Managing West Virginia’s Forests in a Changing Climate

By Cory Chase

Climate change is the elephant in the room with regards to environmentalism. It is undoubtedly one of the most pressing issues we face as a species on planet earth. Forests play an important role in combating this monumental challenge. A changing climate presents many challenges, but also many opportunities. 

I recently attended a webinar titled “Managing West Virginia’s Forests in a Changing Climate,” which was hosted by Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science (NIACS). This organization is “a collaborative effort among the Forest Service, universities, conservation organizations, and forest industry to provide information on managing forests for climate change adaptation and enhanced carbon sequestration.” The entire presentation is available online here:

Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science offers climate and carbon services. They provide resources and training to help land managers make climate-informed forest management decisions. They do not make recommendations to land managers. Instead, their workbook provides “structured flexibility” that allows land managers to define, assess, evaluate, identify and monitor their land’s needs and management goals…with climate resiliency as an overarching goal.

The webinar had multiple presenters from United States Forest Service, as well as the Central Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative (CASRI), who covered a range of topics like forest resiliency in WV, pest pressures spurred on by climate change, oak forest ecology and fire management, forest hydrology, and landscape planning. As someone who is not a trained scientist, I had to spend some time learning some of the technical jargon. Here are some of the key takeaways from this webinar:
Patricia Leopold, NIACS: 

  • Climate change research describes broad trends but location determines local conditions and management changes the outcome.
  • In short, Climate change is a threat multiplier. Climate change is creating: 
  • Longer growing seasons:  3-7 weeks more. More “false spring” (early bud break and frost damage).
  • Shorter winters: greatest loss in Dec. Jan. 15-60 fewer days with snow cover. More rain. More freeze-thaw cycles.
  • Increased risk of moisture stress: esp. later in the growing season, drier during the same season. More evaporation from soils, open water, plants.
  • CO2 fertilization: Benefits: increased photosynthesis, increased water use efficiency. Limits: varies by species and site, nutrient deficiencies (esp N).
  • Changes in suitable habitat: significant loss of Black Cherry habitat, southern Red Oak may climb north, fir trees only go up in elevation, no Northward migration.
  • Extreme [weather] Events: more severe and frequent flooding, drought, fires, storms, etc.
  • Invasive plants: they will benefit, their range grows with more disturbances, risk is high in areas that have poor forest vigor.

Dani Martin, USFS Plant Pathologist: Insects and pests:

  • Climate-Pathogen model: intensified biological stressors, shorter warmer winters affects insects and they may have more life cycles.
  • Climate-Stress model: increased flooding, disturbance, heat stress/drought
  • Climate Change Resource Center website shows list of affected species and pests
  • Wooly adelgid, oak wilt, beech bark disease: What can we do about it? Monitor (early detection), Forecasting (modeling and risk analysis), tree treatment if applicable.

Greg Nowacki: Regional Ecologist, USFS Eastern Region: Oak and Fire

  • Oak is a pyrogenic (fire-dependent) genus. Fire suppression has damaged the species. Shade tolerant species take over (esp maples). Prescribed burn and thinning are two methods to restore oak populations.
  • Oak, pine, chestnut and hickory are all widespread pre-settlement. Fire conducive species. Pines selectively removed from 1775-1900. Hardwoods coppicing. Charcoal for iron furnaces. Pig iron. Trees harvested every 20-25 years. Predicated on sprouting.
  • Oak leaf curling and aerated ground conducive for fire. Mesophyte leaves don’t create those conditions; more matted and wet = less fire. 
  • “Restoration uses the past not as a goal but as a reference point for the future. If we seek to recreate the temperate forests, tall grass savannas, or desert communities of centuries past, it is not to turn back the evolutionary clock but to set it ticking again.” (Falk 1990)

Bryan Swistock: Water resources specialist

  • Bryan has worked on climate change for 15 years. He said that current climate data agrees with theories from 15 years ago. 
  • Forest Hydrology: hydrologic budget, precip, runoff, recharge, groundwater, stream flow, evapotranspiration.  Forest has high evapotranspiration, cropland about 50/50 with stream flow. Pavement has only 10% evapotranspiration. 
  • Forest = high water infiltration rate. Spongy, absorbs and transmits water in macro-micro pores. Forest can take on ~ 15 inches per hour. High infiltration = subsurface flow. 
  • Increasing air temp will affect water temps. Affects what lives in streams. 
  • Brook trout is a cold water species with a tight tolerance of temp changes. Short time period can kill off trout with higher temps. 
  • Less snow means changing hydrographs.
  • Water impacts on urbanized areas will be more extreme but dominated by land use changes.

Katy Barlow: CASRI/The Nature Conservancy Central Appalachians Program

  • Resilient Land: sites that continue to support diversity, productivity and ecological function.
  • Species mostly migrating north.
  • Climate flow: upslope, downslope and northward.
  • Landscape planning for resilience: Connectivity, Biodiversity, Adaptive Capacity
  • Connectivity enables species movement for maintaining ecosystems. 
  • Coal mining is the largest land use change in WV. 1.5 million acres affected.
  • Adaptive capacity: intrinsic capacity of a species to disperse genetic materials to a changing climate.
  • Genetic diversity in central Appalachia is very low.
  • We need to maximize genetic diversity, minimize genetic load, optimize local adaptation. Limited resources means focus on certain areas. (There is hope!)

Jack Tribble:  District Ranger on the Greenbrier Ranger District of the Monongahela National Forest

  • Lots of new science. Deer Creek planning, lots of support. Lambert Run 2016 restoration work. 
  • USFS does better with input from partners. NEPA process starting at Deer Creek.
  • Roadless area, limited access. Wildlife area in management plan. Active management for wildlife habitat.
  • Most of Greenbrier District is not hydrophilic forest. It is not a drier area…this is forcing Jack to get into more difficult areas with regards to forest health and big challenges. We have more moisture, more strong floods. High stressors happening.

As a non-scientist, I had to look up plenty of words to understand these presentations. But even without an education in science, it is clear that adaptability and resilience are crucial for any species to survive and thrive (including homo sapiens). While most of our environmental problems stem from human activity, we don’t have to follow that trajectory indefinitely. It is commonly said that knowledge is power, but I have settled on knowledge being potential power: informed action is power. Through scientific research, we can help make informed decisions and participate in a dynamic process with our environment to help create resiliency in our forests and on our planet.