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Safeguarding forests and wildlife as the climate changes

Conservation Northwest's executive director Mitch Friedman describes how healthy and connected ecosystems and their wildlife are better able to withstand climate change and how we are building in room for plants and animals to adapt and survive climate disruptions: building resilience into natural systems and providing safe harbor by connected wild places.

snowshoe-hare-jannik-schou.jpgby Mitch Friedman

Since 1989, Conservation Northwest has protected thousands of acres of mature and old-growth forests, “...among the Earth’s greatest carbon storing ecosystems,” according to leading forest ecologist Jerry Franklin. We’ve also fought for other climate-friendly forest reforms, including long-rotation and ecology-driven forestry, and for an overall ecological restoration plan for our national forests.

Read Climate change intensifies need for land conservation by biologist Reed Noss

Protecting forests is one of the best things we can do to save the planet. But let’s face it: when it comes to reducing carbon dioxide emissions, as a society we’re doing a lousy job of mitigating climate change. Copenhagen was a bust, and unfortunately, the US Senate has limited potential for passing a climate bill. 

Of course, we must continue the push for emissions controls and reductions, and ride our bikes, or feet, or horses to work. But it's clear that a rapidly changing climate is more likely than not, and we must provide the means for species to have a fighting chance to adapt and survive the changes.

Providing for that adaptation is what we at Conservation Northwest do best. Our work builds in room for plants and animals to survive, fostering stronger and healthier forests and linking habitat between wild natural areas such as the Cascades and the Columbia Highlands.

What ecosystem stresses are in store?

How bad is the situation? Leading models project that even if the nations of the world quickly implemented carbon mitigation measures at the better end of the scale, by mid-century average global (and regional) temperatures will be 5 to 7 degrees warmer than those of my youth. What’s at risk is far more than polar bears and pikas.

wells-gray-og-erin-moore.jpgThe changes to which nature must adapt as climates shift will of course vary, but those changes generally include more frequent and extreme disturbances, shifts in suitable habitat to higher latitudes (recent research suggests an average shift of about a quarter mile per year) and higher elevations, and increased competition from exotic and other weedy plants, insects, and animals that disrupt ecosystems as they spread. 

Previews of these phenomena are already on display. For instance, annual bird counts show major, northward shifts in range among numerous species. Ecosystems, including lodgepole pine forests of British Columbia and juniper savannas of the American Southwest, have been savaged by native beetles whose populations exploded in response to environmental change. Studies across the globe show wildfires soaring in size and frequency.

These are extreme stresses that affect each species differently. For instance, moist, westside forests have so far proven to be more resilient against these changes than dry, eastside forests. Also, highly mobile species like birds and flying insects can more easily shift ranges to track environmental change than less mobile ones. Except for the Ents of the Lord of the Rings’ Middle Earth, trees can only move through dispersal of their seeds, and those seeds need time to grow mature enough to be reproductive themselves.

How do we help wildlife adapt?

Given the variability in how changes affect species, it’s reasonable to wonder how ecosystems—communities of organisms together with the environment functioning as units—will adapt. Most likely is that species will sort themselves differently, with some doing better than others. Some modeling predicts that by the end of this century, almost half of the land area of our Pacific Northwest region will be occupied by mongrel ecosystems, altogether novel and different from those with which we are familiar. Those species that rely on stable environments over a long time, such as old-growth forests, may have the greatest difficulty.

There are tasks we can take on to help, and they happen to be the feats at which we at Conservation Northwest are well practiced. Healthy, resilient, and connected ecosystems are better able to withstand the pressures associated with climate change. To keep the Northwest wild we are connecting and protecting wildlands, buffering protected wild areas and wilderness, and restoring forest resilience and diverse wildlife.island-marble-robert-michael-pyle.jpg

  • Protecting natural areas:  Large protected terrains, within which most natural processes continue to function, will be more resistant and resilient to disturbance and change, and provide refuge for rare species. Our work to protect old forests across the region and essential wildlife habitat in the Loomis Forest/Snowy Mountain are great examples.
    Connecting natural areas: We give wildlife and ecosystems the best chance to adapt to changes by connecting and linking protected areas with healthy, or at least permeable, habitat (through which wildlife can pass safely). The Cascades Conservation Partnership is a cutting-edge example.
  • Focusing on road ecology:   the ability for wildlife to pass over or under roads and highways in key locations is essential for working corridors. The work the I-90 Wildlife Bridges Coalition is doing for Interstate 90 is a shining example of a passageway done right. 
  • Restoring resilience:  Restoring resilience is about increasing an ecosystem’s ability to withstand major disturbances, such as severe weather. For instance, our collaborative work to thin small trees from dry forests puts them on a trajectory toward old-growth conditions and reduces competition for water and vulnerability to insects and extreme fire. Building resilience requires a competent field knowledge and functional US Forest Service to monitor how natural communities are faring.
  • Maintaining working lands:  Human development is the most serious degradation of landscapes: Developed lands are least friendly to wildlife and least manageable for natural disturbance and other processes. We need to buffer our protected areas with working forests, farms, and ranches, not sprawl. Our work with ranchers in the Okanogan Valley of north-central Washington and with timber interests in the Chuckanut Mountains, where the Cascades meet the sea, are examples.
  • Reestablishing the food web: Ecosystems are healthier when top predators are present. Our work to restore fishers, wolves, wolverine, grizzly bears, and lynx in the region may benefit much more than just these wildlife—from insects to songbirds. With partners, we’ve brought back 100 native fishers to the Olympic Peninsula. Wolves are returning to Washington and we’re very close to having a state conservation plan recognizing the return of wolves and preparing for their natural recovery.
  • Battling invasive species: We will see increasing havoc played by invasive species, both exotic and native, as ecological change and increased disturbance opens whole new opportunities for organisms well adapted for the new conditions. We want to reduce trade in exotics and educate consumers, as with our work through the Invasive Species Coalition of Washington, and promote competent and watchful natural resource agencies that can react quickly to new threats.

straits-view-robert-michael-pyle.jpgAdaptation floats all boats

One bright spot is that the Cascades and Rocky Mountain ranges fortuitously orient north to south. Since most of our public lands (and protected areas) occur along these geologic spines, we have already in place rudimentary frames upon which to build interconnected and buffered networks of natural areas that, with native carnivores and restored forests present, will provide optimal chances for adaptation and survival.

By seeking to link the Cascades to the Rockies, Conservation Northwest is broadening and expanding this existing ecological rampart. Wilderness protection and forest restoration on the national forest lands of the Columbia Highlands of northeastern Washington are vital to this goal.
The call for adaptation is being heard. All of the major climate bills in Congress call for substantial increases in resources for connected wildlands, working landscapes, and restoration.

The Obama Administration is leading on many fronts, including the Agriculture Secretary’s compelling new vision for the nation’s forests, to be implemented through new forest planning rules, and the Interior Secretary’s new Landscape Conservation Cooperatives, to provide the planning structure for adaptation work. The Western Governors Association, together with the US Departments of Agriculture and Interior, has undertaken the Wildlife Corridor Initiative, a major push for habitat connectivity. Our work with the Washington Wildlife Habitat Connectivity Group is part of that.

All together, these actions represent an effort to shelter wildlife from the most devastating climate-related destruction poised to happen in the coming century. We aim to keep them alive to inhabit the landscapes of the future, which, with a decline in fossil fuel use, will hopefully know tranquility again. 

It would be untruthful to claim that the response is completely adequate or that prospects are radiantly positive. But it would be unwise and unacceptable to submit and accept the worst as tragically inevitable. Bequeathing healthy, protected, connected forests to future generations is not just a dream, but a responsibility and a calling. We are well trained to answer the call and, with your continued support, are ready to lead.

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