Adaptations to Rapid Change

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Management decisions are made at the intersection of facts and values, and WERC's role is to assist decision-makers by bringing the best available science to the table.  Dr. Nathan Stephenson seeks to help managers and policy makers reassess their missions in light of rapid and unprecedented changes, develop broad concepts relevant to adapting to such changes, and provide hands-on assistance during adaptation planning.

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We work with land managers and policy makers of the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, and other state and federal agencies (Southern Sierra Conservation Cooperative) to integrate adaptation strategies (actions that help ecosystems accommodate changes adaptively) into overall plans. Adaptive strategies for any ecosystem – whether aquatic or terrestrial – include resistance options (forestall impacts and protect highly valued resources), resilience options (improve the capacity of ecosystems to return to desired conditions after disturbance), and response options (facilitate transition of ecosystems from current to new conditions). Our main focuses are to (1) help managers and policy makers reassess agency missions and policies in light of unprecedented change (e.g., in the future will current goals be desirable, or even possible?), (2) develop broad concepts relevant to adaptation planning (e.g., which planning approaches best serve us in the face of an uncertain future, and which adaptation strategies are most likely to succeed?), and (3) provide hands-on assistance during adaptation planning.

While improved models will certainly assist future adaptation efforts, forest managers also seek more immediate knowledge of which parts of the landscape are likely to be most vulnerable to a warmer and drier future; such information allows them to plan long-term triage for areas receiving (or not receiving) adaptation efforts. Our current interagency efforts in the Sierra Nevada focus on collecting and integrating ground-based data with high-resolution remote sensing to create detailed maps of where forest might be most vulnerable to future droughts.

National Geographic - How the Parks of Tomorrow Will be Different


Another piece of the puzzle is research into prescribed fire lead by Phillip van Mantgem. Prescribed fire reduces forest density and thus competition among trees, and is commonly assumed to increase forest resistance to stressors like drought, wildfires, and insect outbreaks. Unfortunately, this assumption is largely untested. To help managers perform triage with their limited adaptation funds, we’re using California’s unprecedented hotter drought as a preview of the future, quantifying prescribed fire’s “bang for the buck” by comparing drought-induced tree mortality in burned vs. unburned forest stands.

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