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Monday, March 21, 2011

Forest Management for Resilience and Adaptation

Ross W. Gorte
Specialist in Natural Resources Policy

U.S. forests are primarily temperate forests, often with relatively few species dominating over wide areas. Such forests respond and adapt to an array of environmental factors—sunlight levels and duration, temperature, precipitation, and a multitude of disturbances (e.g., fires, pests, and storms)—and these factors could be further altered by long-term shifts in natural climate variability and climate change. Many domestic forests are already under stress from drought, severe wildfires, and insect epidemics. Changing conditions and disturbances could diminish the goods and services that forests provide—timber, clean water, scenic vistas, carbon sequestration, and much more. Forests can be subject to management techniques to improve their resilience and adaptability, to assure continued production of the economically desired ecosystem goods and services.

Congress provides management direction and funding for federal forests and financial and technical assistance for management of nonfederal forests. To date, such legislative direction and funding have at most indirectly encouraged management that promotes resilient forests. Congress could decide to broaden its role in promoting resilient and adaptable forests. However, thus far, no broad-based legislation has been introduced calling for direct federal forest management and nonfederal forestry assistance to sustain forests in the face of changing conditions.

Biologically diverse forests are generally more resilient (better able to recover from changes and disturbances) and more adaptable (better able to respond to changing conditions), because they have a broader biological base from which to respond. Diversity occurs at the genetic level (among trees of a given species), at the species level (among trees in a stand), and at the stand level (among the ages and sizes of trees in a stand). Many are concerned that climate change and increased climate volatility may be too rapid for natural adaptation and migration to sustain production of the desired goods and services, because some species require special habitat conditions and because forest fragmentation from human development hinders forest migration. Others argue that natural variability is sufficient to sustain forests, even in the face of climate change.

Research and monitoring are important components of understanding the extent and success of forest management efforts to promote resilient and adaptable forests. Management efforts could then respond to changing forest conditions by adjusting traditional forestry practices (e.g., prescribed burning, thinning, timber harvesting, tree planting, and more) or even by taking more intensive action to assist forest adaptation (e.g., reducing habitat fragmentation, creating habitat corridors, and assisting species relocation). A question for Congress and resource managers is whether or how to fund and implement research and monitoring programs to provide information for forest management in a time of changing conditions.

Date of Report: March 14, 2011
Number of Pages: 28
Order Number: R41691
Price: $29.95

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