Category Archives: Natural Resource Management

Check it out: Grazing Lands in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington

By Janelle Christensen, USDA Northwest Climate Hub

A herd of cattle overlooking a stream

Cattle graze in a small pasture near Wendell, Idaho. Photo: USDA/Kirsten Strough

Grazing lands in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington—from state, tribal and federally managed rangelands and forests to privately owned pasturelands—are an important part of each state. Livestock are a critical part of each state’s economy and contributed about $8.4 billion in sales in 2017. They are also important to the livelihoods of people who live in these states, many of whom come from families who have taken care of these lands for generations.

To understand how climate change is impacting the grazing season, I looked into some of the changes that will affect ranchers’ and managers’ ability to graze sustainably in the future. With warmer temperatures earlier in the year, springtime and grass emergence will happen earlier. Livestock may have reduced access to forage on federally managed grazing lands, where permits are set to open at the same date each year. Temperatures may also affect plant germination. Some plants require a certain number of chilling hours to reproduce and others become less productive in temperatures that exceed their optimal growth temperature. Additionally, changes to precipitation will affect the amount of forage available each year, which could negatively impact herds.

These are among the changes that are happening with climate change in this region. Check out the article I wrote for the Northwest Climate Hub to learn more about the effects of climate change on grazing lands in the Northwest.

Water Markets in Washington State: What if Leasing Part of a Water Right Was Allowed?

By Rajendra Khanal, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Utah


Top: corn crop under center pivot, with arid slopes in background. Bottom: green irrigated wheat crop

Farmers growing crops such as wheat and corn might be more interested in leasing some – rather than all – of their water to support instream flows in times of water scarcity, which are likely to occur more frequently as the climate changes. Photo: WSDA under CC BY-NC 2.0 (corn) and Rajendra Khanal (wheat).

If you are a Washington agricultural producer who has a water right and wants to lease your water to another user, you are currently allowed to either lease your entire water right and fallow your land (that is, not use any of the water yourself) or not lease and use your full water right for crop production. The option of leasing a part of your water right (partial leasing) does not exist.

Introducing an option for partial leasing could make more farmers willing to participate in water markets, and thus expand markets’ potential as a tool for meeting diverse water needs, especially as climate change increases the likelihood that water supplies won’t be sufficient to meet all demands, all the time. For example, farmers might lease some of their water to support instream flows in times of water scarcity, which are likely to occur more frequently as the climate changes. Although there are a number of challenges that would need to be overcome to make partial leasing a reality (I discuss those later), we started by asking the question of whether the potential benefits of partial leasing are big enough to make it worth bothering to invest the time and money it would take to overcome those challenges. Continue reading

The Climate Commitment Act is Coming. How Will it Impact Washington Agriculture?

Dani Gelardi, Washington State Department of Agriculture

A new mandate

WEED-IT infrared spray equipment being used as a demostration in stubble that has not been tilled in Douglas County.

Agriculture accounts for an estimated 6.7% of the total greenhouse gas emissions in Washington. Could the Climate Commitment Act pose opportunities to help reduce or offset those emissions? Photo: Leslie Michel.

On January 1st, 2023, major portions of the Climate Commitment Act (CCA) will launch in Washington State. This ambitious law is part of Washington’s plan to eliminate or offset all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050. The Washington State Department of Ecology estimates that agriculture accounts for 6.7% of the total emissions in Washington. Despite this sizable GHG contribution, agriculture is exempt from CCA mandates, due to existing laws that already regulate this sector. While it remains uncertain how regulations facing the food manufacturing sector may eventually impact agricultural producers, the CCA will not cap emissions from the production of unprocessed livestock and crops. Does this mean these activities will be entirely unaffected? Continue reading

Putting a Price on Water: Would Price Disclosure Increase Water Market Participation?

By Karie Boone, Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, Washington State University

Diagram with a river in a valley and two hands in a handshake superimposed

Water markets are one of several potential climate change adaptation strategies being studied to increase water availability to meet the needs of multiple uses. Image: Sonia A. Hall

Water markets are one of several potential climate change adaptation strategies being studied to increase water availability to meet the needs of multiple uses (farming, fish and new development). On we have previously explored water markets and a number of barriers to more active participation. This article focuses on price disclosure barriers, or the challenges posed by the fact that it is not always easy for those who have water rights and those who are seeking to lease or buy water to know what a fair price is. Potential water market participants mostly do not want others to know if they are interested in buying, leasing or selling water, or the prices at which water transactions are made. At the same time, it is difficult for water right holders and farmers in irrigation districts to know what a “fair” price (that is, the price that most buyers would expect to pay and sellers would expect to receive) is for a given water right. Continue reading

Adaptive Governance Emerges in Response to Increasing Change and Complexity in our Social-Environmental-Technological Systems

By Aaron Whittemore, Center for Sustaining Agriculture at Washington State University


Collage with photos of salmon in thver, a landscape with cliffs and the river, and a large, snow covered mountain

Pacific Northwest resources that are susceptible to climate change. Upper left: sockeye salmon are susceptible to warming stream temperatures brought on by climate change. Image credit: National Park Service. Upper right: Snowpack in the region, like that seen on Mt. Rainier is declining as temperatures rise. Photo: Ashlynn Murphy, Unsplash. Lower panel: Demand for water is rising and stresses on supply are exacerbated by climate change meaning the Columbia River and other important water bodies are likely to experience declines in streamflow. Photo: Elian Sarkinen, Unsplash.

Let’s examine the expected consequences of climate change on water resources in the Pacific Northwest. By mid-century, spring snowmelt in the region is expected to occur three to four weeks earlier and summer streamflow is expected to decline. In the Cascades, measurements of snowpack on April 1 have already declined by as much as 20% since the 1950s. At lower elevations, more precipitation will fall as rain instead of snow which increases flood risks, and reduces snow accumulation and soil moisture, increasing wildfire risk in the following months. Demand for water by the region’s inhabitants is rising and is expected to continue to do so and climate change will exacerbate stresses on water supply. Lower streamflow could also reduce hydropower supply which could cause economic losses in the region. Climate change will also warm the region’s waters which have been noted to increase spring and summer mortality in Chinook and sockeye salmon. All aquatic species will also be impacted by reduced summer flows and increased flooding and winter flows. Finally, these changes to water supply will undoubtedly impact the region’s agriculture and could harm crop yields, as I discussed in a recent article.  

This is but one example of the complex challenges and considerations potentially faced by our social, environmental and technological systems (which are interconnected, and collectively called SETs) in the Pacific Northwest and more broadly across the globe. The myriad, complicated challenges faced by SETs will require adept responses — and in some cases transformation — for successful adaptation. Traditionally, our municipal, state, or even federal government have addressed the negative impacts of interaction between society and environment largely through bureaucratic management and regulation. However, in a recent study, University Distinguished Professor Emerita Barbara Cosens from the University of Idaho and her fellow researchers from across the United States and the European Union (brought together by the NSF funded National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, SESYNC) posit that these traditional forms of government lack the flexibility and adaptability to quickly respond to the fast-paced and dynamic issues that we are facing today. Instead, the authors discuss the need for adaptive governance—a form of governance that involves self-organization of both the private and public sectors and formal and informal institutions that can fill roles in addressing the challenges SETs face. Within an adaptive governance framework, actors such as non-profits, community groups, and private stakeholders (e.g. businesses, concerned citizens) could interact with local and regional governments to engage in solution-oriented responses to environmental and social change.  Continue reading

A New Approach to Increasing the Use of Prescribed Fire in Oregon

By John Rizza and Emily Jane Davis, Oregon State University Extension


Person pouring fuel on a large pile of slash, with other parts of the pile smoking in the background

After mechanical treatments occur, prescribed fire can help to reduce the accumulation of fuels so that the landscape is more resilient to future wildfires. Photo: Emily Jane Davis.

The health and function of many of Oregon’s forest ecosystems have historically been driven by and supported with fire. The warming and drying climate conditions observed in recent years are adding to the likelihood of severe, large-scale disturbances. The data and literature suggest that wildfires, along with insects and disease issues, are altering the landscape at an accelerated rate (Schimel et al., 2021). After nearly two centuries of decreased fire frequency, our landscapes have accumulated heavy fuel loads that are increasingly likely to feed very large fires. The fire effects are also becoming more severe, which is contributing to the decline in the health of these valuable landscapes. Prescribed fire, an important tool for reinstating fire’s beneficial role in these landscapes, is challenging to implement. To address some of these barriers to prescribed fire use, efforts are underway in Oregon that take a new approach. Continue reading

Forest infrastructure: Preparing for Future Needs

By Chris Schnepf

Precipitation has a large influence on forests and how they function. Forests, and how they are managed or disturbed, also have huge effects on streams that flow from them and all related stream benefits, from fisheries to irrigated agriculture.

Truck driving through a muddy drivable dip

Drivable dips are an excellent low-maintenance approach to quickly draining runoff from forest roads. Photo: C. Schnepf.

Because high water quality (low temperatures, low amounts of sediment) is such an important value of forest streams, extra care is taken in forest management to maintain that quality. People often presume that timber harvesting in and of itself is the greatest threat to water quality, mentally envisioning sediments eroding from harvested slopes. But generally, you do not get much erosion from the soil surface of a harvested area, unless the soils are intrinsically prone to slumping (those soils may slump regardless of harvesting). Even after a harvest, the tree root systems remain, and soils are further bound to the site by understory vegetation and high levels of organic matter.

The biggest threat to water quality is less the harvested surface than it is the surface of roads and skid trails used to access that timber. Continue reading

Check it out: Is Climate Change or Forest Management Causing Megafires?

By Sonia A. Hall

Mountainous landscape with smoke billowing up from wildfires

The Bobcat Fire, one of 2020’s megafires that resurfaces the question of whether forest management or climate change is driving these fires.

In response to the recent—and in California, ongoing—megafires, many have been asking whether the cause is climate change or forest management. Erin Hanan wrote a blog article arguing that this is not the right question, because in many cases both contribute to what is happening. The drivers of fire activity are complex, and the relative importance of these different drivers varies from one location and ecosystem to another.

Check out Hanan’s article to explore the five key things we need to know about the causes of the current wildfire problem. Understanding these five things can help us navigate the question of what is driving increased fire activity and, most importantly, can help us determine what can be done to reduce such large fires in the future.

Forest Insects and Disease – Watching for Weirdness

By Chris Schnepf

Close up of a sapling with sporulating blister rust

Blister rust has to have very high humidity to successfully infect white pine needles. Photo: John Schwandt.

When it comes to climate change, many people focus on raw physics: how much more precipitation or less, the number of frost free days, how many days a year above or below certain temperatures, the length of the fire season, etc. These dimensions are all important to reflect on and study, but it may be that some of the most significant climate change effects could be things we can’t even imagine – what some people might refer to as “global weirding.”  Continue reading

The Need for Flexibility when Managing Grazing

Matthew C. Reeves, U.S. Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station

Grassy, green hillslope with some shrubs scattered around

Forage variability is expected to increase even further in the future, enhancing the need for flexibility in managing grazing on rangelands in the Pacific Northwest. Photo: Darrell Kilgore.

The amount of annual net primary production on rangelands forms the forage base upon which livelihoods and billions of dollars of commerce depend. Land managers and livestock producers in the Pacific Northwest deal with high year-to-year variations in net primary production, which often varies 40% between years due to changes in the amount of precipitation from one year to the next. And in the future, it is widely expected that climate change will lead to further increases in year-to-year variability, creating both challenges and opportunities for ranchers in the region. We therefore need to understand the longer-term changes in how net primary production and resulting forage production will vary, so we can explore new options that provide increased flexibility to ranchers and managers. Continue reading