Billings Gazette (Billings, Montana)
December 12, 2008.
Forest Service peers into future with climate change
By BRETT FRENCH Of The Gazette Staff
More weeds, loss of some plant and animal species
and more intense wildfires are some of the future
scenarios the U.S. Forest Service faces under the
looming threat of global climate change.
“We’re almost on the cusp of an ecosystem shift,”
said Faith Ann Heinsch, a University of Montana
professor of climatology. “If we don’t increase
our summer precipitation and our winter
precipitation falls as rain, we’ll be looking at
some interesting changes. Water issues will be
the big fight in the West again.”
Under the threat of such change, the Forest
Service is grappling with how best to manage its
vast and varied natural resources, while reducing
its own environmental footprint.
To that end, Region 1 – which governs 12 national
forests, including the Custer National Forest
based in Billings – is sending experts in climate
change to forests to educate its employees. It’s
also polling employees to help focus the agency’s
A conference held Thursday in Billings, and
linked by video with the Custer’s Ashland and
Sioux districts, was the latest in a tour of
experts from research programs at the Rocky
Mountain Research Station, the U.S. Geological
Survey and the Agricultural Research Service.
“We know our management is going to have to
change,” said Steve Williams, Custer supervisor,
in introducing the speakers. “We’re here to hear
how our researchers think things are going to
change in our part of the world.”
Numbers tossed out by the experts describe the situation:
* The past 11 years are some of the warmest on
record, with 1998 the warmest global year on
* In Montana, the average temperature has warmed 1 to 2.5 degrees.
* In Billings, the temperature has warmed an
average of 1.44 degrees over the past 50 years
while Bozeman has warmed 1.95 degrees.
* In the past 50 years in Billings, the average
temperature in March has climbed 6.18 degrees,
and 7.7 degrees in Bozeman.
* Over the past 50 years, total average snowfall
in Billings has decreased 10.7 inches. There are
fewer cool nights and more warm days.
Put the data together and they point to a rapid
change of climate that’s unlike anything in the
“Something is different now from what has
happened in the past,” Heinsch told the groups.
“We’re definitely outside the range of what we’ve
seen in the last 1,000 years.”
The data, based on information gathered by the
U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,
points to a shrinking and thinning ice cap, a
warmer ocean and weather changes that will mean
drier dry areas and wetter wet regions. Much of
the change is attributed to greenhouse gases,
including carbon dioxide, which is emitted when
fossil fuels such as oil and coal are burned.
“Climate in many regions of the world is moving
incredibly rapidly,” said Jack Morgan of the
Agricultural Research Service in Fort Collins,
Colo. “We’re seeing changes in patterns that
haven’t occurred in hundreds of thousands of
years. Carbon dioxide concentrations are higher
than in 1 million years and going higher.”
Trees and plants use carbon dioxide. A scenario
that worries forest professionals is that an
increase in plant biomass adds significantly to
fuels for forest fires when it dries out under
warmer temperatures. Warmer temperatures could
also produce higher winds and more of the
lightning strikes that start wildfires.
“It looks like with all of the predictions from
all of the models that we’ll have increased
ignition,” said Bob Keane of the Rocky Mountain
Research Station in Missoula, perhaps as much as
30 percent more strikes in Montana.
“It is obvious we’ll have larger fires on the
landscape,” Keane said. “The only thing that will
stop them in drought years is other burned areas.”
Warmer temperatures also mean a longer growing
season, earlier spring green-up and more pests
and disease, Morgan said. He showed studies
estimating that Eastern Montana’s semiarid
grasslands could see a 10 to 20 percent decrease
in grasses adapted to cooler climates with an
offsetting increase in those found in warmer
climates, such as New Mexico.
As native plants adapted to the regional climate
are lost, invasive weeds may move in. Morgan said
other studies have shown that while plants may
grow larger with more carbon dioxide in the
atmosphere, the forage quality of the plant goes
down – not a good result for cattle or wildlife.
“You end up with plants that are less digestible,” he said.
Keane ended his talk with two questions that sum
up the problems facing the Forest Service.
“Are we going to be more proactive or reactive?”
he asked. “And how much change will society
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