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Great Lakes' northern forests pressured by climate change

Samantha Harrington
Stephen Handler discusses the projected fate of a yellow birch tree under climate change.  "

In Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest in northern Wisconsin, it's easy to see what makes the forests of the Upper Midwest so special. They transition between Southern trees like oak and white pine, and the northern trees like fir and spruce.

But climate change is bringing more intense storms – as well as warmer winters. And that affects a forest in several ways, says Stephen Handler, a climate science researcher with the U.S. Forest Service.

"You're extending your growing seasons on one end, you're not getting that durable frost that freezes the ground that knocks back forest pests and diseases," he says.

He’s here on a windy, fall day to tell members of the Wisconsin Woodland Owners Association how they can protect their trees from climate change.

"We're kind of like a climate change help desk, a climate change phone-a-friend for landowners and foresters and loggers all across the Midwest and Northeast," he says.

To illustrate the future impact of climate change, he gives the landowners red and green ribbon and sends them into the woods. Trees projected to decrease in population, like sugar maple and balsam firs, get marked with red ribbon. Trees projected to increase, like bur and white oak, get a green ribbon.

When they’re done, red ribbons dominate the area. And many of the landowners are overwhelmed.

But Handler says they can do a lot to help their forests thrive. He lists three responses: resistance, resilience and transition.

Resistance means protecting valuable trees.

"Imagine you have an 80-year-old red pine stand," he says. "Or maybe you are a national forest and you're required to maintain some habitat for an endangered species, you're going to try to protect that red pine stand until it's end of life."

So landowners might thin out competing trees to make sure there’s enough water and light.

Resilience means making sure a forest has many types of trees – and they’re not all the same age.

And transition means favoring species that are likely to do well in a changing change.

The landowners listening to Handler are already seeing unusual weather patterns -- like more intense storms.

Steve Arenholtz, who recently inherited 40 acres, says some of the land is much wetter than usual. 

"We have an area that the ferns are growing really well, that will be wet for a lot longer periods where they might have dried out in the past," he says.

Mike Fauerbach, who owns 191 acres, says recent winters have not been good for logging machinery that requires hard, frozen ground.

"I've had a timber sale that's gone on for three years," he says. "The ground was not hard enough to allow for that. If you tell a logger around us that the climate isn't changing you would be laughed at."

Still, he’s up for the challenge of climate change.

"We ought to prepare for it," he says. "If you're in northern Wisconsin, you better figure out what you can do here, because it's not going to go away.

Before the landowners leave, Handler has some important words of caution. He points out that computer models don’t account for pests like the emerald ash borer.

So even though white ash are projected to do well in the climate models, they’re not necessarily a safe bet.