Climate Change

Adaptation as Acceptance: Toward a New Normal in the Northwoods

In northern Minnesota, most tree planting takes place in the early spring. Here, quaking aspen are surrounded by white spruce and balsam fir. Photo ©2017/Christian Dalbeck Photography

We Minnesotans love our Northwoods. They conjure memories of majestic conifers, cool shade, the piney scent of needle-strewn paths. Add a lake and a canoe, and that’s quintessential “Up North,” home to those forests so deeply embedded in our cultural identity and core to our natural resource-based economy.

Grief is Personal—and Professional

Wandering the woods as I do, both on and off the job, I can’t remember a time when my love of Minnesota’s forests wasn’t accompanied by a sense of loss. I bushwhack my way through today’s runty regrowth all the while grieving its diminishment, comparing it to the towering grandeur of pineries past.

Now climate change has stealthily set in motion a hundred little things that together will almost certainly render northern forests of the future unrecognizable. Confronting this new reality rerouted my professional journey as well as my worldview. In hindsight, that circuitous path looks very much like grieving—first over the loss of those great historic pines, and ultimately over letting go of the idea that we could fully restore our Northwoods.

Famously described by Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross as a process with five recognizable stages, grief is nonetheless deeply personal. My own process toward acceptance of a profoundly changed Northwoods has spanned years. Over this time the personal and the professional have become increasingly intertwined.

Denial: Resurrecting the Northwoods

More than a century of logging and forest management has homogenized the piney woods of old. A once-diverse expanse of multi-aged forests gave way to an aspen-dominated landscape skewed toward younger generations of trees. Although there is nothing inherently wrong with young forests, they lack the type of complexity that many wildlife species depend upon. Young, species-poor forests also store less carbon on average than mature or old forests. And having fewer species leaves them far more vulnerable to emerging stressors like climate change and new outbreaks of insects and diseases. Having a diverse mixture of trees lowers the risk of losing a whole forest ecosystem due to threats such as Dutch elm disease or an emerald ash borer outbreak.

Researchers have long been tracking the changes in these northern forests. Painstaking analysis helped a small cadre of forest scientists—Francis Marschner (1930s), Bud Heinselman (1970s), and Lisa Schulte (2000s) to name a few—visualize how the landscape looked at the time of Euro-American settlement. In their times, each pored over historical records from Minnesota’s original Public Land Survey (PLS), the first comprehensive government land inventory, which took place between the mid-1800s and 1909. The PLS surveyors collected vast amounts of data, including detailed information about tree species and sizes as well as narrative descriptions of the landscape and vegetation.

More recently, Minnesota DNR ecologist John Almendinger has compared the PLS data from the pre-logging era to that of modern day Forest Inventory and Analysis data (US Forest Service). He concluded that in upland habitats, long-lived northern conifers—think white pine, red pine, northern white cedar and white spruce—been reduced by as much as 50-75% in every major upland forest type since the pre-logging era. Lowland habitats have also experienced losses, although the picture is more complicated. Tamarack, for example, once the most abundant tree in Minnesota, has suffered major population declines following Euro-settlement.

The Nature Conservancy and its partners selected 24 planting sites for the new “Conifer Strongholds” project. These sites have cooler than average microclimates and topographic features, such as north-facing slopes and lakeshore environments, that can help sustain conifers into the future even as the climate warms. Photo ©2017/Christian Dalbeck Photography

With the decline of boreal tree species comes the loss of wildlife species that depend on them. Most notably, scientists have documented dwindling populations of area-sensitive species, such as forest-dwelling hawks, songbirds, amphibians and invertebrates. For example, Gerald Niemi, professor of biology at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, has collaborated with other ornithologists studying birds that depend on northern spruce-fir forest habitat in the US. “We have observed declines in many species, especially Neotropical migrants, such as the Connecticut Warbler,” Niemi said. “Many of these species are facing multiple threats and have a very precarious future.” Between 1995 and 2017, monitoring results from the Chippewa and Superior National Forests also indicate mean annual declines for several bird species, including Swainson’s Thrush (-3.6%), Olive-sided Flycatcher (-4.48%) and Evening Grosbeak (-5.37%). Results of other recent work showed that species such as the Connecticut Warbler have an affinity for large patches of upland coniferous forest combined with lowland black spruce forest, but are negatively associated with upland deciduous forest. Long-lived conifers also provide critical thermal cover in both summer and winter for species such as moose and Canada lynx that have a narrow range of thermal tolerance.

Agencies, nonprofit organizations and industry came together through a forum provided by the Minnesota Forest Resources Council and produced its first plan for restoring long-lived conifers to the forests of northeastern Minnesota in 2003. Many, including The Nature Conservancy, answered the clarion call in a straightforward way. If it was conifers the Northwoods lacked, then by gosh we’d plant them back. Plant we did. Nature Conservancy crews first swept across federal, state and county lands of northeastern Minnesota in spring, 2004. Since that time we have planted thousands of acres at hundreds of sites, culminating in millions of conifer seedlings lovingly placed in the ground, each one a brave little green flag of hope. We were bringing back the great Northwoods. Or so we thought.

Anger, Bargaining and Depression: Restoration Thwarted

Turns out, we were underestimating the degree to which climate change would disrupt our ambitious plans. We were forced to question the prospects for these newly planted seedlings under warmer, and likely drier, growing conditions. Many of our classic boreal trees are already at the southern edge of their ranges—conifers such as white spruce, black spruce, tamarack, red pine and jack pine and hardwoods like paper birch and aspen.

To find out whether our restoration goals were still valid, we turned to ecological modeling. Nature Conservancy scientists teamed up with University of Wisconsin-Madison and Portland State University to “grow” forests 200 years into the future—albeit on their desktops. Because northern forests grow so slowly, and waiting around for a century is too long for most of us, modeling is a great tool for gaining insights about possible future scenarios for northern forests.

Using LANDIS-II, a spatially explicit forest ecosystem model, the team looked at how forest cover and composition could change over time under different climate warming scenarios—and whether current management tactics could influence the outcome. To our dismay, the models confirmed a likely retreat of classic northern tree species such as paper birch and white spruce and the expansion and eventual dominance by more southerly species like red maple and sugar maple. Even more disturbing, under the modeled high emissions scenario, the warmer, harsher conditions pointed toward high mortality rates for boreal trees—and a consequent loss of forest cover.

I was forced to face the awful truth. We could not resurrect the great Northwoods. Not now. Not ever.

I had been standing on grief’s threshold for years, experiencing the comfortable encirclement of denial. With a now-firm acknowledgment of the Northwoods’ demise, the door swung open and I stepped inside grief’s labyrinth.

I raged. Global efforts at curbing carbon emissions had largely failed. The world’s leaders, and first and foremost my own nation, lacked the will to reverse the greatest threat to nature and humanity of our time. People’s lives and property were at stake as climate summits came and went, along with a great deal of quibbling and droning on about scientific consensus, or lack thereof. My anger simmered below the surface, interfering with my ability to think about what to do next.

Crew boss Sergio Villegas Moreno, gives final instructions before the planting crew spreads out to set their seedlings into the ground. Photo ©2017/John Gregor

I bargained. Not in any literal sense, and not with a higher power—but I became intensely focused on culpability and blame. If those early timber barons had been less greedy, if they had had more regard for future generations, we could have avoided this fix. If my colleagues and I had worked harder, faster to restore a resilient Northwoods. Or, if the policy makers could simply get their collective act together and curb emissions, maybe the Northwoods really could rise again.

I despaired. Climate change was bearing down on the Great Lakes region, and the evidence was all around us—the sylvan dregs of a once mighty Northwoods. Every spring the pervasive pink in the understory reminded me the red maple seedlings are ready to ascend to dominance in the canopy once given the chance. Mature aspen trees bear the scars of extreme weather events, such as crown damage sustained in recent ice storms. Aging paper birch stands along the North Shore continued to degrade into an unrecognizable shrub-scape. So this was what we would be left with. What was the point in continuing our conservation and restoration work in the Northwoods? We could see where things were headed. We could not bring the boreal forest back from the brink.

Adaptation as Acceptance: Reimagining, Reconstructing

Acceptance is all about adjusting expectations. For me, that meant embracing the notion that to “save” the great Northwoods might mean transforming it.

On the job, our conversations shifted to keeping the “woods” in the Northwoods as the climate warms. Compared to the shrubland or grassland that could be where our northern ecosystems are heading, forests sustain a way of life and provide critical benefits to both people and nature: water quality and supply, timber products, carbon storage and wildlife habitat. To keep those benefits, we would need to bolster the ability of millions of forested acres to adapt to the disruptions of a changing climate. Science would help us get there. Hypotheses generated by our ecological models had to be tested with real field experiments to determine if we were on the right track.

It is one thing to talk about “embracing change.” How that actually translates to forest management and restoration is quite another. Fortunately, The Nature Conservancy was not alone in this endeavor. The Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science (NIACS) had just developed a first iteration of a regional Climate Change Response Framework, “a collaborative, cross-boundary approach among scientists, managers and landowners to incorporate climate change considerations into natural resource management.”

Using the Framework, we decided to play to our strengths. We knew how to plant trees and were doing so on a bigger scale every year. What if we shifted our planting away from the usual suite of boreal species?

We decided to test new planting mixes skewed toward native species that are also adapted to future conditions. With a broad transition potentially underway to red maple and sugar maple, we wanted to introduce more diversity—to include red oak and bur oak, currently present in northern Minnesota but relatively uncommon, as well as white pine, an old favorite and one of the most common tree species in the pre-Euro Northwoods. Our funding partner, the Wildlife Conservation Society, made the work possible by taking a chance on our adaptation project through a lead grant from its Climate Adaptation Fund.

In addition to adjusting our seedling mixes, we added another new twist: we pulled genetic planting stock from a wider geographic range. Genetically speaking, we veered from the “local is always best” philosophy that is so deeply ingrained in conservation and forest management. Comparing survival and growth of seedlings from distinct seed zones in Minnesota—including seedlings originating from warmer, drier parts of the state—seemed prudent in this time of great change and uncertainty. In all, we planted nearly 110,000 seedlings on a variety of federal, state and county lands across northern Minnesota.

Seedlings of tamarack, white pine and white spruce fill the canvas bag of a worker ready to plant them in the ground. Photo ©2017/John Gregor

We worked closely with the University of Minnesota-Duluth, including Julie Etterson, professor of biology, along with her graduate students and undergraduate workers. This collaboration made it possible to monitor the early growth and survival of our young seedlings. Four years later and all three of our experimental species have survived well. Preliminary results also suggest that oak seedlings from farther south may have traits that boost survival. They leaf out earlier in the season, helping them take advantage of more growing days. And their thicker leaves help them cope with warmer temperatures and drier conditions.

This early evidence that the conservation community may be able to help northern forests make a broad transition to an uncertain future was reassuring. But our team still felt uneasy about writing off northern conifers altogether. After all, amidst the signs that the woods are already transitioning, we continue to see pockets of young spruce and fir.

Successful climate adaptation in the Northwoods—indeed climate adaptation anywhere—requires us to deploy more than one strategy. As we continue to talk with agency partners about facilitating adaptation through introducing climate-adapted species mixtures and genetics, we have also started incorporating the idea of “conifer strongholds.” That’s right. We are circling back to restoring climate-sensitive boreal tree species.

Although boreal trees will likely continue to decline across much of the region as the climate warms, northern Minnesota is a diverse setting with its complex pattern of landforms, soils and even climate variation. Although the prevailing trend appears to be a regional shift to oak-maple-basswood forest dominance for the foreseeable future, it may be possible to sustain northern conifers in places that have cooler than average micro-climates, north-facing slopes and relatively moist soils. With new funding from the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Conservancy is now working to identify a variety of such “strongholds.” If boreal conifer seedlings truly fare better in these settings, spending scarce funds in these places could be a wise investment. The new project began this spring and will continue through 2018. During that time, we will plant upwards of 100,000 conifers seedlings on resilient sites to test this idea.

Change is Hard

This is not to say there isn’t a fair amount of resistance and dissent—even within the conservation community. For example, some respond that instead of intervening to facilitate transition to a landscape dominated by a variety of temperate species, we should simply let nature take its course. But the climate is changing so rapidly that it is already outpacing nature’s ability to adapt. A helping hand is needed if we want to maintain our forested landscape. Others say we are wasting our time on adaptation, or worse—that to engage in helping nature adapt is tantamount to giving up on curbing emissions. I view this as a false choice at a time when mitigation and adaptation are both critically important. Another critique equates planting conifers to sustain pockets of Northwoods character over time with creating living museums. The Nature Conservancy is banking on a “both-and” strategy. Retaining northern conifers as part of the Northwoods fabric increases options for the future as well as sustaining critical habitat for the wildlife that depends on them.

Grappling with adaptation solutions has cheered me up considerably. A feeling that surged with despair has morphed into something closer to empowerment over the years. I enjoy talking with friends and colleagues about the Conservancy’s adaptation work because these conversations often engender hope. Yes, we are talking about loss of the Northwoods as we know it, but working toward a “new normal” is worthwhile.

Tools for Embracing Change

As we work toward a new normal in the Northwoods, the good news is that we have a number of great resources to help. Here are some favorites:

Strategies and action planning:


Communication and public engagement:

Information and learning:

This article appeared first in Agate Magazine.

Meredith Cornett

Meredith Cornett has directed The Nature Conservancy’s science program in Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota since August 2003. She oversees conservation planning, research, and ecological monitoring activities, often in collaboration with universities, land management agencies, and other non-governmental organizations. More from Meredith

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