A sneak peak at future forests

May 29, 2013

Among the lovely songbirds that brighten our northern Great Lakes forests, the Blackburnian warbler is a show stopper.

This icon of the north with a flame orange throat needs large expanses of forest with big, old hemlock trees to thrive. But will the forests it knows and loves today be there in 100 years? To find out, The Nature Conservancy is partnering with University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers to create a tool that can give us a sneak peek at the future.

Like all natural systems, forests are dynamic and respond to changing factors such as forest management and climate change.

Wild Rivers Legacy Forest. © Gail Van Sluys/TNC
The Nature Conservancy and Janet Silbernagel,
UW-Madison professor of environmental studies and
landscape architecture, are mapping what forests of
the future could look like. Photo: Gail Van Sluys/TNC

“We want to know what’s happening way out in the future, especially in the face of climate change, so we can make the best investments in conservation today,” said Nick Miller, the Conservancy’s director of science in Wisconsin.

Nick and Conservancy colleagues in Michigan are working with Janet Silbernagel’s Landscape Conservation Lab at UW-Madison to assess the impact of different conservation strategies and changing climate on forest condition and biodiversity over the next 100 years.

In this collaborative project, the team is using data developed by the LANDFIRE program, a large government and Nature Conservancy effort to map and describe vegetation and fire characteristics across the country, and has collected key ecological and management data for two Conservancy project areas — Wild Rivers Legacy Forest in northern Wisconsin and the Two Hearted River watershed in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

To protect these expansive forests, which total more than 113,900 acres, the Conservancy has worked with state and private partners to preserve wild areas, restore degraded forests, and ensure sustainable timber harvest through working forest conservation easements and the creation of forest reserves.

All of this information, along with climate data from the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts and the Conservancy, is being used in a modeling framework to create maps of what these forests could look like in the future.

“These maps can help us answer some important questions,” Nick said. “Questions like: Will the work we’ve done at these sites safeguard habitats in the long term in light of climate change? Which strategies may result in the most conservation for the least cost? What would these landscapes look like in 100 years if the Conservancy had chosen not to invest in them? What will they look like under different management scenarios?”

The results will be part of a broader discussion on climate change adaptation and tools that forest managers can use to ensure that Blackburnian warblers and the full array of sylvan life find a future in our Great Lakes forests.

This article is reprinted with the permission of The Nature Conservancy. Cate Harrington is a senior conservation writer with the Conservancy.