Why Climate-Smart Forest Restoration?

The climate crisis is taking a toll on forests across the United States. Landscapes from the thornforests of eastern Texas to the highest peaks of the western U.S. are being pummeled by extreme wildfire, scorching heat, deep drought and record-breaking storms.

With our forests increasingly at risk, it’s clear that the way we manage and restore these landscapes needs to evolve. American Forests’ climate-smart forest restoration tactics are helping to create resilient, adaptable conditions in forests across the country. This suite of forestry techniques aims to grow forests that can better withstand climate threats from wildfire to outbreaks of disease and pests.

How Climate-Smart Forest Restoration Works

American Forests’ climate-smart forest restoration work involves planning and implementing strategies to address current and future climate risks. The tactics we use vary from site to site and from state to state. The way we work in the mountain forests of Hawaii, for example, is very different from how we operate in California’s old-growth conifer landscapes. Depending on the site, our climate-smart reforestation tactics may include:

Climate-smart planning

American Forests works with partners, such as the Northern Institute for Applied Climate Science and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Climate Hubs, to incorporate climate science into our work. We use this scientific insight to support our local and regional forest restoration projects.

Planting species-diverse mixes of native trees

The more biodiverse an ecosystem, the quicker it tends to bounce back after a disturbance. With this in mind, American Forests plants a diverse collection of native trees suited to the environment of each site, including species that are not typically used in reforestation projects. We also monitor planting sites to see which species are naturally regenerating and use these observations to inform which types of trees we plant.

Planting trees where they will thrive in the future

Forests growing today are already out of sync with our current climate, much less the climate we can expect 50 years from now. As appropriate, American Forests uses seedlings from parent trees that grow in warmer, lower-lying areas and plants them in higher-altitude sites. This tactic, called “assisted gene flow,” helps forests adjust to climate change quicker than they can on their own. A more extreme version of this, “assisted migration,” involves planting species outside of their current range.

Removing invasive species and other plants that compete with seedlings

Controlling invasive plants and other vegetation before planting is critical for success. These plants are often able to outcompete native plants for water, sunlight and space. Dense stands of invasive grasses also provide habitat for pests that can kill seedlings.

Spacing seedlings to mimic healthy forest conditions

Traditional reforestation plants “pines in lines,” often in higher densities than would be found in a natural forest. In American Forests’ climate-resilient projects, we plant seedlings farther apart and in clumps of varying densities. This helps ensure each tree has enough water during droughts and helps stop wildfires from spreading from patch to patch. 

Setting controlled burns

Controlled burns, also known as prescribed fire, are an important way to foster the growth of healthy forests after tree planting is complete. Forest managers set low-intensity fires that clear away flammable underbrush and weed out weak seedlings. This helps to prevent severe wildfires in the future.

Selective thinning of overcrowded forests

Across many forests, particularly in the western U.S., the problem isn’t too few trees, but too many. Some areas in California have as many as six times the number of trees that grew there historically. Selective thinning involves removing smaller or unhealthy trees so that mature, healthy trees have more access to water, nutrients and sunlight. The trees that are removed may be turned into lumber or biomass energy, or “masticated” and left as a mulch on the forest floor.