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Modern Fire

Firefighters watch the Hole in the Wall fire burn on the Shoshone National Forest in August 2011. Technology, gear and training have come far since the Blackwater fire killed 15 men and injured 38 in 1937.

CODY, Wyo. — Predictions of larger and more frequent fires across the Shoshone National Forest and other possible consequences of a warming climate are expected to play a factor in the agency’s efforts to manage the forest in the coming years.

The Shoshone is working to revise its new forest management plan, and must consider climate change in doing so. It was selected as one of four forests nationally to participate in a pilot study on climate change.

“We’re a little further ahead of the other (forest) units on this,” said Shoshone Supervisor Joe Alexander. “We have to create a plan that’s flexible and acknowledges the kind of things climate change can potentially do to our forest. We’re trying to be proactive.”

Adjusting on the fly to climate change and its impacts across the landscape may be the Shoshone’s only option in future management, officials say.

A new report released by the Rocky Mountain Research Station in Fort Collins, Colo., found that temperatures across the Shoshone National Forest have increased by roughly 3.6 degrees over the last century — a trend that scientists believe will continue, if not accelerate, in the years ahead.

If temperatures continue to warm, the report said, water resources across the Shoshone may be vulnerable as winter snowpack is reduced, summers grow longer and spring runoff starts earlier.

The implications could be far-reaching for many species and habitats. The changes could also threaten reservoir storage and impact agriculture, from farming to livestock grazing.

“Nothing is the same anymore,” Alexander said. “There’s no way that we’re not going to have to deal with climate change.”

A separate report released last year by the Sierra Nevada Research Institute suggests that forests across the Northern Rockies are reaching a temperature threshold for fire vulnerability.

The models predict a substantial increase in fire activity by the middle of this century. While years without large fires have been common historically, the report says, they are expected to become increasingly rare as fires increase in size and intensity.

If the predictions hold true, the report says, forests across the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem could be converted to nonforest vegetation by 2050.

“We don’t expect to see a conversion of the forest 20 years out,” Alexander said. “But we do expect to see continued beetle epidemics and years of huge fires, and drought where we can’t graze as much.”

Two years ago, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell released a memo noting that climate change is already altering the nation’s forests in significant ways.

Those changes are likely to accelerate in the future, he said. Tidwell has asked forest supervisors to create flexible management plans that adapt to changing conditions.

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“The chief of the Forest Service has directed us to consider climate change by assessing the current situation and by identifying trends,” said Carrie Christman, a planner with the Shoshone.

“He’s asked us to identify risks and vulnerabilities within the planning unit, and to find management approaches and adaptations that address the risks. For us, it meant getting this report done by the Rocky Mountain Research Station to help predict trends and see how we can adjust our management.”

Despite the warnings, some of the forest’s cooperating partners have asked forest officials to exclude any mention of climate change from their revised management plan.

Other cooperators, in comments to forest officials, said they “appreciate the recognition that the (Shoshone) is influenced by a ‘warming climate.’”

The implications of climate change are likely to be in play Thursday and Friday as federal and local gather in Thermopolis to work on forest management alternatives.

In an effort to find middle ground, forest officials will ask cooperators to set aside their political views on climate change while addressing multiple use and ecological and economic sustainability.

“Climate change is a little difficult in that you can’t really wrap you hands around it,” said Alexander. “We need to be cognizant of it, and cognizant that our climate is changing as we move forward with this plan.”

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