Photo by Brent Sagnotti/TNC Photo Contest 2018

Showing the Way: Managing the World’s Most Biodiverse Conifer Forests for Climate Resilience

Last updated on January 25th, 2024

“When I got up to the crest along the trail, I had amazing vistas of forests rolling along the ridges for miles south to Mount Shasta in California and north to Mount McLoughlin in Oregon,” Connie Best remembers. “It really struck me that we will never heal our climate without amping up the power of these forests to capture excess carbon from the atmosphere and lock it up for a long time. It is so critical to sustain healthy, resilient forests so they can help save us from climate catastrophe.”

Connie, the Pacific Forest Trust’s (PFT) co-founder, has been working with private and public partners for 18 years to secure the conservation Southern Oregon’s forests – the most biodiverse forest on earth. This huge landscape, situated at the junction of the Cascade and the Siskiyou mountains along the divide between the Rogue River and Klamath River basins, supports more species of conifers than anywhere else in the world. That diversity — and an array of rare plants — is why the Cascade-Siskiyou area has been designated an Area of Global Botanical Significance according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, an organization dedicated to protecting biodiversity. With rugged topography, unique soils, abundant water, and corridors for wildlife migration in every direction, the region, which includes the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, is a critical stronghold for biodiversity as climate change accelerates.

Having conserved more than 10,000 acres in this region, mostly within the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, PFT is now on the verge of purchasing 1,120 acres along the Siskiyou Crest, just west of Interstate 5 and a short ride from the beautiful town of Ashland, Oregon. This is the largest unprotected, privately-owned forest property at the headwaters of Neil Creek, a major tributary to the Rogue River. PFT will be actively managing the Mount Ashland Demonstration Forest as a model of how forestry focused on enhancing climate benefits can meet the moment for people and wildlife. 

We call the property a “super-wildway,” connecting the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument with the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. It neighbors other forest properties conserved by private landowners with assistance from PFT, creating a nexus of private-public lands managed for imperiled species and biodiversity. Such large, intact landscapes are critical to climate resilience. Threatened wolves, Pacific fisher, marten, and birds like the northern spotted owl all attest to the critical connections provided by the Mount Ashland Forest.

We can see that the climate in which these forests originally flourished has already changed — and the forests are changing, too, as the region is already hotter and drier. It is critical to act now to protect the treasure-house of biodiversity and forest carbon in the Cascade-Siskiyou region. After 100 years of fire suppression, loss of Indigenous management and a focus on commercial wood production, we urgently need to put the best science to work to help sustain this refuge. Every acre of this forest land has more than 100 tons of carbon dioxide stored in its trees — and can add tons more each year with careful management.

PFT is excited to meet the challenge of restoring fire-adapted habitats and protecting forest carbon. With the advice of a team of forest scientists and tribal cultural practitioners, our management will enhance habitats to improve adaptation options for plants and wildlife, restore more resilient forest structure, improve forest health, reduce the threat of catastrophic fire, and increase lasting carbon stores. Our strategy will focus on reducing the density of small trees, conserving, and restoring the dominance of older, larger trees, creating more variety in spacing of the trees so fire can’t spread as easily, and enhancing the property’s significant spring-fed wetlands and stream-side hardwoods. 

“The climate crisis simply won’t be solved without fostering more resilient forests. And the fastest, surest way to pull more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during this critical time is to conserve existing Pacific Northwest forests and restore the big, old trees that used to characterize them,” Dr. Jerry Franklin, Professor Emeritus at the University of Washington, PFT Board member and world-renowned forest ecologist told us. 

This is just one example of the powerful role that non-profit land trusts can play in helping America’s forests and grasslands adapt to climate change, while simultaneously protecting the carbon already stored on our landscapes. Land trusts are poised to use nature to slow climate change, while also helping nature itself adapt. Research indicates that approximately 21 percent of the reductions needed in the United States can occur through “natural climate solutions” — in other words, by working with nature. 

PFT’s acquisition of the Mount Ashland Forest is supported by grants from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board — funded through lottery proceeds — and the Land Trust Alliance, a national nonprofit working to save land, strengthen communities, and create a healthier planet by supporting land trusts. The Alliance recognizes, as President Andrew Bowman has noted, that “we need to protect a large network of lands to prevent a dramatic loss of biodiversity, and we need to conserve and restore lands at scale to help mitigate climate change.”

To advance this work in the carbon-rich landscapes of the Pacific Northwest, the Alliance partnered with charitable foundations to launch the Pacific Northwest Resilient Landscapes Initiative. The Initiative funds land trust projects that help build and secure this network. PFT’s Mount Ashland Forest fits these goals perfectly, supporting durable carbon storage while stitching together a vital wildlife corridor. 

Land purchases like the Mount Ashland Forest project, and tools like conservation easements that pay private landowners to keep their properties intact and adopt conservation practices, already play a crucial role in both protecting biodiversity and addressing climate change. And they are poised to play an even bigger role moving forward, with $2.1 billion dollars dedicated in the Inflation Reduction Act to the Forest Legacy Program and Agricultural Conservation Easement Program. These programs will help more landowners access financial assistance to keep farms and woodlands intact and manage them for climate benefits.

Connie is thrilled to see this project finally come together after years of work — and not a moment too soon. “When I am hiking through this beautiful place, I am amazed at the biodiversity — and fearful of its loss,” said Connie. “Time is of the essence. It is so important to put the insights from Indigenous traditions and top scientists into action. PFT will work across boundaries with our public and private neighbors, and share lessons with the larger community so our work can advance climate resilience across this special region. The forests do so much for us — now we must help them.”

Owen Wozniak is Land Transactions Program Manager at the Land Trust Alliance.

About Pacific Forest Trust

Since its founding in 1993, the conservation and restoration of private working forests has been at the core of Pacific Forest Trust’s mission to sustain America’s forests for all their public benefits of wood, water, wildlife, and people’s well-being, in cooperation with landowners and communities.  PFT has protected over 250,000 acres of forest and holds conservation easements that guide management for climate benefits, wildlife adaptation and water security on over 110,000 acres in California and Oregon. Learn more about our work:

About the Land Trust Alliance

The Land Trust Alliance works to empower and mobilize land trusts in communities across America to conserve land — and connect people to the land — for the benefit of all. As the national leader in policy, standards, education and training, the Alliance has supported land trusts for forty years. During that time, land trusts have protected over 60 million acres—more land than is in the entire national park system. To address the challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss, and to ensure nature’s benefits touch every American, the Alliance has set a bold goal for land trusts to conserve another 60 million acres by the end of the decade. Learn more: