SALT LAKE CITY — The Intermountain Region of the U.S. Forest Service is beginning a lengthy, first effort to craft a threat assessment from climate change, identifying specific vulnerabilities in the area that spans 34 million acres in Utah, Nevada and portions of four other states.
A kickoff meeting for the science-based undertaking was held in Ogden at the region's headquarters in early spring, with nearly a year's worth of information gathering that is now underway to assess threats to specific natural resources.
The assessment will help the agency understand how a changing climate may affect landscapes in the future, said Natalie Little, the region's climate change coordinator.
"Some effects are already showing up, such as reduced snowpack and longer fire seasons, so we need to project the kinds of changes that may occur in future decades and develop options for responding," she said. "This assessment will include a synthesis of existing research and is important in our goal of managing for resilient landscapes."
The agency has scheduled a webinar Thursday for its partners in the effort and will record and post the forum on its website so the public can learn more about the undertaking.
The evaluation is timely given northern Utah's record-setting dry and warm winter of 2014-15, recording the least amount of precipitation on record and the highest daily temperatures from December through February.
Utah's limited snowpack created early spring runoff that was then accompanied by record-setting rainfall, with some areas of the state receiving more than four times the amount of precipitation that is normal for May.
Dave Whittekiend, supervisor of the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, said a better understanding of climate variability is especially key to an area like the Wasatch Front, which depends on snowpack for its water supply.
"Almost every community along the Wasatch Front gets their water from the forests," he said. "So keeping that water pure and clean is a big part of what we are working on."
During this study phase of what is called the Intermountain Adaptation Partnership, the Forest Service and partners like the National Park Service, universities and the Interior Department's Southwest Climate Science Center will look at species and ecoystems that are challenged by a changing climate.
"We hope to understand as much as possible about physical and biological effects of changing climates in national forests and subregions of the Intermountain region, which includes national forests in Utah, Nevada, southern Idaho, and parts of Wyoming, California and Colorado," Little said. "We can project these effects at relatively fine scales for water and fish, but only at large scales for vegetation, wildlife and other resources."
The region covers 12 forests, including the Dixie, Manti-La Sal and Uinta-Wasatch-Cache national forests in Utah. The study area includes five sub-regions that incorporates the Great Basin as well as the Wasatch Front.
The effort calls for:
• Increasing climate change awareness
• Assessing the vulnerability of natural resources and ecosystems to climate change
• Developing science-based adaptation strategies that can be used by national forests to understand and mitigate the effects of climate change
Just as the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management is crafting region-specific plans to address problems that compound the wildfire season — in the Great Basin area for example — the regional forest assessment will identify priority areas and work to reduce wildfire threats.
As the West settles into its fourth year of drought, both federal and state land managers are girding for what could be another record-setting wildfire season this year.
An analysis by Headwater Economics has found that from 2000 to 2013, 88 percent of the wildfire acreage that burned was in the West, and federal appropriations for fighting wildfires on average have tripled since the 1990s.
Since the 1970s, the length of the typical wildfire season has grown by about two months, the study said.
Utah has had its share of wildfires that have wiped out watersheds and left property-damaging mud flows in their wake, leading to renewed attention on the importance of post-fire rehabilitation projects and pre-suppression activities that curtail the growth of invasive vegetation.
Once the study phase is complete, the federal agency will release a draft assessment and host a series of workshops to get input from land managers, conservation groups, city leaders and others.
The assessment will then be peer reviewed and published, likely by early summer of 2017.
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