Case Studies

Climate Change and Forest Health: Helping landowners with tough decisions

Naturally occurring forest insects and diseases are cyclical pests that impact the health and sustainability of western forested landscapes. For millions of years wildfires have been nature’s prescription for these ailments. Over the last century wildfire suppression efforts have eliminated the realization of these benefits, affording more opportunity for insect pests to persist and proliferate. Land trusts in the intermountain west have documented insect pests as one of the most prevalent impacts on conserved lands in recent years. These pests include mountain pine beetle, spruce budworm, and a variety of other insects that can injure and kill pine, fir, and spruce trees. Climatic conditions can weaken trees, making them more susceptible to infestation and death. Recent drought conditions and higher-than-average temperatures have allowed higher populations of insects to persist through winter, increasing their reproductive capacity. This nexus of natural factors and change in human land use patterns has converged to give way to epidemic levels of forest pests.

Gallatin Valley Land Trust (GVLT) in Bozeman, Montana, is providing support to private landowners to both treat and prevent further outbreaks. After noting persistent forest pest issues, GVLT initiated a conversation with private land conservation partners regarding how they might support forest management efforts. Their first step was to help partners identify forest management practices that would proactively reduce the vulnerability of their forest to catastrophic levels of pests and disease. Later, financial grants allowed GVLT to more significantly partner with landowners to implement forest treatments to reduce tree density, reclaim impacts from forestry treatments, and improve overall forest health.

Value of the land and habitat      

Forests in the intermountain west are as iconic as the region’s breathtaking views. In recent years changing conditions have impacted the forests in ways that present significant challenges to landowners, resource managers, and the wildlife that depend on them. Forests cover 22.5 million acres across Montana, making up one-fourth of the state’s land base; 3.8 million of those acres are held as non-industrial privately-owned forest. Forests manage stormwater, provide habitat, sequester carbon, and offer recreational benefits, in addition to yielding financial gains realized through increasingly sustainable timber harvesting. Promoting forest health is a gain for forests, forest owners, and local communities.

Conservation concerns

In recent years Gallatin Valley Land Trust (GVLT) in Bozeman, Montana, has noted changing patterns of land use and landscape-level impacts. Mountain pine beetles has severely impacted stands of lodgepole pine, limber pine and white bark pine. Similarly, spruce budworm, has severely stressed and killed large swaths of Douglas fir and spruce trees. The resulting 70-90% mortality of trees has left tremendous swaths of standing dead trees across the region. Dead trees left in the forest can exacerbate the conditions that promote catastrophic wildfire. Naturally occurring wildfires benefit forest health by reducing tree density, promoting a mixed-species forest community, and eliminating small or weak trees that can foster expansion of forest pests. Unfortunately, historic wildfire suppression efforts have altered these conditions – instead of these small disturbance events, large stand-replacement fires are becoming more common.

Beyond biophysical drivers such as warmer temperatures and less precipitation, social conditions are also impacting the landscape. Land trusts in the region have observed urbanization within the foothills and forested fringes of western landscapes. When forested landscapes are fragmented by a pattern of small property ownerships, it can result in less connectivity for wildlife migration and diminished social tolerance for wildfires.

What’s being done and how

Noting forest pest issues in their annual monitoring reports, GVLT initiated conversations with private land conservation partners about threats of disease and opportunities for risk management. GVLT worked with partners to identify forest management practices that make forests more resilient and ultimately reduce the risk of wildfire. This information was welcomed by landowners who in many cases were unfamiliar with forest management practices and techniques. GVLT sought and received cost-share grant funding through the state’s Department of Natural Resource and Conservation to continue this work. The grants have allowed GVLT to partner with landowners and move beyond identifying management practices to actually implementing forest treatments alongside of them.

Current Implementation Status and Next Steps

In the absence of naturally-occurring landscape-scale disturbances, careful and consistent forest management is necessary to maintain a vigorous forest that can fight off pests, as well as adjust to drought-like conditions that can stress trees and make them less resilient. GVLT’s interest is to keep privately-held forests healthy through partnering with landowners who are interested in learning more about the natural resources on their property. GVLT has created a resource hub for local forest landowners that provides resources to inform forest management and support it financially through cost-sharing programs. The site aims to help land owners make informed decisions that balance forest resilience and other conservation values such as wildlife habitat, recreation, and sustainable timber management.

Key Partners

Good stewardship in perpetuity demands flexibility, experimentation, sharing relevant information, and ultimately a trusted partnership with private landowners. To that end, GVLT has partnered with the following groups:

Lessons Learned

  • Working with private landowners’ can result in multiple opportunities to learn new lessons related to private lands stewardship. Conservation easement landowners have a value laden connection to their land that often surpasses their need to see financial return from its resources. This often leads to a strong legacy bond to the land and how it is managed and preserved.
  • Cultural connections to forested acres and individual legacy trees often override the need for a completely sanitary and fire proof forest.