Land Resilience Study

Introduction

Effects from a warming and changing climate are already having an impact on our region, and are projected to intensify. Additional stresses from longer, drier summers and warmer, wetter winters will bring broad, compounding threats to the forests, farms, and wildlife habitat we are working to conserve and steward for future generations.

Stewarded for millennia by its indigenous people, the Olympic Peninsula has long been recognized as a place of extraordinary natural beauty and abundant natural resources deserving of conservation. This resulted in the establishment (in 1897) of the Olympic National Park and associated wilderness designations. Well over a million acres of public land managed as wilderness encompasses the center, and the outer coast, of the peninsula, functioning as an ecological reserve that retains much of its ancient ecological heritage. The clean water that runs from the mountain slopes still supports viable populations of salmon, recharges the aquifers, and supports the surrounding population of approximately 115,000 people in Jefferson and Clallam counties, and the Olympic Peninsula’s Sovereign Tribal Nations.

While there is much federally protected land on the Olympic Peninsula, there is still an opportunity to protect and enhance:

  • The climate-resilient habitat connectivity between the wilderness areas and the surrounding lowlands, between the other existing private and protected lands, and between the forested slopes and the sea
  • The climate-resilient working forestlands, and to increase the sequestration values of these forests through ecological forest management.
  • The climate-resilient working farmland valleys that produce abundant local foods for the growing population.
  • The community conservation lands that have the features that make this area such a desirable place to live.

While much good work has been accomplished in this area to permanently protect lands that have significant conservation values, those areas that have the most resiliency and mitigation values have not yet been identified. As responsible stewards of the land in our care and proactive advocates for land needing protection, it is essential to understand how climate-related impacts such as changing rain and snow patterns, stronger storms, changes in animal migration and life cycles, higher temperatures, more droughts and wildfires, less snow and ice, changes in plant life cycles, and warmer marine waters will affect different areas of the Olympic Peninsula.

In 2020, with support from the Land Trust Alliance, Sustainable Path Foundation, and generous community donors, Jefferson Land Trust and North Olympic Land Trust conducted a Land Resilience Study — a comprehensive update to our spatial conservation planning, with a focus on climate resiliency across virtually all of the Olympic Peninsula.

We worked with an expert GIS contractor, Core GIS, and used The Nature Conservancy’s Conserving Nature’s Stage data, along with other available spatial planning data to look deeply at the conservation values of our land-base to identify the places and features that will most likely retain their conservation values in a warming and changing climate.

Our goal is to use the results of this analysis to influence our land conservation project selection priorities, which will result in more resilient lands being protected in our region across all four pillars of our conservation work: Habitat and Biodiversity, Working Forests, Working Farmland, and Community.

We also expect this effort to influence our organizational cultures and awareness regarding climate change, our outreach and communications related to climate change, our conservation partnerships, and our stewardship work.

Land Resilience Study Questions:

In the true sense of the word “conservation,” this Land Resilience Study is focused on the identification of those places that have the highest likelihood of retaining conservation value in perpetuity.

Considering climate predictions for the region 30, 50, or even 100 years from now, some of the questions we tried to answer with the study are outlined below.

Habitat and Biodiversity:

  • Where are those lands and features that are most likely to retain their ecological integrity and features that support the existing and migrating biodiversity present and predicted?
  • Where are the corridors between these features that will support future migration and connectivity?
  • Where are those habitat lands with high carbon sequestration values (i.e., salt marshes, coastal wetlands, old forests, etc.)?
  • What biodiversity will be migrating here and where might it go?

Working Forests:

  • Where are those forestlands most likely to retain their robust productivity for timber production and other ecological services?
  • Where are those forestlands that have the potential to sequester the most carbon depending on their land management methods?
  • Which merchantable species will be most resilient and productive?
  • What merchantable species will be more resistant to disease and infestation by insects and fungi, and to fire?

Working Farms:

  • Where are those agricultural lands most likely to retain their robust productivity for food and fiber production and other ecological services?
  • Where are those agricultural lands that would continue to have water availability?
  • Which of these lands are close to populated areas where the farmer can market and serve their community?

Community:

  • Where are those natural and open space areas that support the quality of life of visitors and residents (i.e., scenic value, recreation areas, trail corridors, access to shoreline, etc.)?
  • Where are the most appropriate areas for new and continued development and increased density?
  • What areas are critical for aquifer recharge?

Land Resilience Study Findings

Using more than 90 data sets drawn from 18 public and private sources, our Land Resilience Study determined that:

  1. There are many areas on the Olympic Peninsula with topoclimatic diversity and other features that suggest resiliency according to the best available science. This is an important step in protecting and stewarding the habitat areas that have the best chance of preserving the biodiversity that has existed here for thousands of years. In addition, conservation of the connectivity between intact and protected ecosystems will increase the chances for dependent species to continue to move and adapt as long as this climate disruption continues.
  2. Our primarily forested land base is a mostly resilient landscape, and the coniferous forests of this region can store a significant amount of carbon. Retention of these forests, and advancing ecological forest management where appropriate to help enhance the carbon sequestration and other resiliency values of them, will be a significant land conservation consideration for the 21st century.
  3. Farmland also currently holds a significant amount of carbon, and, with the implementation of certain management practices, could sequester even more. Water retention in the soil is expected to decrease in the coming decades, challenging the productivity of existing farmland, and potentially stressing in-stream water availability. Those agricultural lands that have the potential to retain more moisture, and that would respond to improved stewardship, will be some of the most resilient in the foreseeable future.
  4. The Olympic Peninsula is becoming a climate refuge, hosting a growing population of people moving from areas that are becoming too difficult in which to live. Where will these people live and what will help sustain a high quality of life? Access to shoreline, livable towns and cities, scenic values, and regular opportunities for connection to the land, will all be important, and this planning effort has helped the land trusts study the current and future potential related growth patterns.

To watch a presentation of the study’s results with key maps click here.

How We Will Use the Data and Work Together:

The Land Resilience Study’s findings will help focus Jefferson Land Trust and North Olympic Land Trust’s limited conservation and stewardship resources on the Olympic Peninsula lands that can build ecological, economic, and social resilience, mitigate climate change, and help us convene a coalition of community partners to take collective action.

We intend to continue to work together to identify cross-county projects on which to work collaboratively, and opportunities to share the study’s findings throughout our communities.


Study Footnote: Recognition and Credit:

In 2014-2015 Jefferson Land Trust and North Olympic Land Trust participated in a regional planning effort organized by the North Olympic Development Council that resulted in a “Climate Change Preparedness Plan for the North Olympic Peninsula.” Land conservation is identified in several areas of the plan, and this conservation planning effort is helping us achieve some of the important adaptation strategies listed.

However, given the scale of the challenges we face, it is clear that more must be done to identify the most resilient, and threatened, lands in our area, and this planning effort helps us take a big step forward as a stakeholder in this shared strategy.

In 2018, Washington Sea Grant and the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group also published a report that included sea-level rise projections for sites all along the Washington coastline, including Clallam and Jefferson counties. Our spatial analysis builds upon that prior planning work and numerous other efforts.