Across Idaho, communities will soon begin planning for the wide-ranging effects of climate change—longer wildfire seasons, greater fluctuation in snowpack and stream runoff leading to flooding, more stress on public infrastructure, disrupted growing seasons and reduced air quality.
Blaine County was the first community to step up to the plate in the effort, which is being organized by the University of Idaho’s McClure Center for Public Policy Research and stems from the Idaho Climate Summit in November 2017.
On Monday morning at the Community Campus, dozens of community residents, elected officials, nonprofit leaders and other representatives gathered for a workshop organized by Blaine County and hosted by the Sun Valley Institute and Warm Springs Consulting.
Monday’s event was devoted to scenario planning and evaluating risks, while a subsequent workshop in February will focus on community action.
McClure Center Director Katherine Himes said the university has a core research team of faculty, staff and graduate students, but is fielding community input across Idaho. She said Blaine County was the first to have a local-level workshop in this process.
The effort is part of a two-year-long process that will culminate in an assessment looking at the economic ramifications of climate change in Idaho.
“We need to think about how this will impact small-town ski resorts,” Himes said.
She said the final product needs to be easily understandable and widely read—by mayors, business owners, residents and nonprofit leaders. She said it would be put up on a website, and she doesn’t want to see it relegated to a 200-page pdf document that would never be downloaded or read.
In a conservative state like Idaho, Himes said, it’s best for nonpartisan research institutions based at universities like the McClure Center to help lead the charge.
“We’re going to be targeting the whole state,” she said. “For Idaho, it’s going to be this economic common language. This is less about federal regulations and more about what this impact means.”
Blaine County Commissioner Larry Schoen said the work has pertinence now because of the attention paid to the Fourth National Climate Assessment, which the Trump administration released late last month.
The report warned of potentially devastating effects of continued climate warming, and noted that the global average temperatures had increased 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit from 1901 to 2016. It stated that 1.2 degrees of that warming occurred between 1986 and 2015.
It warned that without action, annual average global temperatures could increase by 9 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. With cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, that warming could be capped at 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.
Coldwater fish species like the Pacific salmon and trout would be imperiled by warming temperatures, while the loss of lower-elevation snowpack would reduce the opportunities for snow-based recreation like skiing and snowboarding—both would reverberate in the Wood River Valley and central Idaho.
“We believe in creating concrete, implementable actions,” Schoen said. “We want to prioritize the actual solutions. This workshop is really about us.”
Monday’s workshop also featured discussions from panelists Ron Abramovich, a water supply specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Idaho Snow Survey, Matt Filbert, a wildfire expert with the U.S. Forest Service’s Sawtooth National Forest, and Michelle Griffith, executive director of ARCH Community Housing Trust.
Abramovich noted the huge disparity in the snowpacks in the Wood River Valley in the winters of 2016-17, which produced record water content and devastating flooding, and 2017-18, which featured the first time since 1938 that the Ketchum Ranger Station had no snow to measure on the ground on Jan. 1.
He said that prior to the 2017 melt-off, night-time temperatures in the Wood River Valley were abnormally high, which led to a huge spike in streamflow and major flooding on the Big Wood River and Warm Springs Creek in early May.
“Night-time temperatures are getting higher, too,” he said. “You’re getting 24/7 melt rates.”
Filbert reviewed statistics of wildfires nationally. He noted that while the total number of ignitions is on a downward trend since 1985, the national total of acreage burned has increased dramatically. In 1985, the total was 3 million acres, and it increased to 10 million acres in 2017.
Forest-management practices suppressed wildfires in the western U.S. for decades in the 20th century. Accordingly, Blaine County had no major wildfires in the decades prior to 1985, Filbert said, even though large fires were common historically.
He presented an article from the Wood River Times newspaper in 1882, which reported that hazy smoke filled the skies in central Idaho for hundreds of miles and was traced to large fires burning in Oregon.
What has changed in the last 30 years, Filbert said, is the energy release component of fuels for wildfire. It relates to the available energy in a square foot of fuels, and reflects their moisture content and condition. He said that has ramped up dramatically compared to a period between 1985 and 1994, and is a contributing factor to the quick spread and extreme nature of wildfires burning across the West.
“What used to be high is now simply average,” Filbert said.
Looking across Blaine County and the surrounding region, Filbert said, that makes the conditions riper for a 200,000-acre wildfire. The Beaver Creek Fire in 2013 topped out at more than 111,000 acres as it burned over a period of weeks in August.
He said a 200,000-acre wildfire is possible in an area of the Fairfield District west of Dollarhide Summit, which could spill over into the Baker Creek drainage. That area has not burned in a while.
Filbert said sagebrush areas are burning more frequently than they historically have, and cited a fire that burned mostly cheat grass in the Deer Creek area this summer, almost five years to the day after Beaver Creek. Historically, the sagebrush areas would burn every 30 to 100 years. Now they’re burning every five to 15 years.
“We’re witnessing too much fire in sagebrush,” he said.
The opposite problem is occurring in forests that have not burned regularly enough, leading to denser stands of trees and increasing problems with die-off due to disease or insect infestations.