Science for Natural Resource Management under Climate Change

Prioritize locations. To identify geographic priorities under climate change, managers can broadly consider three options: areas of high, medium, or low vulnerability. For acquisition of new areas, it may be prudent to prioritize areas of low vulnerability, known as refugia, and avoid areas of higher vulnerability. Conversely, for management of existing areas, it may be necessary to prioritize places of higher vulnerability because those locations may require more intensive management. Areas of unique ecological or cultural value may continue to merit high priority.

Implement actions. Resource management agencies have reached this step in only a few cases. For example, Black-water National Wildlife Refuge in Maryland is using local sediment to raise and restore wetlands inundated by rising sea level. Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina is building up oyster reefs and planting flood-tolerant trees in coastal areas vulnerable to sea-level rise. Examples of other possible site-specific adaptation measures include wildland fire and prescribed burning to avert catastrophic wildfires, natural regeneration and enrichment planting of adapted plant species, and reforestation of native riparian tree species along stream banks to provide shade and cool water for fish. At the landscape scale, agencies can adjust large area management plans, establish corridors to facilitate species dispersal and migration, and plan land acquisitions in potential climate change refugia.

The Northwest Forest Plan demonstrates how cooperative efforts can manage for habitats across a landscape rather than managing for individual species at specific sites. In the context of climate change, managing for habitats rather than individual species would involve the identification and conservation of functional groups, such as perennial grasses in a grassland ecosystem, or habitat types, such as a subalpine forest. Assuring the vibrant functioning of an ecosystem could perhaps more effectively conserve more species than dedicating scarce resources to the conservation of a few individual endangered species.

Recognizing the importance of conservation planning based on ecological landscapes rather than administrative boundaries, the Department of the Interior is now establishing 21 Landscape Conservation Cooperatives across the country to bring resource management agencies together to develop adaption strategies.

Because national forests surround many national parks, the FS is one of the most important partners for the NPS in many landscapes. The two agencies collaborate closely on six landscape-scale science and adaptation projects in the Cascade Range, Olympic Mountains, Rocky Mountains, and the Sierra Nevada.

Monitor effects. Monitoring permanent ecological plots can provide essential data to track the effectiveness of adaptation measures. The NPS inventory and monitoring program tracks key physical and ecological characteristics of parks, such as glacier extent and animal populations. NPS did not establish its system to trace effects of individual management actions at specific locations. Also, most sites do not have the 30 years of data needed for a statistically significant sample to examine temporal trends. Agencies will need to address these types of issues in existing monitoring programs, or in some cases establish new monitoring programs, to track whether or not adaptation measures increase the resilience of species and ecosystems.

Adjust adaptation measures. Adaptive management uses the lessons of the past to redesign management for the future. As NPS pursues end-to-end science and adaptation projects in Sequoia National Park, Assateague Island National Seashore, and other areas, changes in climate, ecological response, and future emissions will necessitate changes in adaptation measures.

Policy implications

General reports on adaptation are informative but not adequate for the management of specific natural areas. The most effective approach for natural resource management agencies is to work through a complete process of science and adaptation in specific landscapes. Policy initiatives on climate change can facilitate this work by supporting particular types of applied science. These include detection and attribution of historical change, analysis of vulnerability of species and ecosystems, and quantification of vegetation carbon over time across the United States using field and remote-sensing data. Detection and attribution of historical change guide resource management toward the predominant factor that is causing change. Analyses of vulnerability provide the scientific data needed to prioritize areas for adaptation. Spatial data on vegetation carbon over time could enable land managers to estimate carbon effects of resource management actions.

The Executive and Secretarial orders that established greenhouse gas emission reduction and climate change adaptation as priorities have set strong enabling conditions for future action. Other policies could further facilitate action. For example, integration of climate change information into Resource Management Plans (BLM), National Forest Plans (FS), Comprehensive Conservation Plans (FWS), and General Management Plans (NPS) would adapt these official management plans for operational field units to future change. Moreover, because separate agencies in the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, and Interior manage substantial natural areas, further collaboration within and outside of the Department of the Interior Landscape Conservation Cooperatives would facilitate landscape-scale adaptation. Also, the National Climate Assessments of the U.S. Global Change Research Program are useful analyses of climate change science whose continuation is essential for adaptation.

Science and policy are only two of many factors determining resource management decisions. Resource managers combine scientific information and national policies with other considerations: financial costs, human resource requirements, community needs, ethics, and values. Natural resource management under climate change will balance exigencies of the present and the needs of future generations. Science must provide robust and objective information. Ultimately, people will use climate change science to help make decisions on the survival of species and ecosystems.


Patrick Gonzalez () is the climate change scientist for the National Park Service and a lead author on two reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Cite this Article

Gonzalez, Patrick. “Science for Natural Resource Management under Climate Change.” Issues in Science and Technology 27, no. 4 (Summer 2011).

Vol. XXVII, No. 4, Summer 2011