settlement to the present). There are competing demands for how forestland is used today. The future role of U.S. forests in the carbon cycle will be affected by climate change through changes in disturbances (Key Message 1), growth rates, and harvest demands.

Confidence Level

Very High

Strong evidence (established theory, multiple sources, consistent results, well documented and accepted methods, etc.), high consensus

High

Moderate evidence (several sources, some consistency, methods vary and/or documentation limited, etc.), medium consensus

Medium

Suggestive evidence (a few sources, limited consistency, models incomplete, methods emerging, etc.), competing schools of thought

Low

Inconclusive evidence (limited sources, extrapolations, inconsistent findings, poor documentation and/or methods not tested, etc.), disagreement or lack of opinions among experts

Changing Carbon Uptake

Climate-related Effects on Trees and Forest Productivity

Figure 7.4: Forests can be a Source - or a Sink - for Carbon Forests can be a Source - or a Sink - for Carbon Details/Download

Forests within the United States grow across a wide range of latitudes and altitudes and occupy all but the driest regions. Current forest cover has been shaped by climate, soils, topography, disturbance frequency, and human activity. Forest growth appears to be slowly accelerating (less than 1% per decade) in regions where tree growth is limited by low temperatures and short growing seasons that are gradually being altered by climate change (for species shifts, see Ch. 8: Ecosystems).50,51 Forest carbon storage appears to be increasing both globally and within the United States.52 Continental-scale satellite measurements document a lengthening growing season in the last thirty years, yet earlier spring growth may be negated by mid-summer drought.53

By the end of the century, snowmelt may occur a month earlier, but forest drought stress could increase by two months in the Rocky Mountain forests.54 In the eastern United States, elevated CO2 and temperature may increase forest growth and potentially carbon storage if sufficient water is available.1,37,55 Despite recent increases in forest growth, future net forest carbon storage is expected to decline due to accelerating mortality and disturbance.

Forest Carbon Sequestration and Carbon Management

From the onset of European settlement to the start of the last century, changes in U.S. forest cover due to expansion of agriculture, tree harvests, and settlements resulted in net emissions of carbon.58,59 More recently, with forests reoccupying land previously used for agriculture, technological advances in harvesting, and changes in forest management, U.S. forests and associated wood products now serve as a substantial carbon sink, capturing and storing more than 227.6 million tons of carbon per year.39 The amount of carbon taken up by U.S. land is dominated by forests (Figure 7.5), which have annually absorbed 7% to 24% of fossil fuel carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in the U.S. over the past two decades. The best estimate is that forests and wood products stored about 16% (833 teragrams, or 918.2 million short tons, of CO2 equivalent in 2011) of all the CO2 emitted annually by fossil fuel burning in the United States (see also “Estimating the U.S. Carbon Sink” in Ch. 15: Biogeochemical Cycles).39

The future role of U.S. forests in the carbon cycle will be affected by climate change through changes in disturbances (see Figures 7.3 and 7.4), as well as shifts in tree species, ranges, and productivity (Figure 7.6).14,59 Economic factors will affect any future carbon cycle of forests, as the age class and condition of forests are affected by the acceleration of harvesting,41,42 land-use changes such as urbanization,43 changes in forest types,44 and bioenergy development.43,45,46,47

Figure 7.5: Forest Growth Provides an Important Carbon Sink Forest Growth Provides an Important Carbon Sink Details/Download

Efforts in forestry to reduce atmospheric CO2 levels have focused on forest management and forest product use. Forest management strategies include land-use change to increase forest area (afforestation) and/or to avoid deforestation and optimizing carbon management in existing forests. Forest product-use strategies include the use of wood wherever possible as a structural substitute for steel and concrete, which require more carbon emissions to produce.59 The carbon emissions offset from using wood rather than alternate materials for a range of applications can be two or more times the carbon content of the product.60

In the U.S., afforestation (active establishment or planting of forests) has the potential to capture and store a maximum of 225 million tons of additional carbon per year from 2010 to 211041,61 (an amount almost equivalent to the current annual carbon storage in forests). Tree and shrub encroachment into grasslands, rangelands, and savannas provides a large potential carbon sink that could exceed half of what existing U.S. forests capture and store annually.61

Expansion of urban and suburban areas is responsible for much of the current and expected loss of U.S. forestland, although these human-dominated areas often have extensive tree cover and potential carbon storage (see also Ch. 13: Land Use & Land Cover Change).43 In addition, the increasing prevalence of extreme conditions that encourage wildfires can convert some forests to shrublands and meadows9 or permanently reduce the amount of carbon stored in existing forests if fires occur more frequently.48,49

Figure 7.6: Forests and Carbon Forests and Carbon Details/Download

Carbon management on existing forests can include practices that increase forest growth, such as fertilization, irrigation, switching to fast-growing planting stock, shorter rotations, and weed, disease, and insect control.62,63,64,65,66,67 In addition, forest management can increase average forest carbon stocks by increasing the interval between harvests, by decreasing harvest intensity, or by focused density/species management.68,69,70,71,72,73,74 Since 1990, CO2 emissions from wildland forest fires in the lower 48 United States have averaged about 67 million tons of carbon per year.75,57 While forest management practices can reduce on-site carbon stocks, they may also help reduce future climate change by providing feedstock material for bioenergy production and by possibly avoiding future, potentially larger, wildfire emissions through fuel treatments (Figure 7.2).1

Key Message 3: Bioenergy Potential

Bioenergy could emerge as a new market for wood and could aid in the restoration of forests killed by drought, insects, and fire.

Supporting Evidence
close

Supporting Evidence

Process for Developing Key Messages

A central component of the process was a workshop held in July 2011 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service to guide the development of the technical input report (TIR). This session, along with numerous teleconferences, led to the foundational TIR, “Effects of Climatic Variability and Change on Forest Ecosystems: A Comprehensive Science Synthesis for the U.S. Forest Sector.”1

The chapter authors engaged in multiple technical discussions via teleconference between January and June 2012, which included careful review of the foundational TIR and of 58 additional technical inputs provided by the public, as well as other published literature and professional judgment. Discussions were followed by expert deliberation of draft key messages by the authors and targeted consultation with additional experts by the lead author of each message.

Description of evidence base

The key message and supporting text summarize extensive evidence documented in the TIR, “Effects of Climatic Variability and Change on Forest Ecosystems: A Comprehensive Science Synthesis for the U.S. Forest Sector.”1 Technical input reports (58) on a wide range of topics were also received and reviewed as part of the Federal Register Notice solicitation for public input.

Studies have shown that harvesting forest bioenergy can prevent carbon emissions76,77 and replace a portion of U.S. energy consumption to help reduce future climate change. Some newer literature has explored how use of forest bioenergy can replace a portion of current U.S. energy production from oil.21,47 Some more recent publications have reported some environmental benefits, such as improved water quality40,78 and better management of timber lands,47 that can result from forest bioenergy implementation.

New information and remaining uncertainties

The implications of forest product use for bioenergy depends on regional context and circumstances, such as feedstock type and prior management, land conditions, transport and storage logistics, conversion processes used to produce energy, distribution and use.79,80

The potential for biomass energy to increase forest harvests has led to debates about whether biomass energy is net carbon neutral.81,82,83,84 The debate on biogenic emissions regulations revolves around how to account for emissions related to biomass production and use.85 Deforestation contributes to atmospheric CO2 concentration, and that contribution has been declining over time. The bioenergy contribution question is largely one of incentives for appropriate management. When forests have no value, they are burned or used inappropriately. Bioenergy can be produced in a way that provides more benefits than costs or vice versa. The market for energy from biomass appears to be ready to grow in response to energy pricing, policy, and demand; however, this industry is yet to be made a large-scale profitable enterprise in most regions of the United States.

Assessment of confidence based on evidence

High. Forest growth substantially exceeds annual harvest for normal wood and paper products, and much forest harvest residue is now unutilized. Forest bioenergy will become viable if policy and economic energy valuations make it competitive with fossil fuels.

Confidence Level

Very High

Strong evidence (established theory, multiple sources, consistent results, well documented and accepted methods, etc.), high consensus

High

Moderate evidence (several sources, some consistency, methods vary and/or documentation limited, etc.), medium consensus

Medium

Suggestive evidence (a few sources, limited consistency, models incomplete, methods emerging, etc.), competing schools of thought

Low

Inconclusive evidence (limited sources, extrapolations, inconsistent findings, poor documentation and/or methods not tested, etc.), disagreement or lack of opinions among experts

Bioenergy Potential

Bioenergy refers to the use of plant-based material to produce energy, and comprises about 28% of the U.S. renewable energy supply (Ch. 10: Energy, Water, and Land). Forest resources potentially could produce bioenergy from 504 million acres of timberland and 91 million acres of other forested land (Figure 7.7). Bioenergy from all sources, including agricultural and forests, could theoretically supply the equivalent of up to 30% of current U.S. petroleum consumption, but only if all relevant policies were optimized.47 The maximum projected potential for forest bioenergy ranges from 3% to 5% of total current U.S. energy consumption.86,87

Forest biomass energy could be one component of an overall bioenergy strategy to reduce emissions of carbon from fossil fuels,76,77 while also improving water quality40,78 and maintaining lands for timber production as an alternative to other socioeconomic options. Active biomass energy markets using wood and forest residues have emerged in the southern and northeastern United States, particularly in states that have adopted renewable fuel standards. The economic viability of using forests for bioenergy depends on regional context and circumstances, such as species type and prior management, land conditions, transport and storage logistics, conversion processes used to produce energy, distribution, and use.79,80 The environmental and socioeconomic consequences of bioenergy production vary greatly with region and intensity of human management.

The potential for biomass energy to increase timber harvests has led to debates about whether forest biomass energy leads to higher carbon emissions.46,81,82,83,84 The debate on biogenic emissions regulations revolves around how to account for emissions related to biomass production and use.85 The forest carbon balance naturally changes over time and also depends on forest management scenarios. For example, utilizing natural beetle-killed forests will yield a different carbon balance than growing and harvesting a live, fast-growing plantation.

Figure 7.7: Location of Potential Forestry Biomass Resources Location of Potential Forestry Biomass Resources Details/Download

Markets for energy from biomass appear to be ready to grow in response to energy pricing, policy, and demand,46 although recent increases in the supply of natural gas have reduced the perceived urgency for new biomass projects. Further, because energy facilities typically buy the lowest quality wood at prices that rarely pay much more than cutting and hauling costs, they often require a viable saw timber market nearby to ensure an adequate, low-cost supply of material.88 Where it is desirable to remove dead wood after disturbances to thin forests or to dispose of residues, a viable bioenergy industry could finance such activities. However, the bioenergy market has yet to be made a profitable enterprise in most U.S. regions.

Key Message 4: Influences on Management Choices

Forest management responses to climate change will be influenced by the changing nature of private forestland ownership, globalization of forestry markets, emerging markets for bioenergy, and U.S. climate change policy.

Supporting Evidence
close

Supporting Evidence

Process for Developing Key Messages

A central component of the process was a workshop held in July 2011 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service to guide the development of the technical input report (TIR). This session, along with numerous teleconferences, led to the foundational TIR, “Effects of Climatic Variability and Change on Forest Ecosystems: A Comprehensive Science Synthesis for the U.S. Forest Sector.”1

The chapter authors engaged in multiple technical discussions via teleconference between January and June 2012, which included careful review of the foundational TIR and of 58 additional technical inputs provided by the public, as well as other published literature and professional judgment. Discussions were followed by expert deliberation of draft key messages by the authors and targeted consultation with additional experts by the lead author of each message.

Description of evidence base

The key message and supporting text summarizes extensive evidence documented in the TIR, “Effects of Climatic Variability and Change on Forest Ecosystems: A Comprehensive Science Synthesis for the U.S. Forest Sector.”1 Technical input reports (58) on a wide range of topics were also received and reviewed as part of the Federal Register Notice solicitation for public input.

The forest management response to climate change in urban areas, the wildland-urban interface, and in rural areas has been studied from varying angles. The literature on urban forests identifies the value of those forests to clean air, aesthetics, and recreation and suggests that under a changing climate, urban communities will continue to enhance their environment with trees and urban forests.1,43 In the wildland-urban area and the rural areas, the changing composition of private forest landowners will affect the forest management response to climate change. Shifts in corporate owners to include investment organizations that may or may not have forest management as a primary objective has been described nationally.1,89 Family forest owners are an aging demographic; one in five acres of forestland is owned by someone who is at least 75 years of age.90 Multiple reasons for ownership are given by family forest owners, including the most commonly cited reasons of beauty/scenery, to pass land on to heirs, privacy, nature protection, and part of home/cabin. Many family forest owners feel it is necessary to keep the woods healthy but many are not familiar with forest management practices.90 Long-term studies of the forest sector in the southern United States document the adaptive response of forest landowners to market prices as they manage to supply wood and associated products from their forests;91 however prices are less of an incentive in other parts of the United States.1,43 Econometric approaches have been used to explore the economic activities in the forest sector, including interactions with other sectors such as agriculture, impact of climate change, and the potential for new markets with bioenergy.45,46 An earlier study explored the effects of globalization on forest management92 and a newer study looked at the effect of U.S. climate change policy.93 One of the biggest challenges is the lack of climate change information that results in inaction from many forest owners.90

New information and remaining uncertainties

Human concerns regarding the effects of climate change on forests and the role of adaptation and mitigation will be viewed from the perspective of the values that forests provide to human populations, including timber products, water, recreation, and aesthetic and spiritual benefits.1 Many people, organizations, institutions, and governments influence the management of U.S. forests. Economic opportunities influence the amount and nature of private forestland (and much is known quantitatively about this dynamic) and societal values have a strong influence on how public forestland is managed. However, it remains challenging to project exactly how humans will respond to climate change in terms of forest management.

Climate change will alter known environmental and economic risks and add new risks to be addressed in the management of forests in urban areas, the wildland-urban interface, and rural areas. The capacity to manage risk varies greatly across landowners. While adaptation strategies provide a means to manage risks associated with climate change, a better understanding of risk perception by forest landowners would enhance the development and implementation of these management strategies. Identification of appropriate monitoring information and associated tools to evaluate monitoring data could facilitate risk assessment. Information and tools to assess environmental and economic risks associated with the impacts of climate change in light of specific management decisions would be informative to forestland managers and owners.

Assessment of confidence based on evidence

Given the evidence base and remaining uncertainty, there is medium confidence in this key message. Climate change and global and national economic events will have an integral impact on forest management, but it is uncertain to what magnitude. While forest landowners have shown the capacity to adapt to new economic conditions, potential changes in the international markets coincident with large-scale natural disturbances enhanced by climate change (fire, insects) could challenge this adaptive capacity. An important uncertainty is how people will respond to climate change in terms of forest management.

Confidence Level

Very High

Strong evidence (established theory, multiple sources, consistent results, well documented and accepted methods, etc.), high consensus

High

Moderate evidence (several sources, some consistency, methods vary and/or documentation limited, etc.), medium consensus

Medium

Suggestive evidence (a few sources, limited consistency, models incomplete, methods emerging, etc.), competing schools of thought

Low

Inconclusive evidence (limited sources, extrapolations, inconsistent findings, poor documentation and/or methods not tested, etc.), disagreement or lack of opinions among experts

Influences on Management Choices

Climate change will affect trees and forests in urban areas, the wildland-urban interface, and in rural areas. It will also challenge forest landowners managing forests for commercial products, energy development, environmental services such as watershed protection, or the conversion of forestland to developed and urban uses or agriculture. With increases in urbanization, the value of forests in and around urban areas in providing environmental services required by urban residents will increase.43 Potentially the greatest shifts in goods and environmental services produced from forests could occur in rural areas where social and economic factors will interact with the effects of climate change at landscape scales.

Owner objectives, markets for forest products, crops and energy, the monetary value of private land, and policies governing private and public forestland all influence the actions taken to manage U.S. forestlands (56% privately owned, 44% public) (Figure 7.8). Ownership changes can bring changes in forest objectives. Among corporate owners (18% of all forestland), ownership has shifted from forest industry to investment management organizations that may or may not have active forest management as a primary objective. Non-corporate private owners, an aging demographic, manage 38% of forestland. Their primary objectives are maintaining aesthetics and the privacy that the land provides as well as preserving the land as part of their family legacy.90

A significant economic factor facing private forest owners is the value of their forestlands for conversion to urban or developed uses. Economic opportunities from forests include wood products, non-timber forest products, recreation activities, and in some cases, environmental services.1,43 Less than 1% of the volume of commercial trees from U.S. forestlands is harvested annually, and 92% of this harvest comes from private forestlands.89 Markets for wood products in the United States have been affected by increasingly competitive global markets,92 and timber prices are not projected to increase without substantial increases in wood energy consumption or other new timber demands.43 Urban conversions of forestland over the next 50 years could result in the loss of 16 to 31 million acres.43 The willingness of private forest owners to actively manage forests in the face of climate change will be affected primarily by market and policy incentives, not climate change itself.

The ability of public, private, and tribal forest managers to adapt to future climate change will be enhanced by their capacity to alter management regimes relatively rapidly in the face of changing conditions. The response to climate change may be greater on private forestlands where, in the past, owners have been highly responsive to market and policy signals.91 These landowners may be able to use existing or current forest management practices to reduce disturbance effects, increase the capture and storage of carbon, and modify plant species distributions under climate change. In addition, policy incentives, such as carbon pricing or cap and trade markets, could influence landowner choices. For human communities dependent upon forest resources, maintaining or enhancing their current resilience to change will influence their ability to respond to future stresses from climate change.94

Figure 7.8: Public and Private Forestlands Public and Private Forestlands Details/Download

On public, private, and tribal lands, management practices that can be used to reduce disturbance effects include altering tree planting and harvest strategies through species selection and timing; factoring in genetic variation; managing for reduced stand densities, which could reduce wildfire risk; reducing other stressors such as poor air quality; using forest management practices to minimize drought stress; and developing regional networks to mitigate impacts on ecosystem goods and services.1,36,95,96 Legally binding regulatory requirements may constrain adaptive management where plants, animals, ecosystems, and people are responding to climate change.93

Lack of fine-scale information about the possible effects of climate changes on locally managed forests limits the ability of managers to weigh these risks to their forests against the economic risks of implementing forest management practices such as adaptation and/or mitigation treatments. This knowledge gap will impede the implementation of effective management on public or private forestland in the face of climate change.

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