Adaptive Forest Management Strategies

Climate, Forests and Woodlands February 11, 2015 Print Friendly and PDF

Adapted from: Millar, Constance I., Nathan L. Stephenson, and Scott L. Stephens, 2008. (February 5, 2008). Reframing forest and resource management strategies for a climate change context. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Climate Change Resource Center. Media: millar020508.pdf

While the future impacts of climate change on forests and other natural resources remain uncertain, a variety of approaches can help foresters and forest owners prepare to manage the land in their care under changing conditions. Understanding that a range of options exists – with some options appropriate to the short term and others effective for the long term – puts decision-makers in a better position for the realities of changing times and dynamic landscapes.

There are two broad climate-change management strategies: adaptation and mitigation (IPCC 2007a). Adaptation implies approaches taken to adjust, prepare, and accommodate new conditions created by changing climates. Adaptation strategies include actions taken to help natural resources (species, habitats, forest plantations, watersheds) accommodate changes and new conditions imposed by climate. Mitigation strategies include actions taken to reduce and reverse human influences on the climate system, primarily by reducing greenhouse gas levels (or at least their rate of increase) through energy use changes and forest management.

Scientists have been investigating resource management implications of climate change for many years (e.g., Dale et al. 2001, Spittlehouse and Stewart 2003, Willows and Connell 2003, Joyce et al. 2007). Here, we offer an overarching framework of options for addressing climate change issues such as those encountered in western mountain environments (Millar et al. 2007, Joyce et al. 2008).

We call these the "5-R" strategies:

  • Increase Resistance
  • Promote Resilience
  • Enable Response
  • Encourage Re-alignment
  • Reduce the human influence on climate.

These five broad strategies are summarized here in the order of most conservative to most proactive, with the first four involving adaptation and the final one encouraging mitigation.

Adaptation and mitigation strategies are best considered joint paths – they are best combined and integrated. Thankfully, approaches to adaptation and mitigation will often be complementary: what is best management practice for one often is also for the other. However, especially in forest- and ecosystem-management situations, conflicts are likely to arise. Evaluating pros and cons of short- and long-term choices is extremely important. Systematically evaluating vulnerabilities provides an essential first step in all approaches (IPCC 2007b). With vulnerabilities identified, managers can set priorities.

Priority setting is a science in itself; several approaches to priority setting have been discussed in the context of climate change. These include tiered approaches such as no-regrets, low regrets, win-win (Willows and Connell 2003), and employing low- to high-technology approaches judiciously (Ralph 2007). Formal triage approaches, developed and used widely in military and emergency medicine, can be successfully adopted in resource situations whenever time is short and capacity to meet urgent demands is inadequate.

Adapted by Melanie Lenart, University of Arizona

References Cited
Dale, V., Joyce, L., McNulty, S., Neilson, R., Ayres, M., Flannigan, M., Hanson, P., Irland, L., Lugo, A., Peterson, C., Simberloff, D., Swanson, F., Stocks, B., Wotton, M. 2001. Climate change and forest disturbances. BioScience. 51: 723-734.

IPCC. 2007a. Climate change 2007: the physical science basis. Summary for Policy Makers. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

IPCC. 2007b. Impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Joyce, L., Haynes, R., White, R., Barbour, J. (eds.), 2007. Bringing climate change into natural resource management. USDA Forest Service, General Technical Report, GTR-PNW-706; 150 pgs. Available at:

Joyce, L.A., Blate, G.M., Littell, J.S., McNulty, S.G., Millar, C.I., Moser, S.C., Neilson, R.P., O'Halloran, K., Peterson, D.L., 2008. Adaptation options for climate-sensitive ecosystems and resources. National forests. Chapter 3. Climate Change Science Program. Synthesis and Adaptation Products 4.4. Available at:

Millar, C.I., Stephenson, N.L., and Stephens, S.L., 2007. Climate change and forests of the future: Managing in the face of uncertainty. Ecological Applications. 17(8): 2145-2151.

Ralph, F.M. 2007. A 21st century observing system for California weather and climate: Current plans and future possibilities. Fourth Annual California Climate Change Conference. Sacramento, CA. Available at:

Spittlehouse, D.L. and Stewart, R.B. 2003. Adaptation to climate change in forest management. BC Journal of Ecosystems and Management. 4(1): 1-11.

Willows, R. and R. Connell (eds.). 2003. Climate adaptation: Risk, uncertainty, and decision-making. UK Climate Impacts Programme, Oxford, England.

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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.