Preparing for Climate Change in the Upper Willamette River Basin

Jessi Kershner
Posted on: 12/18/2010 - Updated on: 11/24/2021

Posted by

Jessica Hitt

Project Summary

The Upper Willamette River Basin of western Oregon borders the Coast Mountain Range to the west and the headwaters of the Cascade Mountains to the east. The Basin encompasses nearly two million acres, 90% of which is forested. Climate change is likely to alter natural systems and resources of the Upper Willamette River Basin, subsequently affecting ecosystem services in the region. In 2009, the National Center for Conservation Science and Policy (now the Geos Institute), in collaboration with the University of Oregon’s Climate Leadership Initiative (CLI), released a report, Preparing for Climate Change in the Upper Willamette River Basin of Western Oregon, which assessed the likely impacts of climate change on human and natural systems and recommended strategies for increasing the capacity of these systems to resist and adapt to expected changes.


The Upper Willamette River Basin of western Oregon encompasses nearly two million acres and spans four major sub-basins. Land in the higher elevations is primarily under public ownership while the lower elevations are a patchwork of private and public ownership. Approximately 6% of Oregon’s population lives in the Basin. Climate change impacts are likely to transform natural systems and pose new stresses on native species in the Upper Willamette River Basin. These changes in climate and impacts to the natural system will subsequently affect ecosystem services and produce new stresses on human systems in the Basin.

In 2008, the CLI (a program of The Resource Innovation Group and associated with the Sustainability Institute at Willamette University), in partnership with the Geos Institute and the Mapped Atmosphere-Plant-Soil-System (MAPSS) Team at the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station, initiated a project to assess the likely impacts of climate change on the Upper Willamette River Basin. In 2009, the CLI and Geos Institute released Preparing for Climate Change in the Upper Willamette River Basin of Western Oregon. This report outlined a framework to help human and natural systems in the Upper Willamette River Basin prepare for climate change in a cohesive manner.


The MAPSS Team at the USDA Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station downscaled projected changes in temperature, precipitation, fire patterns, and native vegetation distribution. This data was mapped and analyzed by scientists at the Geos Institute. The Geos Institute and the CLI presented the projections to a panel of scientists and natural resource managers to assess the likely impacts of climate change on natural systems (aquatic and terrestrial species and habitats). This panel was also asked to identify strategies for increasing ecological resistance and resilience. Using these findings, a panel of leaders, managers and experts identified the likely risks to built infrastructure, economic systems (e.g., agriculture, forestry, business), and human systems (e.g., health, education, emergency services. They also recommended strategies and policies to enhance the capacity of these systems to withstand and adapt to climate change.

Outcomes and Conclusions

A number of strategies were recommended to prepare natural, built, economic, and human systems for the impacts of climate change. Example strategies included:

  • Increasing early detection and rapid response efforts to manage invasive species;
  • Basing decisions on an understanding of the ecological system, climate change, and consideration of alternative management actions;
  • Preventing suburban sprawl into forested areas and floodplains;
  • Accounting for projected climate change in land-use planning; and
  • Conducting outreach to private landowners.

In addition, both panels called for new and expanded forms of governance; for example, adopting transboundary governance models, utilizing scenario planning, and incorporating diverse and inclusive stakeholder participation into planning. The results of the report are intended as a starting point for addressing the likely effects of climate change impacts in the Upper Willamette River Basin. Because it is an initial step, particulars such as actions or agency responsibilities required to implement strategies still need to be identified.

This project was part of a larger initiative aimed at developing integrated climate preparation plans and policies for the Klamath, Rogue River, and Umatilla Basins. A common theme identified by all groups was the need for integrated, co-beneficial climate preparation plans and policies that are developed and implemented across different sectors. There has not been a follow-up study or tracking of the implementation of climate change preparation recommendations conducted by the Geos Institute.


Kershner, J. (2021). Preparing for Climate Change in the Upper Willamette River Basin[Case study on a project of the Geos Institute]. Version 2.0. Product of EcoAdapt’s State of Adaptation Program. Retrieved from CAKE:…  (Last updated September 2021)

Project Contacts

Position: Climate Change Scientist

Affiliated Organizations

The GEOS Institute is a nonprofit, science-based organization dedicated to helping both human and natural communities predict and prepare for a changing climate. To this end, the Geos Institute applies the best available science to natural resource conservation issues through its scientific publications and its ability to link respected scientists to decision makers.

Related Resources

Adaptation Phase
Sharing Lessons
Sector Addressed
Climate Justice
Conservation / Restoration
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Education / Outreach
Land Use Planning
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Transportation / Infrastructure
Water Resources
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