Regulation Database – Forest Service

Strategic Framework for Responding to Climate Change

In October of 2008, the Forest Service introduced a “Strategic Framework for Responding to Climate Change,” which gave general instructions for how the USFS would address climate change in the coming years. Measures are taken at the site level, as ecosystems and climate risks vary from site to site. Seven key goals are listed to help carry out the mission: advancing understanding of science, increasing adaptation capacity of forests, promoting mitigation strategies, integrating climate change into policy, reducing the USFS environmental footprint, education outreach, and establishing partnerships.

Global Change Research Strategy, 2009-2019 

This document describes how climate change should be accounted for in the scientific missions of USDA agencies. It identifies four priority elements: (1) understanding the effects of climate change on natural and managed ecosystems; (2) developing knowledge, institutional models, and tools to enable adaptation; (3) developing knowledge and tools for greenhouse gas mitigation; and (4) providing science-based decision support to USDA agencies and other stakeholders.

National Roadmap for Responding to Climate Change

In February of 2011, the Forest Service released the National Roadmap for Responding to Climate Change, which aims to help units achieve the goals outlined in the 2008 Strategic Framework for Responding to Climate Change. The document, which recognizes the Forest Service’s role in maintaining ecosystem health for future generations, outlines four ways the USFS can address climate change: organizational capacity, partnerships and conservation education, adaptation, and mitigation.  The idea of tracking progress by the use of a performance scorecard is introduced. The roadmap contains specific goals including preventing soil erosion, protecting watersheds and natural resources, and providing ecosystem connectivity in order to make landscapes more resilient to climate change. Additionally, it calls for ecosystem vulnerability assessments, monitoring, and public awareness campaigns.

Climate Change Adaptation Plan (2014)

The 2014 Adaptation Plan reiterates USFS’s strategic goals and provides a detailed update on implementation (consisting of a register that describes all actions that have been initiated, performance metrics, accomplishments to date, and barriers to implementation). One of the listed activities is to revise LRMPs under the 2012 Planning Rule and directives to ensure that they adequately address climate change. Another activity is to increase the pace of restoration activities so that landscapes are more resilient to climate change, specifically through Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Projects (see below).

Strategic Plan: FY 2015-2020 (2015)

The first strategic goal outlined in USFS’s 2015 Strategic Plan is to sustain U.S. forests and grasslands by fostering resilient, adaptive ecosystems, mitigating wildfire risk, and conserving open space. The implementing actions correspond with those highlighted in the 2014 Adaptation Plan.

Guidance: Climate Change Considerations in Project Level NEPA Analysis

This 2009 guidance document directs USFS officials to account for the effects of a project on climate change (e.g., greenhouse gas emissions and carbon storage impacts) and the effects of climate change on a project when conducting NEPA reviews. The guidance discusses the types of GHG emissions that should be accounted for in NEPA documents and the circumstances where quantitative vs. qualitative analysis are appropriate. It also highlights specific examples of climate change impacts to be considered, such as the effects of expected shifts in rainfall and temperature patterns on the seed stock selection for reforestation after timber harvest. It notes that an assessment of changing conditions and trends should underpin not only the impact assessment, but also the project purpose and need, and the selection of the proposed action and alternatives. It also recommends that agency officials consider climate change prior to initiating the NEPA process, and to identify proposals that meet the USFS mission while also enhancing resilience or adaptive capacity of resources to the potential impacts of climate change (such as projects designed to restore the health, resilience, and productivity of forested ecosystems).

Climate Change Performance Scorecard

In August 2011, the Forest Service released a guidance document that outlined the finalized climate change performance scorecard used to achieve the National Roadmap for Responding to Climate Change. The scorecard aimed to achieve the “organizational capacity” goal of the roadmap, and tracked unit progress from 2011-2015. The card contained ten goals in the form of questions in four dimensions, focusing on awareness-building and operations development. Each question had specific targets to allow a unit to determine if they reached the goal. Each unit was expected to achieve seven of the ten goals by 2015. Scorecard reporting was done on an annual basis, and by FY 2015, 89% of units had reported implementation of at least seven out of ten elements. The Office of Sustainability & Climate Change will release a revised Scorecard in FY 2017, which will focus on implementing climate-informed land management.

Planning Rule for Forest Resiliency

Finalized on April 9, 2012, the US Forest Service adopted a new National Forest System land management planning rule that applies to the 155 national forests, 20 grasslands, and 1 prairie that comprise the NFS. This rule was based on a modified version of Alternative A presented in the Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, National Forest System Land Management Planning (USDA, Forest Service, 2011) (PEIS).  The rule sets specific requirements for the development and structure of all management plans, the purpose of which is to ensure that all management plans are environmentally sustainable, and that NFS lands are more resilient to climate change. This is done by requiring management plans to take into account the holistic impact the plan would have on the landscape, including species-specific, watershed, air, and soil impacts. This planning rule replaces the final 2000 land management planning rule.

NFS Land Management Planning Directives

In 2015, USFS amended the Forest Service Manual and Land Management Planning Handbook to implement the 2012 Planning Rule. The revisions contain more detailed directions on how agency officials should account for the effects of climate change and pursue adaptive management in the context of specific NFS planning and management activities. Some notable provisions include:

  • Section 22.11, Plan Components for Ecosystem Integrity and Diversity: “In light of possible changes in species composition under the effects of climate change and with a focus on restoration, the Agency designs plan components to provide ecological conditions to sustain functional ecosystems based on a future viewpoint. Functional ecosystems are those that sustain critical ecological functions over time to provide ecosystem services.”
  • Section 32.13, Identifying Monitoring Questions and Indicators for Climate Change and Other Stressors: “The plan monitoring program must contain one or more monitoring questions and associated indicators to determine whether there are measurable changes on the plan area resulting from climate change and other stressors. … Interacting stressors may include fire, insects, invasive species, loss of spatial connectivity, disruption of natural disturbance regimes, geologic hazards, water withdrawals and diversions, and changes in social, economic, and cultural conditions that affect the plan area, among others.”

Documents Amended by the 2015 Directives:

  • FAQs – Questions and Answers on the 2012 Planning Rule Final Directives

Ecosystem Restoration Policy Directive

This policy directive, issued as an amendment to the USFS Manual, establishes a framework for restoring and maintaining resilient ecosystems that will have greater capacity to withstand stressors and recover from disturbances, including those caused by climate change. It requires land and resource managers to plan, authorize, implement, monitor and evaluate “ecological restoration activities” and provides guidance on how managers should implement this directive. It also provides detailed definitions for key terms such as “adaptive capacity,” “genetic diversity,” “disturbance,” “ecological integrity,” “ecosystem service,” and “natural range of variation,” “resilience” and “restoration.” It replaces an interim policy on ecological restoration and resilience from 2008.

Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration (CFLR) Program 

The CFLR program, established by Congress in 2009, supports the development and implementation of collaborative, science-based ecosystem restoration projects on priority forest landscapes. USFS cited this program as a potential vehicle for climate change adaptation and resilience initiatives in its 2014 Adaptation Plan.

Landscape Conservation Cooperation Network

USFS is a member of the Landscape Conservation Cooperation Network, which was launched by the Department of Interior in 2010 through Secretarial Order 3289. The network connects federal, state, local and tribal governments and other stakeholders to manage landscape conservation efforts across jurisdictional boundaries. This network is one tool that USFS is using to address the effects of climate change on the NFS.

Genetic Resource Management Program

USFS is implementing a Genetic Resource Management Program in accordance with commitments announced in its adaptation plans and strategies. In 2012, USFS published a report outlining the goals, principles, and recommendations for enhancing forest resilience and resistance through such a program. The FY2016 Annual Report for the National Forest Genetics Lab contains the latest updates about the program.

Carbon Assessments (2015)

The Forest Service has developed regional carbon assessment reports (whitepapers) to help forest managers and the public understand how much carbon is stored in forest ecosystems and harvested wood products. The baseline forest carbon reports provide information from the Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) data on carbon stocks and trends for seven different forest ecosystem carbon pools – above-ground live tree, below-ground live tree, standing dead, understory, down dead wood, forest floor and soil organic carbon – for the baseline period 1990 to 2013 (and 2005 to 2013, truncation of the longer baseline). These reports also provide estimates of carbon stored in HWP over longer time periods depending upon data availability. This is provided as a nationally consistent data set with which forest managers can better understand geographic differences and important trends.

Vulnerability Assessments

USFS has conducted climate change vulnerability assessments for NFS resources, including:

Technical Support Tools

USFS provides the following technical support tools for forest managers (including but not limited to USFS personnel):

NEPA Regulations

Deregulatory action: On November 19, 2020, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) finalized revisions of its regulations under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The amendments expand categorical exclusions, which allow the USFS to conduct projects with limited environmental review. The final rule creates six new categorical exclusions, including for forest restoration and resilience, recreational sites, and road management. USFS deferred finalizing other proposed changes to its NEPA regulations until the agency can reconcile them with recent amendments to the Council on Environmental Quality's NEPA regulations, which apply across the federal government.

Litigation: On January 8, 2021, a coalition of environmental groups challenged the USFS NEPA revisions in court.

Tongass National Forest

Deregulatory action: on October 29, 2020, the U.S. Forest Service published a final decision exempting the Tongass National Forest from the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule, which prohibits tree harvest and road construction within certain protected areas.  The Tongass is the largest national forest in the United States, and is thought to play a significant role in storing carbon.

Litigation: On December 23, 2020, a lawsuit filed in the federal district court for the District of Alaska challenged the final rule exempting the Tongass National Forest from the Roadless Area Conservation Rule. Organized Village of Kake v. Perdue (D. Alaska 1:20-cv-00011).

Reregulatory action: On February 1, 2021, the Biden administration put a temporary stop to road construction and logging in roadless areas of national forests while officials decide whether the work meshes with environmental and climate policy goals. In a memorandum to the Forest Service, the USDA explained that roadless-area proposals and other pending decisions must be elevated to higher levels at USDA for review by February 12. The directive could affect or reverse the decision by the previous administration to exempt the Tongass National Forest from the Roadless Rule.

Reregulatory action: On July 15, 2021, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced a new Southeast Alaska Sustainability Strategy through which USDA will consult with Tribes and Alaska Native corporations, and engage partners and communities in a collaborative process to invest approximately $25 million in financial and technical resources in sustainable opportunities for economic growth and community well-being and identify priorities for future investments. USDA will also end large-scale old growth timber sales on the Tongass National Forest and will instead focus management resources to support forest restoration, recreation and resilience, including for climate, wildlife habit and watershed improvement. Small and micro old growth sales will still be offered for community consumption and cultural uses such as totem poles, canoes and tribal artisan use. USDA also announced that it will initiate a rulemaking later in the summer that will propose to restore 2001 Roadless Rule protections on the Tongass National Forest.