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As Climate Changes, How Can Idaho Forests Adapt?

The area burned each year in the Northwest could quadruple by the 2080s if current temperature trends continue. (Kari Greer/U.S. Forest Service)
The area burned each year in the Northwest could quadruple by the 2080s if current temperature trends continue. (Kari Greer/U.S. Forest Service)
December 27, 2018

BOISE, Idaho – What can Idahoans do in the new year to help forests adapt to a changing climate?

The National Climate Assessment released this year says there's a high probability that wildfires will continue to increase in the Northwest due to climate change.

John Abatzoglou, a climate researcher at the University of Idaho, says the assessment paints an important picture for the public and policymakers.

He says even small steps will be key in addressing climate change.

In the case of fire, Abatzoglou says encouraging the use of natural fire could be an important adaptation tool.

"It actually may be cheaper to invest in some of those decisions rather than to deal with the aftermath and the cost of the aftermath of fire, whether it's the suppression costs or the costs to the small mountain towns that rely on tourism that people aren't visiting," he states.

If current trends continue, the U.S. climate report finds the average area of Northwest forests that burns each year could quadruple by the 2080s.

It says increased wildfires would exacerbate health conditions such as respiratory illnesses.

The prevalence of pine beetles also is expected to greatly increase as temperatures go up.

Rick Tholen, a retired forester and current member of the Idaho Forest Restoration Partnership, says the state already is seeing the effects of increasing temperatures – wildfire season is two and a half months longer in the West.

But Tholen says a diverse group of stakeholders in Idaho's forests is coming together to accelerate the pace of restoration, treating tree stands before they burn.

"Setting the forest up so when they do burn, we don't have these large areas of 100 percent tree mortality, we don't have damaged soils and we can get on top of these fires with our suppression efforts to protect communities," he explains.

Abatzoglou says it's important for scientists to connect a changing climate with the real world effects on people and their livelihoods.

"We do need to start focusing a bit more on trying to understand the impacts of climate change as they infiltrate down this cascade – from the actual weather to the impacts to, say, forestry," he stresses.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - ID