Watering the forest for the trees: an emerging priority for managing water in forest landscapes

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Abstract

Widespread threats to forests resulting from drought stress are prompting a re-evaluation of priorities for water management on forest lands. In contrast to the widely held view that forest management should emphasize providing water for downstream uses, we argue that maintaining forest health in the context of a changing climate may require focusing on the forests themselves and on strategies to reduce their vulnerability to increasing water stress. Management strategies would need to be tailored to specific landscapes but could include thinning, planting and selecting for drought-tolerant species, irrigating, and making more water available to plants for transpiration. Hydrologic modeling reveals that specific management actions could reduce tree mortality due to drought stress. Adopting water conservation for vegetation as a priority for managing water on forested lands would represent a fundamental change in perspective and potentially involve trade-offs with other downstream uses of water.

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