The Forestry chapter of the 2018 Blackfeet Climate Change Adaptation Plan (BCCAP) is one of eight chapters created for the first formal, multi-sector climate change adaptation planning effort in the Blackfeet Nation, following the process described here. This chapter was developed through meetings with managers from Blackfeet Fire Management and Forestry, and then revised through email correspondence. The first two sections, observed impacts and expected impacts, are sets of working hypotheses about climate change that are based on day-to-day observations and/or interpretations of climate change literature (e.g. the Montana Climate Assessment). These hypotheses were formed for the purposes of assessing climate change vulnerability and then strategizing adaptation goals and actions. This and other sections of the plan will be revisited and updated periodically as action items are implemented and adaptation efforts produce insights for future planning.
The goal of the Forestry Sector is to focus on planning for fire management in a changing climate. Fire management is consolidated within the Blackfeet Forestry Department. The reservation’s proximity to Glacier National Park and Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest creates opportunities for park fires to spread onto the Reservation.
Climate change has already impacted forests in a variety of ways, and Blackfeet Reservation residents have observed fire events during unusual times of year, one example being the occurrence of two large wildland fires on a single night in January. A recent fire in an aspen stand was unusual and more intense than usual. Additionally, residents have observed changes in wind frequency. There used to be a “dead of winter” when winds would calm down, accompanied by a similar calm period in summer. Now they observe more frequent wind events, which may be attributable to changes in the jet stream. With increased winds, fires have a greater chance of spreading to grasslands and within forests.
Climate change will increase the risk of fires and could result in fires that are more intense and/or severe. One way is through a longer fire season, extending from earlier in the spring to later in the fall. Summer precipitation is key to reducing fire risk in summer and early fall, but changing precipitation patterns could push the fire season later into the fall if winter weather does not come early enough. There is also an increased variability in the timing of fires. Fire events may be more likely to occur during unusual times of year due to unusually warm temperature, low relative humidity, high winds, and ignition points.
Forest health is partly driven by snow pack, since much of the water used by trees comes from snowmelt. As more precipitation falls as rain, rather than snow, there may be an increase in the risk of fire occurrence. Even with big rainstorms, wind accompanies the rain, blows away snow, and evaporates soil moisture. When spring rains come, they may create a flush of grass growth that can act as increased fuel when it dries during summer warming.
Longer growing seasons with drier conditions will increase the availability of fuel for fires. While forests on the reservation naturally have a low frequency, high severity fire regime, they have lost the mosaic of conditions required for historic burn patters. Now, a homogenous tree age class and build-up of fuels makes forests more prone to widespread burning of more intense fires. Warmer weather and drought increase insect outbreaks, diminishing stand health and increasing fuel loadings, also increasing fire risk. These changes can also increase the amount of area burned, and possibly the intensity and/or severity of those burns.
Fires can have a negative impact on soils. As fire severity increases, so do concerns about soil erosion in burned areas. Fire events and subsequent erosion can create ash/sediment inputs to streams. If a fire is hot enough, soils can become hydrophobic (when the soils repel water), resulting in serious costs to agricultural producers who must then leave fields fallow for two years after an intensely hot burn, an economic cost.
Increased uncertainty poses challenges for fire management planning. It is difficult to understand exactly how fuel load will build in relation to increased rainfall, a longer growing season, and changes in drought and pest stressors over time. Currently, fuel loads may not be a big concern, but Glacier National Park and surrounding National Forests have high fuel loads that could lead to intense fires that spread onto the reservation. Additionally, recent fires have seen fairly good regeneration, but if a fire comes through a regeneration area, there is cause for concern about diminished regeneration.
The location of concern is reservation-wide. At the same time, fire management must be addressed at a large, regional scale to account for bordering forests in Glacier National Park and Forest Service lands. Forests and rangelands need to be addressed on an equal plane for fire susceptibility. The timeframe begins now and extends into the future, as some of the expected impacts are already being observed.
Probability of impacts to fire management
There is a high probability of impact. Temperature is a key driver and warming is highly likely.
Potential Consequences of impacts
Potential consequences are high.
Increased fire frequency and intensity will negatively impact human health by posing a hazard during active burns, and by diminishing air quality through smoke.
Potential economic costs include a loss of timber base, a cost to logging operators in particular. Declining tourism is likely to result when vacation rentals are threatened by fires. This could force people out of some areas, while drawing people into other areas, Generally, past fires have harmed hotel business and outfitting activities. Permittees, producers and allottees, and landowners face high consequences, with potential lost acreage and impacts on cattle, loss of leasing income, and the potential for lasting impacts on the resource.
From an ecological standpoint, wildlife will be affected by changing habitat structure, including socially, economically, and culturally-important species. Water quality and supply could decrease, especially if fires burn hot enough to create hydrophobic soil conditions. Post-fire erosion also poses sediment concerns for aquatic ecosystems. Changes in water supply timing could be part of the challenge.
Finally, increased fire frequency and intensity may harm cultural resources. Traditional and medicinal plants like subalpine fir, serviceberry, roots, and other berries, facing range shifts and extirpation are threatened by changes in fire regimes. Lodgepole Pines used for teepee poles and ceremonies could be threatened if a fire enters a fire regeneration area.
The exposure is high, for both forests and grasslands.
Sensitivity is high, and the resources are already stressed.
The adaptive capacity is medium. While these systems have a reasonable ability to adapt, they could be pushed past the breaking point. As these systems adapt, what will be lost? While something will grow, it is unclear what it will be. What will be the costs to human communities and values?
Vulnerability is medium to medium-high, depending on the adaptive capacity.
The estimated risk is high, given that there are both high consequences and high probability.
Priority is medium-high, given that there is high risk and medium vulnerability.
Blackfeet Forestry Department is the responsible party.
1) Ensure the health and productivity of natural resources in forest and range systems in the face of changing fire regimes.
2) Address wildland-urban interface issues to protect communities from increasing fire risk.
The priority for fire management is medium-high.
Preparedness goals: strategies and actions
Goal 1: Ensure the health and productivity of natural resources in forest and range systems in the face of changing fire regimes.
a) Create more heterogeneity with a mosaic of forest patches differing in age structure for increased resilience to changing fire regimes
1) Shape Forestry and Fire Management Plans with this goal in mind
2) Targeted application of prescribed fire, mechanical thinning, plantings, and restoration
3) Identify and pursue different funding mechanisms (e.g. Reserve Treaty Right Lands funding)
b) Shape Forestry and Fire Management Plans in light of climate
1) Evaluate annual allowable harvest
2) Work with wildlife departments (Tribal and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) to develop best management practices in a tiered consultation process
c) Gain a better understanding of current conditions to better manage for desired future conditions
1) Assess forest conditions to identify which areas are best suited to timber activity, thinning, and the application of fire
d) Continue to develop partnerships that allow for interagency collaboration on fire management
1) Engage with fire experts at Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest, Glacier National Park, Missoula Fire Lab, etc.
e) Advance planning to more effectively address fire
1) Include climate information in upcoming Forestry and Fire Management Plans
2) Better integrate the Forestry and Fire Management Plans, perhaps to create a Fuels Management plan
f) Coordinate grazing so as to reduce the harmful impacts of increasing range fire
g) Protect forest resources in the face of increasing pest and fungal infestations
1) Work with an entomologist to evaluate infestation risk and occurrence and to identify management strategies
h) Understand, protect, and sustain five-needle pine populations
1) Collaborate with partners to evaluate whitebark pine genetic stock on the reservation
2) Research White Pine Blister Rust (Cronartium ribicola) to isolate from Mountain Pine Beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae) and understand the impacts of each
3) Obtain maps of whitebark pine stands
4) Protect disease-resistant whitebark pine trees from fire and beetles
5) Evaluate limber pine populations along the front and take actions to protect key populations from fire and disease
i) Protect lodgepole pine, especially young stands
1) Use appropriate hazard fuel reduction in adjacent stands
2) Alter fire management plans to protect species from dwarf mistletoe (Arceuthobium spp.)
Goal 2: Address wildland-urban interface issues to protect communities from increasing fire risk.
a) Educate homeowners on how to reduce the risk of forest fire
1) Expand upon existing fire prevention program
2) Hold workshops to educate home owners
3) Increase site visits and encourage wildland-urban interface best practices
b) Collaborate with local fire departments (volunteer, Forest Service, Glacier National Park, and Blackfeet Fire Management) to reach out to communities and better address risks and fire fighting
1) Revisit cooperative agreement to include climate impacts