U.S. Forest Service

Partnerships help private landowners tackle effects of climate change

Sep. 23, 2022
A picture of a densely forested area with sunlight poking through the tree canopy.

A northern hardwood forest with a standing dead tree, called a ‘snag.’ Snags support wildlife by providing shelter and food, and contribute to climate change mitigation by storing carbon. (USDA Forest Service photo by Maria Janowiak)

As the weather turns cooler and seasons shift to autumn, people are drawn to the vibrant colors of New England’s forests. At the same time, few people may realize the complexity of these landscapes, intricate patchworks of private and public ownership where more than 75% of forests are privately owned by family forest owners and companies in the forest products sector.

The complexity of these landscapes includes the effects of a changing climate, which touches all lands without regard to ownership, boundaries or use. This poses a few questions: How do we sustain the health of forest landscapes across so many different ownerships? And how do we help the millions of family forest owners ensure their forests can adapt to changing conditions?

Addressing climate change in complex landscapes involves good, old-fashioned working together. People and organizations can collectively share questions, knowledge and specialized expertise, which is already proving to be a successful approach to help address climate change.


A picture of a wooded area with bushes and grass in the foreground and smaller diameter trees in the background.

Dry conditions, deer herbivory, and insect pests have contributed to a lack of tree regeneration at this forest that supplies a major drinking water reservoir in Providence, Rhode Island. A variety of tree species expected to be better adapted to future conditions have since been planted to improve the resilience of the forest. (Photo courtesy Christopher Riely, Providence Water)

Take Massachusetts. The state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation has a new type of program focused on family forest owners simply called Climate Forestry. This model program, supported by a team from multiple conservation organizations and municipal governments, helps people to understand how their forests are changing and what actions they can take to help ensure their forests stay healthy over the long run.

To address climate change, it’s helpful to gather information about how forests across the region are affected. Even more important is to consider this information in the context of the many different values that people have for their forests. Every family forest owner is as unique as their parcel of land. The reasons for owning land vary widely—with scenery, wildlife habitat, privacy, nature protection, and family legacy among the most popular reasons.


A picture of a wooded area along the side of a small creek.

Mature hemlock cast shade over a stream, helping to keep the water cool enough for fish and other aquatic life to thrive. This function is becoming increasingly important as air and water temperatures warm due to climate change. (USDA Forest Service photo by Maria Janowiak)

The Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science, a Forest Service-led collaborative, highlights the importance of starting conversations about climate change with landowner values and characteristics of the land in mind. Climate change becomes easier to think about when you can focus on how specific changes, like extreme drought or rain—or both—can affect a specific property. Once these factors are identified, foresters can then outline a plan of action for reducing current forest stressors to help the land become better adapted to what the future may bring.

This approach to considering and addressing climate change is effective, with more than 500 real-world management projects across the U.S. using the Adaptation Workbook. This process forms the core of training and resources developed for the professional foresters who are working with woodland owners in Massachusetts.


A picture of an adult and a small child walking on a trail through a wooded area.

A woman and girl walk along a riverside path at The Fen in Woodstock, Connecticut, during a 2019 forester-led walk as a living classroom to talk about managing for climate resilience. (Photo courtesy of Lisa Hayden, New England Forestry Foundation)

“Our agency is receiving tremendous interest from both landowners and consulting foresters to better understand how climate may affect Massachusetts’ forests and the woods they own,” said Jennifer Fish, director of the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation’s service forestry program. “Climate is on everyone’s mind these days and we are excited to connect landowners to the information they need to address climate risks on their land.”

More work like this is on the horizon as more forest owners look for ways to bolster climate adaptation and carbon benefits on their forests. Depending on the location and the type of forest, actions may include maintaining a variety of tree species or responding to forest-changing events like declines in forest health from insect infestation, natural disasters such as tornados and hurricanes, and other forest disturbances.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced $3 billion to pilot new revenue streams for America’s climate-smart farmers, ranchers and forest landowners, with additional projects to come. Of that investment, USDA awarded $30 million to the New England Forestry Foundation and more than 20 partners to identify climate-informed forestry practices for the six New England states. The New England project specifically includes direct incentives to help family forest owners implement practices that will reduce risks to climate-related stressors, enhance carbon benefits, and create sustainable wood products.


A picture of a small group of people walking single-file through a field with grass up to their shoulders.

A group of woodland owners and neighbors cross a field to the Morneau Farm forest, owned and managed by Opacum Land Trust, in Southbridge, Massachusetts, in 2019. Photo courtesy of Lisa Hayden, New England Forestry Foundation)

“This award creates game-changing incentives for improving forest health, increasing carbon storage, and growing climate-oriented economic development and investment,” said Robert Perschel, executive director of the New England Forestry Foundation. “NEFF has worked closely with private forest landowners in Massachusetts and other New England states since our founding almost 80 years ago.  These private forest owners are now critical to ensuring the long-term vitality of the region’s forests, and we are excited to be able to focus on reaching more woodland owners so that we can have a greater impact.”

The recently released Forest Service Climate Adaptation Plan highlights the need for such diverse strategies for responding to climate change. The plan recognizes that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach that works and that specific actions will need to be tailored to local conditions. The potential to engage with millions of woodland owners across a diverse landscape will involve flexibility and ingenuity in finding new ways to implement climate-informed practices.

Learn more about forests and climate change at USDA Northern Forests Climate Hub.

Maria Janowiak
Northern Research Station

Editor’s note: Maddy Baroli, a climate adaptation specialist at the Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science, contributed to this article. Maria Janowiak is the acting director of the Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science & USDA Northern Forests Climate Hub. This feature is published in conjunction with Climate Week NYC, the 14th year that experts from around the world, including Forest Service Chief Randy Moore, gather in person and virtually to share information related to climate change.