Western forests (including Alaska) cover more than 360 million acres across vast and often rugged terrain. Ranging from large, fast-growing trees along the Pacific coast to high-altitude tree lines where tree sizes, such as bristle cone and white bark pine, are smaller and growth much slower.

The interspersion of western forests with shrub steppe habitats, mountain meadows, streams, meadows, and aspens provide important habitat for a rich diversity of wildlife species ranging from songbirds to large ungulates such as elk, and deer. 

Benefits for Humans and Wildlife

Western forests are extensively managed and harvested to supply wood for home construction and other purposes. In many areas of the West, forestry and the timber industry is a major economic driver. Forests and their interspersed grasslands and meadows provide opportunities for livestock grazing are often a key component of family ranching operations. These forests and diverse ecosystems also contribute greatly to wildlife, water supply and quality, as well as air quality.

Western forests also provide opportunities for camping, photography, hiking, hunting, fishing, and many other popular outdoor recreational activities.

Threats from Climate Change

Ever shifting climate conditions have a huge impact on western forests, and forest health. Warmer winter temperatures are contributing to dryer conditions and with these dryer conditions come several inherent issues such as stressed and under hydrated vegetation, unnaturally large fires, and severe outbreaks of bark beetles and diseases that thrive on a distressed forest system. An example of these combined effects is apparent in many forests across the west, such as the Sierras in California where we are seeing large losses in lodgepole pine stands around Mammoth, and Colorado where nearly half of Colorado’s 660,000 acres of lodge pole pine forests were infested by mountain pine beetles in the past few years. Eastern Washington State lost millions of ponderosas and lodge pole pine trees in the last decade as well, huge ecosystems put at risk due to forest conditions. Outbreaks have also occurred in Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, and Wyoming.

These tree-killing insect epidemics combined with forest densities well beyond sustainable capacities set the stage for catastrophic wildfires, especially in combination with the higher temperatures caused by dryer climate conditions, leading to lower soil moisture. Moderate fire is natural and helpful in many ecosystems, but catastrophic, drought-fueled fire with abundant fuel from large acreages of dead trees can destroy vast expanses of wildlife habitat, put human lives at risk, destroy soil composition and stability, let alone cause extensive property damage. In the Western United States scientists have documented a six-fold increase in the area burned over the past two decades, as well as the degree of severity at which it burns which they attribute partially to climate conditions. These forest fires exacerbate the climate change problem because the burning forest releases extreme amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

The economic costs of tree die-offs and catastrophic fires associated with climate change are almost beyond reckoning. To put it into perspective, damage to homes and property from wildfires totaled $3.2 billion during the 1990s. In 2021 alone, fire suppression and damages exceeded an estimated $275 Billion billion to fight forest fires (throughout the U.S.).

While loggers have in some places turned to harvested trees killed by insect epidemics, large forest fires lead to the loss of income and jobs in the logging industry. Continued warming and more severe droughts associated with climate change will only further increase the risks and costs of catastrophic wildfires.

Catastrophic fires are especially damaging when they destroy the fertile detritus layer of soils, leaving only highly erodible mineral soils. Reduced vegetative cover, increased erosion, and higher stream temperatures are harmful to cold-water species such as trout.

Conservation Investments

Minimizing the impact of shifting climate and overstocked forests will continue to require extensive financial investment in a variety of management actions. The beetle outbreaks aided by climate change have created challenges for forest managers who must now incorporate new ecological, economic, and social issues into forest management plans.

Forest managers need to research and implement new methods of suppressing large beetle outbreaks to avoid extensive loss of mature trees. They will also need to study methods of reducing fuel loads and fire risks without detriment to natural ecological cycles. This may require extensive increases in prescribed (controlled) burning, timber stand thinning, selective logging, and other techniques to increase forest health and reduce fire risk.

The cost of additional firefighting alone will be enormous. Already costing billion$$ annually, investing in additional forest treatments that help manage fire risks and restore ecosystems, while protecting high value resources in the forest will be essential for minimizing an increase in fire risk associated with a hotter and dryer climate. Investing in green forest treatment is a much better approach than constantly trying to play catchup while working in post fire restoration efforts. Proactive forest management will put us in position to protect those high value and fire-resistant resources such as aspen stands, meadows, riparian areas, and healthy vegetation needed to sustain a healthy ecosystem. These properly functioning forested ecosystems can thrive with an aggressive treatment regime and prolonged maintenance including prescribed fire and retreatments. We all need to invest into good stewardship, as we all benefit from clean water, healthy air, thriving wildlife populations, and a healthy forest.  CDA continues to remain on the forefront in these restoration efforts and is driven to continue this effort to combine forest health, rangeland restoration, and clean water projects across the landscape in order to leave a legacy for generations to come.