Featured Researcher Dave Peterson, Adapting Our Forests to Climate Change

DAVE PETERSON has over 35 years of forest ecology research under his belt. But if you press him to describe how he sees himself and his current work, the word that comes up most often is “facilitator.”

Peterson is a research biologist with the U.S. Forest Service where for the last seven years he’s been hard at work trying to make climate adaptation a part of the daily operations of this federal agency. In his words, Peterson wants to “mainstream” climate change adaptation into everything the Forest Service does, from forest restoration to updating infrastructure. To accomplish this, Peterson has been at the forefront of developing a series of far-reaching vulnerability assessment reports and adaptation plans for individual forests across the U.S. West. The reports and plans come out of a series of what Peterson calls “adaptation partnerships” between the Forest Service, climate scientists, and area stakeholders. To date, some six partnerships have been kicked-off by Peterson and his colleagues.

CIRC worked with Peterson on two partnerships. One, the Blue Mountains Adaptation Partnership, is reviewed in this month’s CIRCulator.

What makes this work possible, says Peterson, is dialog.

“The nexus of these partnerships is getting the scientific part to connect with management experience,” says Peterson. “I’m a facilitator in that.”

The idea behind the partnerships, says Peterson, is to accumulate a body of scientific knowledge about climate change impacts that resource managers can put into action on a forest-by-forest basis. To do that, Peterson says, requires facilitating conversations between climate scientists and Forest Service resource managers.

“We learned very quickly that the partnership model, where you have scientists working directly with resource managers, seems to work best,” says Peterson. “The reason is there’s enough complexity and enough uncertainty in the climate projections that we need the scientific expertise, but we also need to be grounded in real issues and applications in the field.”

That might sound like common sense but, Peterson says, at times it can be a tough sell.

“There are a lot of scientists who are just happy to stay within their own realm of theoretical science,” says Peterson. “But we need folks who are willing to sit down and deal with resource managers and make that connection.”

That’s where Peterson comes in. The 61-year-old is amiable, likeable, and down-to-earth, but he also has a clipped, thoughtful way of talking that suggests a quiet, solitary man, hardly the sort of personality who is comfortable working a busy room for hours on end. That’s because, by his own admission, facilitating doesn’t come naturally to Peterson.

Since he was a boy growing up in Illinois, Peterson has preferred the solitude of the forest to the frenetic hustle of the city. Today, this character trait is revealed in part by his choice of home. Peterson lives with his family on a 20-acre tree farm in Skagit County, Washington, 60 miles north of Seattle. The property contains some 10,000 trees, 3,000 of which Peterson and family planted as part of a restoration effort. They manage the land for timber, firewood, Christmas trees, and as a wildlife habitat.

Peterson’s love of the outdoors is what got him into forest science to begin with. Now that love is helping him work outside his comfort zone. He’s got his work cut out for him. Under climate change, forests are facing a myriad of compounding challenges.

In his adaptation work, Peterson is frequently confronted with what he refers to as the “usual suspects” for forests under climate change: forest disturbances, including potential outbreaks of invasive and endemic insects and increased frequency and intensity of wildfires; decreasing snowpack and all that entails, including declining summer flows, with potential effects for aquatic habitat of salmon and other species; increased magnitude of peak stream flows in the winter and spring, with potential damaging effects to roads, culverts, and other infrastructure; and shifting species habitats, including the steady movement of tree species to higher latitudes and altitudes as our planet warms.

The usual suspects also play a role in another project of Peterson’s, the Adaptation Library. Derived from the Adaptation Partners reports, the Adaptation Library is an effort to provide resource managers with a clearinghouse of climate research as it relates to forests and forest impacts. To that end, the Adaptation Library breaks down the available research by how it might be applied to impacts, from water resources to recreation and everything in between. One of the major reasons for the library, says Peterson, is that he and his team members wanted to avoid duplication of effort whenever possible and “not reinvent the wheel” for each forest reported on.

“A lot of the work is synthesis,” explains Peterson. “Often it’s not even original research or even original analysis, but a pulling together of existing information.”

When asked about what he thought the legacy of his work might be. Peterson gave this response:

“I think it would be that I was able to start the process of making connections between good science and good resource management,” says Peterson. “As a friend of mine always says, ‘Climate change adaptation is not a sprint, it’s a marathon, and we’re just in the first couple of miles here.’”


Resources: Adaptation Partners

Blue Mountains Adaptation Partnership

Adaptation Library

Northern Rockies Adaptation Partnership

Photo: Dave Peterson in his natural habitat. (Photo Credit: Dave Peterson.)


Nathan Gilles is the managing editor of The Climate Circulator, and oversees CIRC’s social media accounts and website. When he’s not writing for CIRC, Nathan works as a freelance science writer. Other Posts by this Author. 


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