Rock Creek, Climate Change and Natural System Adaptation


A couple of weeks ago I blogged about a late-night, long distance phone conversation with my daughter, Becky, and her fear that climate change might so disrupt human communities around the world that it would threaten all of our security.

Now, following weeks of working on climate and energy legislation in Washington, I was taking a break and driving with Becky, her husband, Grant, their baby daughter and my wife along beautiful Rock Creek near Becky’s home in western Montana. We stopped by the side of the road to watch bighorn sheep scrambling across cliffs, holding our breaths as a tiny lamb tried to follow her mother up and down the rocks.

Last Thursday the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 passed the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.  Passage by the committee was an important step toward our country finally addressing the threat of a warming planet. Among a lot of other important stuff in the bill (otherwise known as Waxman-Markey) as it moved out of committee, I explained to my family, is funding for natural system adaptation. They are smart and well read, but they (along with the great majority of other Americans) did not know exactly what natural system adaptation meant in the context of climate change.

But what does that have to do with Rock Creek? Plenty, as it turns out.

Natural system adaptation means undertaking projects to help natural systems and natural areas cope with the threat of global warming. It had been difficult to keep money in the Waxman bill for this, and the funding in the version that passed out of the committee is not yet adequate.  As I talked with my family, I realized that sufficient funding had not been secured because — in part — we had done a poor job of explaining what adaptation meant and why it is so important.

So I started trying to describe some climate change adaptation projects as we drove along when I realized that we were passing right by good examples of how one might spend money to help this countryside cope with the expected impacts of a changing climate.

Rock Creek, swollen by snow melt and by rain the night before, was spilling into the willows along its banks.  There were places where the valley opened into low lying pastures. Scientists tell us that climate change will bring more extreme floods and droughtsA great adaptation project in this valley would be something already underway — the voluntary purchase of the landowners’ right to develop these fields and restoration of the wetlands along the creek’s banks.

In times of even greater flood, the project would allow the creek to spill into its historic floodplain — thus taking pressure from other low areas and slowing the flow downstream toward towns and the City of Missoula, where a flood could do real damage. And in times of drought the same wet wooded areas can hold water like a sponge, keeping the stream higher and cooler.

The conserved and restored flood plain with its willow thickets is also great habitat for moose and waterfowl — and the cooler, cleaner water in a more natural stream corridor helps to sustain Rock Creek’s blue-ribbon trout fishery, which is the basis of the local economy.

A few miles later, we saw where a big wildfire had roared across the valley two years before. In the areas where the trees were naturally more widely spaced, some trees survived the fire — but in the places where after years of fire suppression the trees had grown unnaturally close together, the fire burned hotter and had consumed it all.

With the higher temperatures, increased levels of insect damage and more frequent dry spells expected from climate change, more wildfires are expected (as has been the case recently in Montana), so another important climate change adaptation project would be to thin the forest and restore it to a more natural density so that it could be more resilient to catastrophic wildfires. This  treatment would produce a greater variety of wildlife habitat and better protect the stream by avoiding the kinds of wildfires that would scorch the Earth, result in erosion into streambeds and increase water temperatures.

Like the floodplain project, the forest thinning can add to the local economy by employing people and produce small-diameter wood that can support local industry.

And finally, when my son-in-law explained that the purchase of land adjacent to Rock Creek might be part of a larger corridor of wild land to create a continuous open space corridor across a piece of the northern Rockies, I noted that creation of such a corridor could be still another kind of adaptation project because such connected areas of open land can allow plants and animals to move in response to rising temperatures. Wildlife corridors can allow the moose, mountain sheep, elk, bear and deer that inhabit this territory to adjust their migration routes to deal with changes in weather patterns and habitat types.

So what is climate change adaptation?  It is simply shoring up nature’s ability to withstand the stress of change, helping fish and wildlife to survive for their many values, and using healthy natural systems to provide human benefits such as outdoor recreation and tourism that support rural economies, abundant clean water, and protection from natural disasters like flood and wildfire. 

Climate change adaptation is an investment in our future that is worthwhile in every corner of our country and should be a critical component of any climate change legislation passed by Congress.

(Photo: Rock Creek, Montana. Credit: Grant Kier.)

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