By Andrew Bell, American Forests

ASCC Project Investigators Chris Swanston, Brian Palik and Linda Nagel. Credit: Stephen Handler/U.S. Forest Service

Chris Swanston is the Director of the Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science. His studies focus on climate adaptation and forest soil carbon. Together with American Forests and the University of Michigan, he is developing a robust project that will span regional soil data collection, stakeholder engagement and policy development in a best-practices model for addressing climate adaptation head-on.

I had the chance to speak with Chris at length about this exciting new project and his introduction to the Science Advisory Board at American Forests.

What made the opportunity to join the Science Advisory Board at American Forests so enticing?
American Forests is one of the premier forest conservation organizations in the country, so why wouldn’t I want to help guide the science-based decisions and policies that American Forests is pursuing? It was kind of a no-brainer, in other words.

How do you think the relationship with American Forests and with the other Science Advisory Board members can help you and your work?
In my experience on boards like this, I come in certainly with opinions and with experience, but I come in an active learning mode. I hope to gather information and perspectives and other people’s experiences, just as actively as I can give my own. So what I hope to gain is their perspectives and hard-won experience, so I can integrate that information right back into my own program.

Do you see yourself finding a climate science niche within the board?
Certainly, I imagine having a climate science niche. I run an organization that’s one of the premier forest climate adaptation organizations in the country. My group works with hundreds of forest managers. We interact with leadership of federal and state agencies in terms of providing science information from policymaking decisions. We produce the educational and training tools to help people who are working on the ground to make the decision that they need to make in a climate informed-manner. So certainly, I can bring in the experience that we’ve gained through time doing that to this advisory board. And likewise, as we talk to people about their jobs, we may come to them to discuss climate science and trends and how that may interact with their work.

Why is American Forests the perfect partner to embark on a project like this?
I think it worked quite well in the sense that American Forests is rethinking the way that they interact with their stakeholders now and moving into the future. They’re thinking about how they make decisions and how they roll those decisions out; how actively they work with people on the ground, and the ways that they choose to influence policy at multiple levels.

What are some critical gaps in national-level soil data that you would like to narrow with this project?
Soil carbon is something that a lot of people consider to be just a big black box. We know that there are lots of it and it’s often the bulk of the carbon that you’ll find in an ecosystem. Yet when model carbon into the future and integrate that modeling with climate change, and maybe with management, they often just assume that there’s going to be no change to the soil carbon. But we know from years of land management and soil carbon science that even just the management that we do can affect soil carbon. So, it’s very spurious to think that a combination of management and climate change won’t affect soil carbon.

What makes soil carbon data so difficult to collect at the site level?
You’ve got the issue of expense of getting someplace to sample. And then, once you’re there, there’s this issue of how many samples can you possibly take to adequately characterize the variability of the soil within that place… The whole thing has to be insured. So, there are all of these hidden costs that, until you actually pursue one of these campaigns, you don’t realize they’re there. And when you pursue the campaign, you’re crushed by the logistics and the fact that each piece has some cost associated with it.

What’s the most common misconception pertaining to forest soil carbon that you find among private landowners?
I think the biggest hump to get over is to remind them that while it’s not as beautiful as some of the birds that they appreciate or as lucrative as some of the timber that they care about or as gorgeous as the fall colors, the soils their forests grow in are what make all of those other things possible. You’re not going to hold anybody’s attention very long with that conversation, so you’ve got to give them a few key ideas about protecting those soils for the benefit of the other things they really do care about, and that’s what we try to do.

Do you think there’s a way to get landowners to think about and address issues with their forest soils without the aid of monetary incentives?
Yeah, I think so. The most important thing to do is to first ask them what do they care about the most; what do they care about the most in their forest? And then put everything else within the context of what they care about. And as long as we’re listening to them, we can help frame the things that we want to express in terms that they understand and within their value system. It always comes down to listen first, and then place the discussion within their value system.

How do you see this project contributing to American Forests’ work, mission and legacy?
It can help people think about how their conservation can explicitly and intentionally support greenhouse gas mitigation and climate adaptation, and do so in a way that still pursues their identified conservation goals. We’re looking for an “everybody wins” kind of solution.

See how we’re working together!

Learn more about Chris and the expertise he brings to American Forests via the U.S. Forest Service.