Vulnerability Assessment and Adaptation Strategies for Focal Resources of the Sierra Nevada

Whitney Reynier
Posted on: 3/22/2015 - Updated on: 3/02/2020

Posted by

Whitney Reynier

Project Summary

The Vulnerability Assessment and Adaptation Strategies for Focal Resources of the Sierra Nevada project, a joint effort between EcoAdapt and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), assessed the vulnerability of Sierra Nevada resources to both climate and non-climate stressors and developed adaptation strategies designed to reduce resource vulnerability and/or enhance resource resilience. As a collaborative, stakeholder-driven process, the Sierra Nevada project elicited significant input from regional stakeholders, scientific experts, and USFS staff through two workshops – one on vulnerability and one on adaptation – and two advisory committees. The project generated downscaled climate projections for the Sierra Nevada region, vulnerability assessment findings for 27 resources, adaptation strategies for a selected, smaller suite of resources, and climate-informed maps for resources. Project findings were communicated through several reports, informational 2-page briefs, webinars, and a series of targeted agency workshops. The diverse range of products will help USFS staff incorporate climate change into land management plan revisions and satisfy elements of the USFS Climate Change Scorecard. Products are also intended to inform other management and conservation planning efforts in the Sierra Nevada.  


Integrating climate change impacts and adaptation strategies into natural resource management planning and implementation is a challenge faced by a variety of agencies and organizations. In Fall 2011, the Regional Wildlife Ecologist and Regional Ecosystem Services & Climate Change Team Co-Lead of the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Pacific Southwest Region convened a multi-stakeholder Vulnerability Assessment/Adaptation Strategy (VA/AS) Working Group to explore ways of integrating climate change information into forest planning. Stakeholders in the VA/AS Working Group included federal and state agencies, university scientists, and conservation and environmental groups, including EcoAdapt.

Through participating in this working group, EcoAdapt was uniquely situated to partner with the USFS in a proposal to the California Landscape Conservation Cooperative (CA LCC) in April 2012. The proposed project included conducting a bioregional climate change vulnerability assessment and developing implementable adaptation strategies for focal resources of the Sierra Nevada. The proposed project was selected for funding by the CA LCC in May 2012, and the project officially began in October 2012.

The timing and scope of the Sierra Nevada project were particularly relevant, as federal mandates to incorporate climate change considerations into forest planning and management were being issued simultaneously. The National Forest System 2012 Planning Rule requires national forests and grasslands to consider climate change, including vulnerability and adaptation, during revision of their land management plans. Similarly, the USFS Climate Change Performance Scorecard, a mandatory annual assessment tool, evaluates if and how forests and grasslands are assessing climate change vulnerability and implementing actions that reduce the vulnerability of key resources.

The Vulnerability Assessment and Adaptation Strategies for Focal Resources of the Sierra Nevada project was designed to help natural resource managers and practitioners in the Sierra Nevada understand and address climate change impacts such as warming temperatures, altered wildfire regimes, vegetation shifts, and shifts in hydrology due to snowpack changes. The project focused on the entire Sierra Nevada in California from foothills to crests, divided into three sub-regional zones (north, central, and south), and with specific focus on 10 national forests and two national parks.

Specific goals of the project were to:

  1. Assess the vulnerability of species, ecosystems, and ecosystem services to climate and non-climate stressors;
  2. Develop adaptation strategies and actions for implementation;
  3. Create climate-informed spatial maps and data to inform implementation efforts and to help managers better understand climate-related risk; and
  4. Provide land managers, resource managers, planners, conservation groups, and other interested stakeholders with a suite of climate change tools, resources, and information for application in their own work.

In general, the project was intended to aid the 10 Sierra Nevada national forests in addressing Elements 6 and 7 (Assessing Vulnerability and Adaptation Actions) of the USFS Climate Change Scorecard, and provide them with vulnerability and adaptation information that could be used to inform forest plan revisions. In a broader context, this project was also designed to provide other regional stakeholders with vulnerability and adaptation information that could be used in their own planning and management efforts. 


The first step in the Sierra Nevada project involved collaborative engagement of agency staff and regional stakeholders through the formation of two committees. The Stakeholder Advisory Committee – including members from the original VA/AS Working Group and other stakeholders such as business representatives, community leaders, conservation groups, and land managers – helped to identify a list of focal resources to be evaluated in the bioregional vulnerability assessment, attended workshops, and helped review products. Focal resources were chosen based on their importance to the USFS forest plan revision process and/or their importance to regional stakeholders. The second committee, the Science Advisory Group, was composed of leading hydrology, wildfire ecology, vegetation, and other scientific experts in California. Members of the Science Advisory Group reviewed climate information generated for the project, presented climate projections at the Vulnerability Assessment Workshop, provided spatial climate data, and reviewed project reports.

Several project partners also provided information that helped guide and inform the project process. The Geos Institute provided a climate change synthesis report, Future Climate, Wildfire, Hydrology and Vegetation Projections for the Sierra Nevada, California: A climate change synthesis report in support of the Vulnerability Assessment/Adaptation Strategy process. This report includes downscaled climate information such as past trends and future projections for wildfire, precipitation, temperature, vegetation, and hydrology (snowpack, runoff, recharge, and soil moisture). Information from the report was used to evaluate the exposure of Sierra Nevada resources to climate and climate-driven changes during the Vulnerability Assessment Workshop. The Template for Assessing Climate Change Impacts and Management Options (TACCIMO) provided further resource exposure information that was used by participants in the Vulnerability Assessment Workshop. The Conservation Biology Institute created a Sierra Nevada project landing-page on Data Basin ( and helped gather and analyze spatial mapping products for the region.

In March 2013, EcoAdapt guided agency staff and regional stakeholders through a 2.5-day Vulnerability Assessment Workshop. Over 30 participants representing 15 different organizations and agencies were in attendance. The first day focused on reviewing historical and projected climate change trends in the Sierra Nevada and then transitioned into evaluating the vulnerability (i.e., a combination of sensitivity, exposure, and adaptive capacity) of selected Sierra Nevada ecosystems. Participants were divided into groups based on their expertise; they used the climate science synthesis, exposure information, and EcoAdapt-generated background information packets to complete the vulnerability evaluations. The second day of the workshop focused on evaluating the vulnerability of species and ecosystem services. Participants tried to prioritize focal species that had not been captured in the previous day’s ecosystem evaluations. Following these assessments, the workshop concluded with an exercise based on the Yale Mapping Framework; participants explored the opportunities associated with spatial data, including identifying what climate and non-climate stressors it would be critical to have spatial data for in future planning and management efforts. In total, 27 resources were evaluated during the workshop, including 8 ecosystems, 15 species, and 4 ecosystem services.

Following the Vulnerability Assessment Workshop, EcoAdapt compiled all ecosystem, species, and ecosystem service vulnerability assessment information. Participant responses were supplemented with information from the scientific literature, and findings were sent out for peer review. Following peer review, the vulnerability assessment findings were revised and finalized in late fall 2013, and published in a 2014 report, A Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment for Focal Resources of the Sierra Nevada.

Having completed the bioregional vulnerability assessment, the next phase of the Sierra Nevada project focused on developing adaptation strategies to reduce vulnerability or increase resilience of resources. In June 2013, EcoAdapt hosted a two-day Adaptation Planning Workshop, which included over 30 participants from approximately 20 different agencies and organizations. Participants were split into groups based on their expertise and, due to time limitations, selected a fewer number of ecosystems and species of interest to focus on. Participants started by identifying relevant management and conservation goals related to each focal resource. They used the vulnerability assessment findings from the previous workshop to evaluate and identify potential vulnerabilities of each goal, and then developed adaptation strategies and actions that could be used to reduce identified vulnerabilities and/or take advantage of new opportunities. Adaptation strategies discussed in the workshop represented both new strategies and actions as well as actions already being implemented by USFS staff. All adaptation strategies were then further evaluated based on implementation feasibility and effectiveness. Finally, participants were asked to identify resources needed (e.g., partners, funding, capacity, etc.) to achieve adaptation strategy implementation. The remainder of the workshop was spent presenting adaptation strategies and actions, identifying common adaptation strategies among the different resources, and discussing barriers to implementation and possible solutions.

Similar to the process after the Vulnerability Assessment Workshop, results from the Adaptation Planning Workshop were compiled, supplemented with information from the scientific literature, and sent out for peer review. The adaptation planning results were finalized in late fall 2013, and published in a 2014 report, Adaptation Strategies for Focal Resources of the Sierra Nevada.

In Fall 2013, EcoAdapt was awarded additional funding from the CA LCC and USFS to work on several “science delivery” components related to these products, including targeted agency trainings, directed communication products, and webinars. In 2014, EcoAdapt conducted targeted agency trainings with USFS staff, National Park Service (NPS) staff, and other interested partners to present project findings and discuss how findings could be incorporated into current and future planning efforts. The first agency training was conducted in May 2014 with NPS staff; three more USFS trainings were led in October 2014 in Susanville, South Lake Tahoe, and Clovis, CA. EcoAdapt also developed a number of communication products including a two-page project methodology brief; vulnerability assessment briefings for 22 resources that highlight key sensitivity, adaptive capacity and exposure elements; two-page climate change briefs for each Sierra Nevada sub-region; and eight vulnerability assessment/adaptation strategy briefs with project-related information and results that can be easily accessed and used by resource managers and other individuals working on the ground throughout the region. Finally, EcoAdapt also presented multiple webinars for the CA LCC, USFS, and others. This project has been featured in a variety of national park and organizational newsletters, has been presented at regional conferences (e.g., the California Adaptation Forum), and the vulnerability assessment methodology was recently applied by the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary.

Outcomes and Conclusions

This Sierra Nevada project has resulted in many publically available products that are tailored to a variety of users, including three, full-length companion reports: A Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment for Focal Resources of the Sierra Nevada, Adaptation Strategies for Focal Resources of the Sierra Nevada, and Future Climate, Wildfire, Hydrology and Vegetation Projections for the Sierra Nevada, California: A climate change synthesis report in support of the Vulnerability Assessment/Adaptation Strategy process. These reports provide holistic, in-depth climate and vulnerability assessments and adaptation strategies, and include detailed project methodology. For users interested in exploring the spatial information used during this process, all spatial products are available on Data Basin. Resource-specific products are also available for download through EcoAdapt’s Sierra Nevada project page. These products include focal resource vulnerability syntheses, which are longer documents that provide a more comprehensive presentation of process and findings for a given resource, and focal resource vulnerability briefings, which are shorter summaries that highlight the key vulnerabilities of each resource. EcoAdapt has also developed two-page vulnerability assessment/adaptation strategy briefs, which summarize key information provided in the full reports, and are best suited for resource managers, line officers, and individuals interested in quickly learning about the vulnerabilities and adaptation options associated with a specific resource. In addition, three sub-regional climate change projection briefs can also be found on the EcoAdapt Sierra Nevada project page. In general, all products for the Sierra Nevada project were designed for broad accessibility and applicability, and can be used by any group with conservation interests in the Sierra Nevada.

The two most significant challenges EcoAdapt faced during this project were time constraints and getting a broad representation of stakeholders to participate in the vulnerability assessment and adaptation planning process. Increased scientific expert and USFS staff attendance during the Vulnerability Assessment Workshop and Adaptation Planning Workshop may have helped the evaluative process, but many invitees could not find time to participate in the workshops. Time constraints were also limiting in the Adaptation Planning Workshop; developing adaptation strategies with sufficient detail takes time, and some groups were unable to fully discuss adaptation options for resources.

The Sierra Nevada project benefited greatly from strong stakeholder, partner, and financial support. From the onset, this project had a large and diverse stakeholder base committed to the project. The USFS Pacific Southwest (PSW) Regional Office proved to be a key partner; their commitment to producing the highest quality products and willingness to invest significant time and energy into planning, document review, and coordination helped the process move smoothly and resulted in useful, comprehensive products. The Geos Institute, TACCIMO, and the Conservation Biology Institute were also critical partners, providing key information and support that informed many stages of this process. Finally, this project would not have been possible without the generous funding from the CA LCC, the USFS, and the Yale Mapping Framework.

EcoAdapt and the USFS are monitoring project success in various ways. EcoAdapt is tracking report visitation and downloads through the EcoAdapt Library; as of June 2014, the full reports have been visited over 19,000 individual times and have been downloaded over 300 times. Following the targeted agency trainings in Fall 2014, EcoAdapt plans to evaluate both the effectiveness and usefulness of the agency trainings and agency use of project information and products by conducting a six-month follow-up survey. As a larger metric of project success, the USFS PSW Regional Office will be able to track implementation through the USFS Climate Change Scorecard. National forests must submit this evaluative metric annually, and the regional office will be able to monitor which and how many forest units indicate that they are now meeting Elements 6 - Assessing Vulnerability and Element 7 - Adaptation Actions.

The success of the Sierra Nevada project has led to exciting extensions. The USFS PSW Regional Office and the CA LCC have provided funding for EcoAdapt to expand the Sierra Nevada methods and process into Southern California, with particular focus on the Angeles, San Bernardino, Cleveland, and Los Padres National Forests. EcoAdapt has also led similar efforts in the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests and Tongass National Forest, and is a key partner on a USFS Northern Region project that includes many similar components. Finally, in Summer 2014, EcoAdapt and the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary adapted the Sierra Nevada methodology to evaluate the vulnerability of coastal and marine resources along the north-central California coast.

The Vulnerability Assessment and Adaptation Strategies for Focal Resources of the Sierra Nevada project concluded in 2014. EcoAdapt is interested in finding additional funders and/or partners that would like to focus on implementation of adaptation strategies, develop additional adaptation strategies for resources, and/or adapt or apply the vulnerability assessment/adaptation strategy methodology in other areas or biomes.


Reynier, W. (2015). Vulnerability Assessment and Adaptation Strategies for Focal Resources of the Sierra Nevada. Ed. R.M. Gregg [Case study on a project of EcoAdapt and partners.] Retrieved from CAKE:… (Last updated March 2015)

Project Contacts

Position: Senior Scientist

Affiliated Organizations

EcoAdapt is at the center of climate change adaptation innovation. We provide support, training, and assistance to make conservation and management less vulnerable and more Climate Savvy. Over the past 200 years, great strides have been made in the world of conservation and now all of that is at risk because of climate change. EcoAdapt is working to ensure the success of these past efforts by delivering a framework for climate adaptation.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service is a Federal agency that manages public lands in national forests and grasslands. The Forest Service is also the largest forestry research organization in the world, and provides technical and financial assistance to state and private forestry agencies. Gifford Pinchot, the first Chief of the Forest Service, summed up the purpose of the Forest Service—"to provide the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people in the long run."

The CA LCC is a management-science partnership created to inform and promote integrated science, natural resource management and conservation to address impacts of climate change and other stressors within and across ecosystems.

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.

The Conservation Biology Institute (CBI) provides scientific expertise to support the conservation and recovery of biological diversity in its natural state through applied research, education, planning, and community service. We utilize GIS and remote sensing data to conduct assessments and planning in support of conservation projects globally.