Billings Gazette (Billings, Montana, U.S.)
September 25, 2007.

Forest experts consider research on climate change, fires

Gazette Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON – U.S. Forest Service officials and experts agreed Monday
that forest managers must take into account the complex relationship
between global climate change and increased wildfires when setting

Ann Bartuska, Forest Service deputy chief for research and
development, said the global climate is changing and will continue to
do so for many decades and that decisions made today by resource
managers will have implications through the next century.

The Forest Service’s climate change research focuses on how to help
forests adapt to increased stress, how to capture carbon dioxide in
soils, plants and wood products, and providing information to
policymakers, she said.

She said the agency has been gathering information on climate change
for years but that “we have more work to do.”

Last week, 75 scientists came together to look at gaps in knowledge
and new research and development, she said.

But if the agency focuses just on science and research, she said, it
will not meet the obligation to inform on-the-ground management

“It doesn’t make sense if we’re just going to do the science if we
don’t put it in a form and in a way that is available to practitioners
and helping managers make better decisions,” Bartuska said. “And that
really is the foundation of the work we’re moving into.”

Bartuska said the growing cost of firefighting is one of the agency’s
“more significant challenges” and that it is eating into the budget
for overall programs.

“The escalating cost is something we’re very concerned about,” she said.

She advocated increasing fuel reduction work to reduce the threat of wildfires.

Susan Conard, Forest Service national program leader for fire ecology
research, said changes in temperature and precipitation patterns are
expected to lead to longer and more severe fire seasons in many areas
of the U.S. Increased burning will result in increased emissions of
carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, she said.

She said improved models will help scientists predict the interaction
between climate change, vegetation and wildfire. But she said more
research must be done.

“We need to understand more about fuels, about the effects of changing
burn severity on carbon release, and about how these effects will vary
regionally,” she said.

John Helms, professor emeritus at the University of California,
Berkeley, said various climate models show different outcomes, but
that one estimate is that wildfires will increase 50 percent by 2050
and will double by 2100.

Higher temperatures, lower humidity, increased drought and wind and
more lightning will be factors in the increased wildfires, he said.

Helms recommended fuels reduction to create better forest densities.

Climate change is expected to lower forest productivity in the West,
Helms added. As forests are placed under increased temperature and
water stress they will face a loss of vigor and increased mortality,
and that decay will add substantially to carbon emissions, he said.
Exposed soils will become warmer and subject to erosion, also
releasing substantial amounts of carbon to the atmosphere, he said.

A temperature increase of 3.5 degrees Centigrade (6.3 degrees
Fahrenheit) in the Rocky Mountain zone means the equivalent of
vegetation habitat moving 2,000 feet up slope or 200 miles further
north, Helms said.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., asked whether the Forest Service has taken
climate change into account in projecting its firefighting budget
needs over the next decade or two. Bartuska said the agency has not.

“We actually have just begun looking at what are the management
activities that are needed in response to climate change based on the
science that we’ve done, so we believe we’ll be improving our
estimates over time,” she added.

Tester also asked about let-it-burn policy during years when the
snowpack is below normal.

Helms replied that forest canopy plays a crucial role in protecting
snow on the ground from melting and emphasized the importance of
forests in relation to water supply.

Copyright (c) The Billings Gazette, a division of Lee Enterprises.

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