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How Is Climate Resilience Being Incorporated into Forest Planning Initiatives

Faith Yorba


  • Addresses climate change impacts on forest management and forest planning
  • Illustrates the importance of incorporating climate resilience into forest management plans.
  • Discusses challenges in incorporating climate resilience and offers solutions in integrating a social-ecological resilience approach into forest plans.
How Is Climate Resilience Being Incorporated into Forest Planning Initiatives
Carmen Martínez Torrón via Getty Images

Climate change is altering our nation’s forests in significant ways in which our current management strategies are not equipped to deal with. Climate change’s impacts on forests include causing more severe and prolonged droughts and heat waves, changing seasonal precipitation patterns (i.e., less precipitation in certain areas, changes in precipitation type from snow to rain, less snowpack, etc.), providing for conditions that support deadly insect outbreaks in forests, and increasing the frequency and severity of wildfires. These effects are being felt around the country, across varying forest types, and help illustrate the importance of incorporating climate resilience into forest management plans. 

The U.S. Forest Service (USFS or the Forest Service) is tasked with ensuring the proper management of our national forest systems. The National Forest Management Act (NFMA) of 1976 directed USFS to develop land-management plans (also known as forest plans) for every national forest and requires that these forest plans be revised “at least every fifteen years.” 16 U.S.C. § 1604(f)(5). The Forest Service’s most recent planning guidance comes from a 2012 Planning Rule, which revamped the land-management planning strategy to align with current science and societal values. Unfortunately, 10 years have passed since the 2012 Planning Rule was passed and only a small fraction of the 127 land-management plans have been revised. The majority of plans are years, if not decades, past due for revision.

The forest plan revision process presents forest managers with an opportunity to incorporate resilience, in particular climate resilience, into new forest management initiatives. In the past several years, USFS has completed the revision process for a few plans, but these plans have had varying degrees of success with incorporating climate resilience. Meeting the challenge of climate change in forest planning requires USFS to use the forest plan revision process to address a changing climate.

Incorporating Climate Change into Forest Planning

The Forest Service had been discussing the issue of climate change years before the 2012 Planning Rule was passed. In October 2008, USFS issued the Forest Service Strategic Framework for Responding to Climate Change, which stated that “without fully integrating consideration of climate change impacts into planning and actions, the Forest Service [could not] fulfill its mission.” Utilizing climate science from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), USFS developed a framework that illustrated seven goals for addressing climate change in order to achieve healthy, sustainable forests. These goals were supplemented with realistic recommendations for concrete actions that USFS staff should take to incorporate climate change adaptation and mitigation measures into all Forest Service processes. In February 2011, USFS expanded on its climate change strategy by developing a National Roadmap for Responding to Climate Change. The roadmap was created as a tool for USFS to hold itself accountable in its response to climate change by focusing on four major dimensions: “agency or organizational capacity; partnerships and conservation education; adaptation; and mitigation.”

A significant milestone in USFS’s response to climate change occurred when the 2012 Planning Rule replaced the outdated 1982 requirements for land management plans. The new rule prioritizes climate change from the beginning, with the preamble listing eight key management needs, the first of which is to “emphasize restoration of natural resources to make our NFS lands more resilient to climate change, protect water resources, and improve forest health.” 77 FR 21162, 21164. This rule establishes guidelines for revising the comprehensive forest plans that USFS uses to manage 193 million acres of national forest land.

Climate Resilience in Revised Forest Plans

The 2012 Planning Rule incorporates climate change in various sections. It begins by including it as part of the Planning Framework (36 CFR Part 219(5)(a)), stating that the intent of the framework “is to create a responsive planning process . . . that allows the Forest Service to adapt to changing conditions, including climate change.” The rule further includes climate change as an important aspect of both the assessment and monitoring requirements of the process. Assessment requirements must be met by considering “forest stressors, such as natural succession, wildland fire, invasive species, and climate change; and the ability of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems on the plan area to adapt to change.” 36 CFR Part 219(6)(b). Importantly, not only must climate change be taken into account in the assessment process, but also the ability of ecosystems and species to adapt to the impacts of climate change.

For example, the Kaibab National Forest (KNF), located in Northern Arizona, underwent revision from 2010–2014. The KNF is an unusual case because the revision process began before the 2012 Planning Rule was finalized, and used the 1982 regulations instead for its revision process. Nevertheless, the plan was updated to comply with the monitoring direction of the 2012 Planning Rule and supplemented with the best available science. The KNF revised plan focuses on “forest restoration, greater flexibility in fire management, and building resilience in the face of climate change dynamics.” The KNF Plan also includes a Climate Change Approach in Appendix D that showcases how USFS will integrate climate change into management strategies across the KNF. It includes a detailed analysis of its monitoring requirements related to climate change, regional threats from climate change, management strategies to address key climate change concerns, and how various planning and adaptation tools can be utilized.

In contrast, the Rio Grande National Forest (RGNF), which spans parts of Southern Colorado, was revised from 2016–2020. The RGNF completed the majority of its revision process after the 2016 presidential election, which may have resulted in confusion or misdirection on the extent to which climate resilience should be incorporated into forest plans. The RGNF Plan has minimal discussion of climate change compared with the KNF Plan: on the Rio Grande, most of the discussion is centered around climate change as a substantial concern for the persistence and health of various threatened species in the RGNF. In addition, the RGNF plan briefly mentions climate change in its monitoring program, a requirement of the 2012 Planning Rule.

Challenges in Incorporating Resilience

There are many challenges to a smooth integration of climate resilience into forest management and plan revision. A study conducted after the implementation of the 2012 Planning Rule looked at how forest managers and planners working with the new rule interpreted and incorporated resilience. The main challenges identified by interviewees (i.e., USFS planners and managers) were: 1. inconsistencies in resilience definitions and scales; 2. the 2012 Rule provided a high level of autonomy that left managers lacking concrete direction, metrics, and/or examples; and 3. confusion over how to incorporate climate change into resilience initiatives. Resilience was not defined in the planning rule, and uncertainty around the term has contributed to the confusion and inconsistencies surrounding its implementation in forest management initiatives. And regarding the third challenge, “participants felt that restoring historic conditions to achieve resilience conflicts with planning for resilience to climate change.”

In order to address these challenges, the Forest Service will need to adopt new approaches to ensuring ecological integrity across the national forests.

The Solution: Integrating a Social-Ecological Resilience Approach into Forest Plans

A new framework that is suitable for a changing climate should incorporate scales of space and time, allow for adaptability, and emphasize how human and ecological systems are interconnected. The Forest Service can start to develop this framework by establishing a clear, agency-wide definition of “resilience.”

There are numerous definitions of resilience, but scholars and decision-makers juggle with three primary understandings of resilience when evaluating responses to disturbances and developing effective policy solutions. The first approach, referred to as “engineering resilience,” measures resilience by how quickly a system can return to a desired equilibrium after a disturbance. Another approach, known as “ecological resilience,” is characterized by a system's ability to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change without compromising important ecological processes and characteristics. The third understanding of resilience deals with “the capacity of integrated social-ecological systems (SES) to adapt to disturbance.” This “socio-ecological resilience” approach acknowledges that managing forests for change must be accomplished by understanding how social and ecological systems are interconnected and dependent upon one another across multiple spatial and temporal scales.

Social-ecological resilience focuses on adaptive capacity over time rather than restoring ecosystem components to their previous states. The ecological resilience framework does not provide a clear direction for adjusting forest management for future conditions in a changing climate. Social-ecological resilience, on the other hand, is more suitable to address climate change because it embraces “ecosystem capacity for adaptation and the increasing probability of reorganization across scales of space, time, and levels of biological organization.” Another important aspect of social-ecological resilience is that it sheds light on the interconnectedness of human and ecological systems. Social components are essential to climate solutions, and a social-ecological approach would ensure these elements are not overlooked.

A social-ecological resilience framework can assist in forest management efforts by focusing on collaborative learning to operationalize cross-scale partnerships and collaborative work. Literature around the social-ecological approach emphasizes “knowledge coproduction,” defined as “the process of producing usable, or actionable, science through collaboration between scientists and those who use science to make policy and management decisions.” Climate change is causing increased uncertainty and drastic changes throughout forest systems. Co-management and knowledge coproduction can enhance the capacity of forest managers and planners to adapt to these uncertainties and create climate-resilient forests.