Vulnerabilities to Climate Change and the Need For Resilience in the Western U.S.

Posted by on Jan 6, 2013

I passed through miles of burned-over grassland on a bike trip through West Texas in 2011. I took this photo outside of Fort Davis. Photo: Alex Wilson

The January, 2013 issue of Land Lines, a publication of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, has an excellent article on climate change impacts in the Intermountain West and the need for resilience. “Uncertainty and Risk: Building a Resilient West” addresses drought, growing incidence of wildfire, population growth, and factors that have increased vulnerability. While short on practical strategies for enhancing resilience, the lengthy article provides excellent background information on this eight-state region (Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico) and should serve as a wake-up call for policy-makers in the region. You can read the article online or download a PDF.

2 Comments

  1. What is so unusual about fires on range land and forests. What do you think happened 200 years ago when a lightning strike started a forest fire. The main reason to fight fires today is to reduce the economic loss of timber, and crop land, or houses built too close to the forest.

    PS: LFTR power plants could virtually eliminate the use of fossil fuels, but it has the “dreaded” word Reactor in it.

  2. Mike,

    You are incorrect, though your assumption about the historical status of the western forests is a common one.

    In reality, the forests of the western coast have not been a “wild” ecosystem for at least several centuries before the arrival of Europeans.
    Before the white man came, the local native tribes managed the forest as a semi-wild garden, optimizing for production of food, fuel and fiber plants, and game. One of their methods for doing this was to regularly burn sections of the forest.

    Done frequently, this eliminates much of the understory plants while allowing the established trees to survive. This works because the fuel load is low, so the fire burns out before it can damage the big trees (e.g. oaks and redwoods). These big tress serve as ecological anchors, allowing the ecosystem to continue to function and to recover quickly from the fire. The use of fire actually improved ecosystem diversity and health over the long term.

    Climate change (which produces dryer conditions) aside, the current problem with wildfires is largely a product of the long-term fire suppression policies imposed first by the Spanish missionaries and later by the American settlers. This policy allowed the understory to become overgrown, creating a fuel load that was both too large and too tall: when it burns, the fire lasts longer and is able to climb into the canopies of the large overstory trees, killing them.
    The result is that fires are now much more destructive than they were historically, and can leave behind a totally dessicated and barren landscape that takes much longer to recover. And upon recovery, the resulting species are all pioneers – fast growing, disturbance-loving plants – very different from the large anchor trees which had been present previously.

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