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Conservationists Try To Thwart Climate Change By Planting In Cold Spots


An experiment is underway in Minnesota's Northwoods. A conservation group is planting trees as part of a strategy to adapt to climate change. As temperatures rise, they endanger some species that thrive in the cold. It's hoped that planting these species in carefully selected, cooler spots will help them hang on. Here's Dan Kraker of Minnesota Public Radio.

DAN KRAKER, BYLINE: In a recently logged forest clearing in northeast Minnesota, a crew of 13 tree planters swings heavy tools called hoedads into the ground.


KRAKER: When they hit rock, the sound echoes against the surrounding trees. But when their sharp tools pierce quietly into the wet earth, the planters quickly stoop down and stuff tiny seedlings into the ground. Mike Forrester (ph) - yep, that's actually his name - is supervising a crew.

MIKE FORRESTER: A mix of jack pine, white spruce, white pine, tamarack.

KRAKER: These are mostly evergreen trees - think Christmas trees with needles and cones. They're native to the far northern U.S., but many could die as the climate warms. So this spring, The Nature Conservancy is strategically planting 50,000 tiny new trees across 400 acres of northeast Minnesota in spots where they think that they'll have a better chance of surviving. Forest ecologist Mark White calls them conifer strongholds, small microclimates that are cooler than other parts of the forest.

MIKE WHITE: Those are areas where we think that, based on what we know about these species and how they grow and the sites they like to be in, these are places where they can persist over a longer time period.

KRAKER: Climate change is an especially keen threat to these trees because northern latitudes are warming more quickly. Scientists expect mean temperatures in northern Minnesota to rise two to 10 degrees over the next 50 years. And secondly, Minnesota's boreal trees - the spruce and fir and pine - are already at the far southern end of their range.

LEE FRELICH: It's so just on the edge, you know, in terms of cold enough temperature for boreal forest there.

KRAKER: Lee Frelich heads the University of Minnesota Center for Forest Ecology.

FRELICH: And we've already warmed up a fair amount. And one or two more degrees of warming would definitely tip the balance away from boreal.

KRAKER: Frelich says the only question is just how much boreal forest will Minnesota be able to hang onto. And it's not just Minnesota trying to hang on to these cold climate species.

TONI LYN MORELLI: Scientists are looking at this across the country, and there's an examples out West, in the Midwest, in the Northeast.

KRAKER: Toni Lyn Morelli is an ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. She says scientists in the Pacific Northwest are mapping cold sections of rivers where salmon spawn. In New England, they're working to preserve parts of northern forests to maintain habitat for moose, Canada lynx and snowshoe hare. Morelli says the idea is for natural resource managers not to waste time and money trying to save trout in streams that are too warm or pine trees in forests that, in the future, may be too hot and dry.

MORELLI: The managers know what to do. It's just a matter of them having limited resources where they can direct those activities.

KRAKER: Some question whether the strategy goes far enough to protect plant species in the face of something as a daunting as climate change. Ecologist Mark White concedes that the seedlings they're planting will cover just a tiny fraction of Minnesota's forests. But he says they feel the need to try to do something now to have a healthy, diverse forest later. For NPR News, I'm Dan Kraker in Duluth, Minn.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARK PRESTON'S "90 WEST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dan Kraker