Yellowstone regeneration
For a study looking at the ability of trees in Yellowstone National Park to recover from fire under climate conditions that are warmer and drier than they have been historically, researcher Winslow Hansen planted tree seeds in soils from areas of the park like this one, which recently burned.

Last week, at the Idaho Environmental Forum, Gov. Brad Little spoke a few simple words.

“Climate is changing, there’s no question about it,” he said. “Sometimes what you do from a regulatory standpoint might be counter to what the right thing to do is, but you’ve got to recognize it. It’s here. We’ve just got to figure out how we’re going to cope with it. And we’ve got to slow it down. Now, reversing it is going to be a big darn job.”

All Little did was to state simple facts, but in a political environment where the truth has been cynically attacked by a yearslong propaganda campaign aimed to convince Republican elected officials and voters that there is no problem, Little’s clear statement makes room for a rational discussion about policy.

A good policy to address climate change should be proportional to the problem. The problem is among the greatest in human history, and its impacts will be local.

Just a few days ago, scientists with the University of Wisconsin-Madison issued a disturbing projection following a multiyear forest experiment: Expect the beloved forests of Yellowstone National Park to be replaced by grasslands sometime around mid-century.

Thomas Moran, a member of the Hayden expedition sent to survey Yellowstone in 1871, wrote of a place of wonder: “...The route lay through a magnificent forest of pines and firs all growing straight as a ship’s mast, and growing but a few feet apart.”

Expect that your grandchildren will never see the world Hayden saw.

The experiment showed climate change is in the process of breaking the cycle of forest regeneration after wildfires in Yellowstone.

Wildfires are nothing new. They’ve marked the landscape for millions of years. The trees that evolved there are adapted to deal with it: After a fire, pine cones open up and drop seed, and the forest begins the process of regeneration. That’s how things have worked for as long as humans have inhabited the region.

But the experiment, performed by Columbia University doctoral fellow Winslow Hansen, shows that climate change means the seeds land in hotter, drier soil. Fewer of them sprout and develop into new trees. Over time, grasses replace them.

Hansen’s findings are in line with similar evidence.

A study published last year found a significant increase in “regeneration failure” (burned forests failing to grow back) in the Rocky Mountains between the late 20th Century and the early 21st Century. Another published in 2015 found that whitebark pine and lodgepole pine would be among the species most heavily impacted by climate change.

There is significant uncertainty in climate change projections. It may take longer than scientists’ best estimate for Yellowstone’s lodgepole and fir forests to become grassland.

It could also happen sooner.

A study published in November, for example, found that oceans are warming much faster than previously thought, meaning sea-level rise, coral bleaching and other impacts on ocean ecosystems are happening sooner than scientists anticipated. That could happen to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem as well.

All of these projections rely on one assumption — that we do nothing to curtail greenhouse gas emissions. It could be that we’re too late to save Yellowstone, but it isn’t certain. To some extent, the future is up to us, though it becomes more cemented with every day of delay.

If Little takes his commendable statement seriously, he should move quickly to pursue policies such as establishing goal dates for state carbon neutrality, incentivizing wind and solar deployment, and aiding nuclear energy development.

Start the “big darn job” today.

The Post Register’s editorial board consists of Publisher Travis Quast, Managing Editor Monte LaOrange and editorial writer Bryan Clark. Clark can be reached at 208-542-6751.

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