The (Very Slow) Race to Move Forests in Time to Save Them

This story was originally published on Mother Jones. It is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.
Oregon was the place I went to to see the future. The rapidly changing climate is what irritates me and keeps me awake at night. Perhaps you have felt the same. Recently, I became particularly interested in trees. California, where I reside, saw climate change result in the destruction of nearly 62,000,000 trees in 2016. Last year, California lost 4.2 million acres to fires. Because we humans depend on forests for so many things, including clean air, carbon sequestration and biodiversity, I wanted to find out what was in store.

I had read about scientists who not only studied the forest calamities but also worked to aid the trees in their migration. In May, I visited a stand of approximately 1,000 Douglas Firs in a US Forest Service nursery near Medford. The grove was located in the state's southwestern corner, between the Coast Range and the Cascades. Brad St. Clair is a Forest Service scientist, who has been studying the genetic adaptation of trees over the past two decades. He met me at the road. He is short and rugged and was built to adventure and tend to trees' lives. He arrived in a Sprinter van, loaded with all the outdoor gear, and he quickly got into his vehicle. After collecting seeds from 60 trees in Washington, Oregon, and California, he and his crew planted this stand of firs and eight others. They also grew the seedlings in a greenhouse. They sourced the seeds from up to 5,400 feet in Sierras, as well as as as low as the coast in California. The seedlings were then planted in intermixed clusters at each site to test how they would do in hotter and drier conditions than their original source. To put it another way, to test if they would make it in the future.

Douglas fir is a tall, narrow-trunked, evergreen that foresters and loggers love because of its strength, rapid growth and flexibility. It can also withstand climate changes of approximately 4 degrees Fahrenheit. Global average temperatures have risen by nearly 3 degrees in the past century, and most models predict that they will surpass the 4-degree threshold within the next few decades. They may even rise to 7 degrees by the year's end.

The nursery was flat and wide. All sides of the firs were covered in fallow land. St. Clair told me to wear safety glasses. He then ducked down and pulled away the outermost branches before slipping into the trees. I followed him. I followed him. Within just two steps, we were in a dense, veritable forest. It was as if a wardrobe had been opened to reveal a new world. It was hot at the edges, but it was refreshingly cool here as we moved through the Dapple.

The provenance of the trees we were standing under was marked by a sign on a PVC pipe. St. Clair explained that they came from Oregon Siskiyou, which is a dry area at a slightly higher elevation than ours. They were doing well because their native climate was not that different from Medfords. The trees grew smaller as we went on. They were still full and lush, but they became less dense. He pointed out that the next batch of trees was higher up in the Cascades. The trees couldn't grow as tall because they were less healthy in this new environment. After a while, the trees became taller, reaching three times my height before breaking into the sky. These trees were also from dry climates like Medford and found a happy home here, at least for the moment.