Our deteriorating economy pages – Permanent loss of forest resources from climate change

In this installment of Our Economy, Deteriorating, I thought it important to examine the degradation of the USA’s physical wealth, its natural resources. I am not one of those who use the phrase “environmental services” which is taken to mean that nature exists to provide “services” to humankind, and these “services” can be quantized, given a dollar value, and that this dollar value is then used to impress on businessmen and politicians the importance of “save the earth” as policy.

In this ongoing series about the myriad causes for the deterioration, the breakdown, of the USA’s economy, we’re looking at Roubini’s “Deadly Drivers for a Greater Depression of the Decade of the 2020s.” I would rather put the information in this installment to use in convincing people that it is time for us to organize ourselves in such a way as to survive the onslaught of numerous intertwined economic crises. I think it is true, as Art Berman and Nate Hagens state, that the growth paradigm is dead, or rapidly dying. The loss of forest resources — whether it is the board-feet of lumber that won’t be harvested, or the pulp wood that won’t become paper or cardboard or other forest products, or the connection with nature, the peace and serenity which people seek when they head for the forest lands — is a major warning of a shrinking economy, a death-economy, not a growth economy.

What we must organize for is a new economic system sustaining a new kind of society which has as its mission regeneration. A regeneration of entire ecosystems degraded and destroyed by the growth paradigm of the past 500 years of human activity driven by colonial social systems. The preservation and restoration of biodiversity across the planet. Some means of feeding the human population that don’t entail Daniel Quinn’s term, “Totalitarian Agriculture” which dominates and wipes out other species of life so as to feed the people.

So this installment focuses on the loss of natural resource wealth, real wealth not paper wealth, of the U.S. economy. The nation has long prided itself on having a vast store of natural resources embodied in vast tracts of forest lands, much of which has been public lands. This vast store of wealth is diminishing under the effects of irreversible climate change, and is not going to be readily rebuilt.

Nearly two decades after the 2002 Hayman fire in Colorado, this high-severity burn area near Cheesman Lake is still treeless.
Michael Elizabeth Sakas/CPR News

In both the mass media and in the peer-reviewed literature on forests, numerous citations can be found of the permanent damage that has happened and is happening now in the western U.S. forest lands.

As Wildfires Grow More Intense, Iconic Western Forests May Not Come Back

September 13, 2020 7:00 AM ET
Michael Elizabeth Sakas Colo Public Radio

““What we’re seeing is a very large high-severity burn patch, where the vast majority of the trees have died,” says Chambers, with the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute at Colorado State University.

“Some regeneration may be occurring, but certainly not enough to recreate a forest in the near term,” Chambers says. She and her colleagues have found that forests are struggling to grow back some of the state’s most iconic species, like ponderosa pine and Douglas fir.

High-severity fires leave behind massive burn areas with almost nothing alive. And any baby trees simply can’t thrive in the increased heat and drought brought on by climate change.

“Imagine being a ponderosa pine seed trying to grow out here,” Chambers says. “It’s a pretty intense environment.”

Beyond the degradation of our nation’s natural resources, there is the additional alarming feedback loop that permanently-deforested regions will provide for further climate change; the ability of the landscape to sequester, to store, carbon, and keep it out of the atmosphere is being impaired.

Forests become grasslands, and that’s bad for carbon emissions

For areas that can’t regenerate, research has found they may instead convert to grasslands.

Camille Stevens-Rumann, also of Colorado State University, says there can be lots of benefits to having patches of grasslands between forested areas. But it’s a problem “where we’re talking about tens of thousands of acres that have transitioned from forest to grasslands.”

One major concern is that trees sequester carbon. Fewer trees will capture less carbon, which means more warming, and therefore fewer trees, in a cycle that will make it hard to reach carbon neutrality.

Thomas Veblen, of the University of Colorado Boulder, says this poses a problem for tree replanting efforts touted as a way to combat climate change.

“Trees need moisture to survive, and they simply are not going to be surviving in the many, many places where we would like to have them planted and sequestering carbon,” he says.

Stevens-Rumann has studied a large range of burned forests across the West and found some areas no longer able to support the same trees that have been there for one or two centuries.

See: As Wildfires Grow More Intense, Iconic Western Forests May Not Come Back

This study by Rammer et al. discusses the regeneration failure of forests (inability to re-grow as they formerly existed) in the Greater Yellowstone area of the USA. One of our national treasures, shown in this study to lose much of its “treasure” status.

Widespread regeneration failure in forests of Greater Yellowstone under scenarios of future climate and fire

Werner Rammer, Kristin H. Braziunas, Winslow D. Hansen, Zak Ratajczak, Anthony L. Westerling, Monica G. Turner, Rupert Seidl
in Global Change Biology 02 July 2021


We focused on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (2.9 × 106 ha of forest) in the Rocky Mountains of the USA, which has experienced large wildfires in the past and is expected to undergo drastic changes in climate and fire in the future. We simulated four climate scenarios until 2100 at a fine spatial grain (100 m). Both wildfire activity and unstocked forest area increased substantially throughout the 21st century in all simulated scenarios. By 2100, between 28% and 59% of the forested area failed to regenerate, indicating considerable loss of resilience. Areas disproportionally at risk occurred where fires are not constrained by topography and in valleys aligned with predominant winds. High-elevation forest types not adapted to fire (i.e., Picea engelmannii–Abies lasiocarpa as well as non-serotinous Pinus contorta var. latifolia forests) were especially vulnerable to regeneration failure. We conclude that changing climate and fire could exceed the resilience of forests in a substantial portion of Greater Yellowstone, with profound implications for carbon, biodiversity, and recreation.

More work by Camille S. Stevens-Rumann on the matter of forest regeneration appears in the journal Fire Ecology. Her conclusions were similar to those in the Rammer et al. article.


Few or no tree seedlings are establishing on some areas of the 150+ forest fires sampled across western US, suggesting that forests may be replaced by shrublands and grasslands, especially where few seed source trees survived the wildfires. Key information gaps on how species will respond to continued climate change, repeated disturbances, and other site factors following wildfires currently limit our ability to determine future trends in forest regeneration. We provide a decision tree to assist managers in prioritizing post-fire reforestation. We emphasize prioritizing the interior of large burned patches and considering current and future climate in deciding what, when, and where to plant trees. Finally, managing fires and forests for more seed-source tree survival will reduce large, non-forested areas following wildfires where post-fire management may be necessary.

Haffey et al. further examine the phenomenon that because of the extreme drought conditions persisting over lage areas of the U.S. southwest, forests may be transitioning to shrublands/grasslands.

Limits to Ponderosa Pine Regeneration following Large High-Severity Forest Fires in the United States Southwest

Collin Haffey, Thomas D. Sisk, Craig D. Allen, Andrea E. Thode & Ellis Q. Margolis
(Collin Haffey listed as corresponding author)
Fire Ecology 14, 143-163 (2018)


Thus, these large, recent high-severity burn patches, many of which are devoid of any surviving conifer trees post fire (i.e., no on-site seed source for obligate seeders like ponderosa pine), also have been recovering under hot and dry post-fire climate conditions. In response to this combination of historically unprecedented factors, these recent high-severity burn areas may be following post-fire ecological trajectories that move away from persistent forest conditions, transitioning instead toward shrublands or grasslands (i.e., type conversion). Our study examines this hypothesis.

Number of acres burned over the prior 38 years, nationwide

National Interagency Fire Center has a web page which shows the number of acres burned during each of the past 38 years, going back to 1983. You may note that beginning around 1990, the number of acres burned per year has risen alarmingly. The 2020 total of 10.1 million acres is over three times the 1991 acreage. That is, 15,781 square miles of U.S. land underwent wildfires in 2020.

“Wildfires and Acres: Total Wildland Fires and Acres (1983-2020)

Prior to 1983, the federal wildland fire agencies did not track official wildfire data using current reporting processes. As a result, there is no official data prior to 1983 posted on this site.

Our conclusion

It seems clear that this pattern of persistent long and hotter droughts accompanying the post-tipping point climate change which the USA / the planet are experiencing, is bringing the degradation of the natural resource wealth of the USA. Grasslands and shrublands are not going to be bearing forest products for the USA’s “growth economy.” Rather, in decades to come, we will be experiencing a shrinkage economy with respect to physical resources. It is our contention in posting this series of blog posts, that no amount of paper-wealth growth (stock and bond markets, expansion of consumer debt toward infinity, etc.) can compensate for the physical damages and the future limits to growth which climate change impacts on the energy system will bring.

Peer-reviewed literature search: “Climate change wildfires and forest regeneration

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