Scientists speaking at a forum Tuesday of prominent research organizations presented details of how climate change is already impacting forests in Colorado and throughout the Rocky Mountain Region. The report by the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization covered a six-state area encompassing New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho as well as Colorado.
Yet, the speakers seemed surprisingly optimistic. “Our main conclusion is the future of our forests depends a lot on quickly we can curb heat-trapping emissions,” said Tom Easley of the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization. Even so, the West is looking at a very different future for its forests.
Including curbing emissions, the groups issued a call to action that involves five other steps:
- Continue to assess risks. The U.S. Forest Service is among the agencies to step up: it has a new climate change response strategy in which assessing risks is the first of three essential steps.
- Engage partners in seeking solutions. The Forest Service connects with stakeholders as the second of three important steps.
- Increase the capacity of public agencies to address climate change. Congress has yet to respond with even limited funding requested by federal agencies trying to combat threats to Rocky Mountain forests and other national resources, the report said.
- Address the vulnerability of communities. The growing risk of wildfires in populated wildland-urban areas will require federal, state and local cooperation.
Climate change is already affecting three important three tree species – the Whitebark pines of the Northern Rockies, the Quaking aspens throughout the area and the Piñon pines of the Southern Rockies. More than 1.3 million acres of aspen declined in the period from 200 to 2010, and regeneration of new aspens has been slower than normal, the scientists found.
The forests are under a three-prong attack. Bark beetles outbreaks are killing more trees, at a faster pace, for longer periods and over more acreage than any other time historically.
The number of wildfires has risen dramatically: one study found a 73 percent increase in the annual number of large wildfires in the region from 1984 to 2011. Another found a four-fold increase in the number of wildfires, a seven-fold increase in the number of acreage and a two and one-half month long extension in the wildfire season.
Hotter and drier conditions across the West are driving these changes, with climate change at the core, the scientists found.