Public lands: Living laboratories for testing climate change science

View of California's Sierra Nevada. The Wilderness Society is currently working with the U.S. Forest Service to restore 37,000 acres in the Dinkey area of the Sierra National Forest.

Terabass, Wikimedia Commons

We know that wildlands will play an important role in the fight against climate change, but what if we also looked at them like living, breathing laboratories? That’s exactly what Wilderness Society scientists are doing on some of America’s public lands.

Rapid climate change of this magnitude is unprecedented, and ecologists are researching different conservation priorities that can be applied to ensure our ecosystems are healthy for future generations.

Wilderness Society ecologists have pioneered a ground-breaking approach for applying and testing different climate change adaptation strategies throughout different ecosystems in various stages of ecological stress.

Stanislaus River in Stanislaus National Forest, where The Wilderness Society has applied concepts from their climate change adaptation portfolio. Photo: David Sawyer, Flickr

These stages range from wilderness areas in healthy condition to areas degraded by past management to regions increasingly impacted by the effects of climate change. They call this approach a “climate change adaptation portfolio,” because it allows experts and land managers (such as the U.S. Forest Service) to invest in a broad array of solutions in order to reduce risk of failure and increase their chances of finding something that really works.

Observation, restoration and innovation

Using basic tools such as Geographic Information System (GIS) maps, existing biological and climate data and the good old scientific method, our scientists are identifying the endangered wildlands that are in need of conservation alongside lands that may have been degraded through poor past management decisions. This review of the ecological health of our lands helps our ecologists determine the appropriate adaptation strategies for properly managing the land going forward.

The review process can be broken down into three categories to help determine the best management practices or monitoring. This might range from aggressive intervention to no management at all. The categories are: Observation (accepting change), restoration (resisting change) and innovation (guiding change).

Observation areas:

When a parcel of land is considered an “observation” area, this means that scientists should take a relatively hands-off approach and, in essence, let nature take its course. Observation areas are great places to determine how plants and wildlife will naturally respond or adapt to climate change at their own rates and by their own mechanisms, including evolutionary change over time.

The species that survive will be the ones that make up or become the building blocks of future ecosystems.

Lands that would qualify as observation areas are likely to be designated wilderness, research natural areas and other lands that can sustain ecological integrity without innovation. These places typically possess high genetic diversity and the absence of invasive species.

Restoration areas:

“Restoration” areas are where land managers will use conservation techniques such as forest and watershed restoration, forest road maintenance, invasive species eradication or other tools that will help to improve the health of an entire ecosystem.

The Wilderness Society is currently active in places like California’s Sierra Nevada, where we’re working with the U.S. Forest Service to restore 37,000 acres in the Dinkey area of the Sierra National Forest. Restoration techniques can revitalize watersheds, refresh a network of eroding roads that will aid the forests’ ecological health and improve national forest management plans. In these areas, restoration techniques strengthen our wilderness and ecologically rich lands, and remove additional environmental stressors that could worsen the destructive effects of climate change.

Wilderness Society scientists work to protect native trout species, such as this bull trout, from the damaging effects of climate change. Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Non-wilderness national parks, monuments, wildlife refuges and other lands set aside specifically to sustain scenery, natural and cultural heritage and wildlife are appropriate candidates for restoration.

Innovation Zones:

An area that is considered an “innovation” zone is one that scientists hope to guide into the future as it undergoes the effects of climate change. This means applying creative techniques that manipulate ecosystem features like species, soil properties and waterways, so that they become more resilient to change. The Wilderness Society is presently applying climate adaptation techniques in Montana that will guide threatened trout to colder waters as their native streams become too hot to handle. While these transformative techniques require us to peer into the future and can sometimes change the way an ecosystem has historically functioned, they will ultimately endow wildlands with the building blocks needed for adapting to a changing climate over the long term.  

Lands best suited for innovation are those that are capable of supporting entire ecosystems with the help of human management. Here, heavy-handed activities, such as the cultivation of endangered species, may be appropriate if necessary to sustain the wildlands values that are identified by scientists and land managers.

Protecting the building blocks of future ecosystems

What these three zones have in common is the ability to support an incredibly wide array of plants and animals. This is made possible through the presence of “land gradients,” or large regions that host diverse natural characteristics such as elevation levels, soil types and temperatures. We need to protect and conserve these values because they will be the building blocks of tomorrow’s ecosystems.

What role do wildlands play in advancing climate change science?

America’s wildlands play a crucial role in the effort to advance climate change solutions because they offer some of the most ecologically healthy and intact ecosystems found throughout the nation. Because wildlands offer important characteristics such as high ecological integrity, full species diversity and wildlife migration corridors (values that aren’t present in heavily managed areas), they provide a range of strategies and options for the future, and can serve as a “control” for studying the effects of climate change in other managed areas.

The time to act is now

During a time of urgency, in which we most certainly are (last year, atmospheric carbon dioxide briefly crossed 400 parts per million for the first time in human history), the heat is on to come up with solutions that work within our existing public land management infrastructure.

According to the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, half of North America’s most bio-diverse eco-regions are now severely degraded and are also home to at least 235 threatened species of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians.

The Crown of the Continent is the last place in America where grizzlies still venture down from the Rocky Mountains and onto the prairies. Photo: DenaliNPS, Flickr

The Wilderness Society believes that the future of conservation science includes utilizing a broad array of tools and techniques, which is one of the great things about our climate change portfolio approach—it makes room for everyone in the tent. Our approach embraces the uncertainty of climate change and accepts that no single approach to management can be assumed to save the ecological values of America’s wildlands. Rather, scientists and land managers should apply and monitor different approaches on a large, regional scale.

When the inevitable effects of climate change hit our nation’s wildlands, we can help to ensure that evolution doesn’t have to start from scratch. This innovative method for addressing climate change on America’s public lands should serve as a model for agencies and conservationists.