Managing forests for profit is a risky undertaking in the best of circumstances.
Storms can blow down trees, fires can take out years of work, and disease can hurt productivity.
There’s another wild card in the mix — climate change.
Climate change could mean more drought or more rain and more severe thunderstorms when they do occur, depending on the region. In some areas of the South, there could be shifts in what species of trees can grow in certain locations as climate conditions shift. Along the coast, sea level rise could lead to salt water seeping into inland forests.
Over the last few years, the U.S. Forest Service has been developing a number of guidelines to help forest managers prepare for changing conditions.
The guidelines include, depending on the location of the forest, working to thin the forest to minimize fire damage and planting a larger variety of tree species to minimize impacts from insects and disease.
Among forest managers in Louisiana, however, there’s still widespread skepticism about the science of climate change and the value of using the federal agency’s guidelines.
Many of the state’s forest owners and managers say their own management plans already account for changing and unforeseen conditions, and there are no plans to change those plans based on climate change predictions.
“Are we really experiencing that or is it just a cycle?” Paul Frey, executive director of the Louisiana Landowners Association, said of predictions of climate change. “We don’t envision anything in the near term, say in the next 100 years, on any kind of species shift,” he added.
The skepticism about climate change is shared even among foresters at the national level, said Steve McNulty, senior research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service-funded Eastern Forest Environmental Threat Assessment Center in Raleigh, N.C.
“Just to get people to understand climate change is really happening (is a challenge),” McNulty said. “I have to deal with that literally every day.”
About three years ago, McNulty said, the U.S. Forest Service started fielding more inquiries about possible effects of climate change on forests.
As a result, the agency developed an Internet-based program that allows anyone to look up certain regions and get a list of peer-reviewed research papers that relate to climate change in that area.
It’s one of a number of federal efforts to give forest managers some guidance about what to expect in a future with a changed climate.
However, getting exact information about expected changes in a specific location — even in an area as large as Louisiana — is almost impossible.
“The scale at which they make these (climate) projections is so large it’s hard to say what will happen in a particular location,” said Thomas Dean, professor of renewable natural resources at LSU.
“From what I can tell, most of the effects here will be a little hotter and drier,” Dean said.
So how can forests be managed when the future is uncertain? Dean and others say that’s exactly what forest managers do now.
“When we manage, we always have a three-to-five-decade planning horizon ahead of us,” Dean said. “We have to face these kinds of uncertainty today.”
Large changes in Louisiana weather patterns are not expected, he said, but weather events such as thunderstorms could get stronger, which would increase the number of trees that get blown down.
Scott Poole, chief operating officer for Roy O. Martin Lumber Co., said forest management practices in place now are meant to account for changing environmental conditions.
The forestry practices have been exactly what they have been in the past and won’t be changing.
“Nor do we have any reason to,” Poole said.
Roy O. Martin Lumber Co. owns and manages 600,000 acres of forest land in Louisiana, and Poole said that, after replanting 10,000 to 20,000 of acres every year in timber, they’ve seen no changes in how the forest is growing, the health of the forest or in seedling survival.
From year to year there might be changes in weather patterns, but nothing to the extent that it would change management plans, he said.
Bigger threats to the health and sustainability of forests are urban sprawl, taking forests out of production and putting the land to another use, and government regulations, said Buck Vandersteen, executive director of the Louisiana Forestry Association.
Rick Jacob, director of conservation forestry for the Louisiana chapter of The Nature Conservancy, said the nonprofit manages its 20,000 acres in Louisiana differently than most for-profit operations.
“Where we do forest management it’s intended to restore native species that were historic to the site,” Jacob said.
That means The Nature Conservancy has a diversity of species in its forests, as opposed to most commercial operations, which often focus on only one or two species of trees.
“We can manage for a very diverse habitat that provides protection through that diversity,” Jacob said. “It’s going to be able to withstand whatever climate change brings in the future.”
Wade Dubea, Louisiana state forester, said the discussion about forestry and climate change is happening on the national scene. The discussion is Louisiana, he said, “is all geared toward sustainability.”
That doesn’t mean forest managers aren’t dealing with current weather issues like this year’s severe drought. The lack of rainfall puts stress on trees, making them more vulnerable to insects and disease, and increases the danger of fire.
Although fire is a necessary tool in forest management — particularly when growing longleaf pine — those are controlled burns, not wild fires.
“Our conditions in the state are some of the driest we’ve had in awhile,” Dubea said. “June was one of the worst fire months we’ve had in years.”
In June, some 350 fires burned 5,449 acres. That’s much higher than June 2010, when 91 fires burned 474 acres, according to the state Department of Agriculture and Forestry.
Weather is what happens on a short-term basis. Climate reflects long-term trends. However, the current drought could be a taste of the future, if climate change models calling for Louisiana to get warmer and drier are accurate.
In that future, McNulty said, Louisiana will need to address issues similar to the rest of the South, such as increased fire frequency, but the state also may face sea level rise and other extreme weather events.
Tropical storms and hurricanes can tear up coastal wetlands. With less coastal land, McNulty said, salt water can get farther inland and potentially damage inland forests that can’t tolerate high salt levels.
One study soon to be started in Mississippi will examine longleaf pine’s resilience to the expected increase in intense thunderstorms and other weather events that climate change might produce.
At the Harrison Experimental Forest north of Gulfport, Miss., a study began in 1960 comparing the performance of loblolly, slash and longleaf pines. When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, the researchers found that only 7 percent of the longleaf pine died compared to 26 percent of the loblolly pine.
Longleaf pine seems to be more resistant to high winds, as well as being drought- and fire resistant, said John Butnor, plant physiologist with the Southern Institute of Forest Ecosystems Biology USDA Forest Service and one of the paper’s authors.
In the Mississippi study, trees will be planted this coming winter and seedling survival rates and early results should be available in two to three years, he said.
More complete information will be available in five to 10 years, but this is a long-term study and trees will be monitored for decades to come, he said.
ON the Internet:
Template for Assessing Climate Change Impacts and Management Options
U.S. Forest Service’s Climate Change Resource Center