Two Frameworks to Help with Climate Adaptation

By Janelle Christensen, USDA Northwest Climate Hub

As the climate changes, the forests we love and care for will need to adapt to a “new normal.” We want to help, but sometimes are unsure of what to do. The choice of what to do often becomes more challenging because these places are more than places. They are not just the local woodlands; they are the woodlands where we grew up, and the woodlands many rely on to support their way of life. They contain our favorite swimming holes, support recreation for ourselves and others, and provide resources that support rural economies. Because we love and rely on these places, making decisions about how to respond as the climate changes can be overwhelming. We want to keep them as we remember them and keep them productive in a way we are familiar with, but the planet is changing and they will change with it.

In my job, I (thankfully) do not have to make the hard management choices for these places. But forest owners and those whose work keep our forests productive into the future do. To help with these challenging decisions, scientists have come up with several frameworks, including the RAD (Resist, Accept, Direct) and the RRT (Resistance, Resilience, Transition) frameworks.

The Frameworks

These two frameworks are intended to help landowners and managers think through management choices and understand different options for preparing for climate change. They assist in prioritizing actions that align with where the value of the land lies. For example, if the most important value of the land is to produce timber for a rural forest owner, transitioning to a type of timber that will be more productive with climate change may be the best choice. On the other hand, if the main value of the land comes from supporting a fish species that cannot live in another climate, it may be better to resist change while that is possible.

The Resistance, Resilience, Transition (RRT) framework (Figure 1) is more often used in work by the US Forest Service. There have been several publications that are cited for creating and refining RRT, including Nagel et al. 2017, Swanston et al. 2016, and Miller et al. 2007. RRT has also been developed into a comprehensive tool – the Adaptation Workbook that outlines a structured decision-making process that is flexible to distinct contexts.  One additional distinguishing factor is that RRT explicitly considers a choice that is often present but not always acknowledged, the choice to do nothing.

Three graphs, from right to left of resistance, resilience, transition. Above the three drawings is a double pointed arrow. Above the arrow, on the left (above resistance) text reads “Manage for persistence – ecosystems are still recognizable as being the same system (character)” and on the left (above transition) reads “Manage for change – ecosystems have fundamentally changed to something different.” The x-axis below each of the three graphs displays time. Resistance displays a graph with two drawn forests that are the same on either end of the x-axis. The graph has several lines, which indicating that the forest does not follow the natural climate change trajectory, and that the effort required to keep the forest the same progressively increases over time. Resilience displays a graph with two drawn forests that are somewhat similar on either end of the x-axis. The graph has several lines, which indicating that the forest does not follow the natural climate change trajectory, and that the effort required to create a similar forest is in response to natural fluctuations. Transition displays a graph with two drawn forests that are entirely different on either end of the x-axis. The graph has several lines, which indicating that the forest does follow the natural climate change trajectory, and that the effort is put in to encourage that transition
Conceptual Diagram of Resistance, Resilience and Transition (Swanston et al. 2016; Nagel et al. 2017; Millar et al. 2007). Credit: Adaptive Silviculture for Climate Change network, taken from Colorado State University.

The Resist, Accept, Direct (RAD) framework (Figure 2) is similar to RRT, but doesn’t include resilience. Resilience is the most common form of climate adaptation (in which case RAD would be less applicable), but resilience does not work for every type of land ownership. In general, the National Park Service tends to use RAD more often. This is likely because the National Parks need to be more hands off on their lands and do less active management than the forest service.

The RAD Framework lays out three approaches for making management decisions for systems undergoing ecosystem transformation: 1) Resist, where managers work to maintain or restore ecosystem composition, structure, processes, or function on the basis of historical or acceptable current conditions, 2) Accept, where managers allow ecosystem composition, structure, process, or function to change autonomously, and 3) Direct, where managers actively shape change in ecosystem composition, structure, processes, or function toward preferred new conditions.
A conceptual drawing of the RAD framework. Sources/Usage: Public Domain, taken from USGS.

What do these different terms mean?

Resistance or Resist

A shot looking up the trunk of a tree to the canopy. At the bottom of the tree is a plastic bag. Several surrounding trees can be seen in the canopy and the sky is a light grey color.
A pheromone packet stapled to a tree to discourage mountain pine beetle from destroying the tree. Credit: USDA Photo by Preston Keres

Resistance includes actions that improve the defenses of the forest. It hopes to defend against disturbances and maintain relatively unchanged conditions. In western forests, these actions usually include reducing undesirable or extreme effects of fires, insects, and diseases, among others. Actions can include:

  • Fuel breaks around high risk and high value areas. For example, a fuel break around a community’s drinking water reservoir in the forest could prevent contamination during a large fire.
  • Intensive removal of invasives plants. For communities that rely on forest foods (i.e. huckleberries), removal of invasives could allow food plants to continue to thrive.
  • Novel pheromone applications to prevent pest outbreaks on high value forests.

Over the long-term, and depending on the trajectory of change in climate, the amount of manpower or funding required to resist disturbances may be impossible to support. It is best applied when forest value is high or when a community could be impacted by changes to the local forest (i.e., loss of income due to changes in fish populations or loss of water supply with increasing drought).  


Resilience includes actions that allow for some degree of change, including climate change. Overall though, the hope is that these actions will bring the system back to a reference state after disturbance. Resilience actions may look similar to resistance actions, but they target improving the ability of the system to respond to change, rather than preventing change. Actions include:

A close-up shot of a hill with several types of trees including evergreens and deciduous trees with fall color. Behind the hill is a vibrant blue sky, with puffy white clouds.
A mixed species forest in Oregon. Adobe stock photo from Jennifer L Morrow
  • Thinning to reduce stress related to competition between trees. Thinning can decrease additional stress from resource competition, allowing trees to handle other challenges including climate change-induced drought or insect infestations, more easily.
  • Prescribed fire in fire-adapted forests. As climate change leads to larger and more severe wildfires, prescribed fire can remove smaller trees and fuels which could cause crown fires. This will help reduce stand destroying fires, allowing forests to persist into the future.
  • Intensive management during revegetation. Because climate change will likely cause more variability in climate conditions (i.e., average precipitation patterns in the Northwest won’t change, but there may be longer periods of drought followed by periods of intense precipitation), intensive management during revegetation could increase resilience. Much research shows that promoting uneven-aged and mixed-species forests will likely allow for survival of the forest if a certain age of tree is affected by a disease or if a certain species of tree is not resilient to a changing climate.

Resilience is one of the best tools we have for helping forests adapt to changes, and can also help rural communities prepare for eventual change (i.e., thinning and prescribed fire decreasing the threat of loss in a future with more severe fires).


‘Accept’ may be one of the harder choices because of how attached communities and individuals are to these places. To let a system change naturally gives up control and may be different than how land owners and resource managers may be accustomed to working. By definition, accept is somewhat actionless. When the choice is to accept change, much of the work comes with communicating why this is the best choice to the people who rely on the land.

Transition or Direct

The goal of transition or direct is to encourage gradual adaptation to inevitable change. This doesn’t necessarily mean accelerating change that would happen anyway. Rather, it is being explicit about the change you hope will occur, and pursing management actions that move the forest in that direction. This may prevent catastrophic change or change into a system that may be undesirable for local resources and values.

A close-up of a person's hand wearing white fabric gloves. They are holding a bare-root tree seedling. Below is a hoedad tool that has been used to dig a small hole for the tree.
Planting trees in Colville national forest. Credit: Forest Service/Joseph M. de Leon

Some actions to help with transition include:

  • Assisted migration. This type of direction could help to keep a forest persisting in a place that would naturally change to non-forest without direction. For example, a long drought could cause a forest to become a grassland. To replant a forest at that point may be too resource intensive. If the forest had been planted with the same species from a warmer, drier climate (ponderosa pine and Douglas fir for example) it could have prevented a catastrophic change that disrupted the lives of people who relied on that forest. Assisted migration may allow forests to persist in a place where the trees that would have seeded naturally would be unable to deal with the warmer, drier climate of the future.
  • Connect landscapes to allow species to move in response to changing conditions. For species that can move, having the ability to do so will be important. For example, connecting rivers and streams to areas that are expected to be cold water refugia in the future may help fish to access those places as water warms.
  • Plan for events that are outside of the climate norm. Climate change will likely cause more extreme events, such as drier, longer droughts or more intense rainstorms. Being prepared for events may be more extreme than historical conditions will prevent those events from being catastrophic. For example, preparing roads, culverts, and bridges for higher volumes of water could prevent roads from washing out, which could make it difficult for people who live rurally to access food or emergency services.

Choosing between options

In presenting two different frameworks, it may seem like I am pitting one against the other!  But if you can’t decide which framework to use, use either – or incorporate the ideas of both into your planning. Both represented a systematic way of thinking through and supporting decision making based on what is important for local forests and ecosystems,

Once you have chosen to go down the path of incorporating these frameworks into your planning, the important choice will be which option to choose within a framework. To choose between options within a framework, managers should consider timescale, spatial scale, and the magnitude of potential change (i.e., a single species vs. an entire ecosystem). It is also important to understand how adaptable an ecosystem or forest resource is, how much community acceptance there will be of any project undertaken, and the values of the local community. Thinking about these in the context of a changing climate will help to decide which option fits the needs of the community or forest best.

Additional Resources




Adaptation Workbook. 25 Oct. 2023,

Linda M. Nagel, Brian J. Palik, Michael A. Battaglia, Anthony W. D’Amato, James M. Guldin, Christopher W. Swanston, Maria K. Janowiak, Matthew P. Powers, Linda A. Joyce, Constance I. Millar, David L. Peterson, Lisa M. Ganio, Chad Kirschbaum, Molly R. Roske, Adaptive Silviculture for Climate Change: A National Experiment in Manager-Scientist Partnerships to Apply an Adaptation Framework, Journal of Forestry, Volume 115, Issue 3, May 2017, Pages 167–178, Online Access.

Millar, C.I., Stephenson, N.L. and Stephens, S.L. (2007), CLIMATE CHANGE AND FORESTS OF THE FUTURE: MANAGING IN THE FACE OF UNCERTAINTY. Ecological Applications, 17: 2145-2151. Online Access.

Swanston, C.W., Janowiak, M.K., Brandt, L.A., Butler, P.R., Handler, S.D., Shannon, P.D., Derby Lewis, A., Hall, K., Fahey, R.T., Scott, L., Kerber, A., Miesbauer, J.W., Darling, L., 2016. Forest adaptation resources: climate change tools and approaches for land managers, 2nd ed. General Technical Report NRS-GTR-87-2. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station, Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, USA. Online Access.