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USDA examines drought effects on forests, rangelands

Forest Service report establishes comprehensive baseline of data on drought resilience and adaptation practices.

On Feb. 1, the U.S. Forest Service released a new report, "Effects of Drought on Forests & Rangelands in the United States: A Comprehensive Science Synthesis," that provides a national assessment of peer-reviewed scientific research on the impact drought has on U.S. forests and rangelands. This report will help the Forest Service better manage forests and grasslands, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announcement said.

"Our forests and rangelands are national treasures, and because they are threatened, we are threatened," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said. "This report confirms what we are seeing: that every region of the country is impacted by the direct and indirect effects of drought conditions and volatile weather patterns. Sixty million Americans rely on drinking water that originates on our 193 million acres of national forest and grasslands. They support 200,000 jobs and contribute over $13 billion to local economies every year."

The report establishes a comprehensive baseline of available data land managers can use to test how well their efforts to improve drought resilience and adaptation practices are working nationwide.

Major findings from the report include:

* Drought projections suggest that some regions of the U.S. will become drier and that most will have more extreme variations in precipitation.

* Even if current drought patterns remained unchanged, warmer temperatures will amplify drought effects.

* Drought and warmer temperatures may increase risks of large-scale insect outbreaks and larger wildfires, especially in the western U.S.

* Drought and warmer temperature may accelerate tree and shrub death, changing habitats and ecosystems in favor of drought-tolerant species.

* Forest-based products and values — such as timber, water, habitat and recreation opportunities — may be negatively affected.

* Forest and rangeland managers can mitigate some of these effects and build resiliency in forests through appropriate management actions.

"Since 2000, fire seasons have grown longer, and the frequency, size and severity of wildland fires have increased," Vilsack said. "Among the many benefits of having this solid baseline data is the improved ability to identify where restoration work can help forests adapt and prosper while minimizing the threat and impact of future wildfires."

The assessment — a broad review of existing drought research — provides input to the reauthorized National Integrated Drought Information System that Congress established in 2006 and the National Climate Assessment, which is produced every four years to project major trends and evaluate the effects of global climate change on forests, agriculture, rangelands, land and water resources, human health and welfare and biological diversity.

Edited by Forest Service scientists, in partnership with Duke University, the document provides a valuable new tool to inform discussions, planning and implementation of adaptation strategies for land managers and policy-makers. The collaborative effort, authored by 77 scientists from the Forest Service, other federal agencies, research institutions and universities across the U.S., examines ways to understand and mitigate the effects of drought on forests and rangelands, including the 193 million acres of National Forest System lands.

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