Dave Cleaves wasn't raised to fight for the trees.

The 62-year-old economist grew up in the cornfields of northwestern Ohio at a time when the state's forests were routinely felled to make way for farmland. But for Cleaves, an outdoor enthusiast, identifying trees always held more appeal than milking cows.

Now Cleaves is charged with charting the course for the Forest Service's response to climate change, helping America's forests and grasslands cope with ongoing threats exacerbated by global warming -- wildfires, diseases and pests. In five months on the job, he has laid out the broad strokes for the agency's next phase in its climate change response.

He is only the second climate change adviser for the century-old agency, and he is the first to take the reins during the Obama administration.

To some, Cleaves may seem like an unconventional choice to wrestle with this dilemma, since he is not a climate scientist. But, with some 25 years of Forest Service work under his belt, he shrugs off the lack of a climate focus in his background. "We have plenty of climate change ecological scientists and experts. My job is to put that together," he said.

And honing that recipe for decisionmaking is his specialty.

"Risk and uncertainty is what drives me," explains Cleaves. He gets a twinkle in his eye when he talks about navigating unknowns to arrive at a decision, his five years as a professor of forest economics shining through. The former Oregon State University professor has a doctorate in economics, specializing in risk management and decisionmaking in forestry. With the Forest Service he has routinely applied his tools of the trade to weigh relative risks and manage trade-offs, wearing a number of hats.

His newest job, however, is expected to be an unprecedented challenge, since predicting climate change's myriad impacts is fraught with uncertainty. As forest ecosystems climb northward, for example, deciding what strain of tree to plant in an area wiped out by wildfires is not just a simple matter of planting what lived there before. A hundred years from now, that area's landscape could look completely different. That, Cleaves admitted, is "daunting."

But uncertainty and imprecise climate modeling do not mean the Forest Service can afford to be crippled by indecision, Cleaves warns. "We can't be too rigid; we have to make the best decision with the information we have now," he said.

One of the biggest issues facing his agency is combating forest fires, a problem that has blazed through more and more of the Forest Service's funds each year, requiring emergency transfusions of cash from accounts dedicated to other areas like reforestation and fire prevention.

Though firefighting activities required just a 13 percent slice of the Forest Service's budget in 1991, they now engulf almost half of the agency's budget. For fiscal 2011, the Obama administration requested $5.38 billion for all the Forest Service's activities, about 49 percent of which would be earmarked for wildland fire activities. In a sense, the agency's main problem is burning through its money. Urban sprawl, in particular, has fueled the bloated firefighting budget, since beating back fires near homes requires more pricey maneuvering.

Meanwhile, the agency's earlier fire suppression policies, drought and the millions of acres of dead trees left in the wake of warm temperature-loving bark beetles also set the stage for more frequent and intense burns. And hotter fires from abundant fuel are scorching soils, which may fundamentally change the landscape.

A risk expert must take some
Cleaves' colleagues hope that his diverse experiences may help him translate the threat of climate change to Forest Service employees and to better partner with sister agencies like the Bureau of Land Management and Fish and Wildlife Service. These agencies with the same mission have to adopt a common approach on these issues, he said. "We need to do more coordination on some of the impacts of climate change and have to move fast on this," he said.

Scientists view Cleaves, a lean, gray-haired man, as a natural bridge between Washington and the land managers on the ground, admired for seeing the "big picture" and helping others to see it, too.

"I think one thing he brings into this is that climate change is one stressor on the environment and he's always bringing in the fact that there are other stressors out there. Climate change is interacting with those stressors, and land managers have to address those other stressors," said Linda Joyce, a climate scientist at the Forest Service's Fort Collins, Colo.-based Rocky Mountain Research Station.

Though Cleaves spent time in the ivory tower during the late 1980s and early 1990s, he also has spent time in the field. He directed the Rocky Mountain Research Station from 2005 to 2007.

His resume also boasts stints in the agency's Washington, D.C., headquarters. There he managed a program focusing on ways to better predict what may happen during a fire, and held another job as the Forest Service's "national decision science specialist," developing tools for improving environmental decisionmaking. Later, Cleaves also worked as the deputy administrator for the Forest Service's $300 million science and technology program.

Still a professor at heart, he asks the big questions, and he is most interested in ensuring the agency teaches its next generation of land managers to deal with risky, fast-changing times. "Like a good billiard player, he or she doesn't just knock it in the pocket, it's about setting up for the next shot," he said.

Taking a big problem to the people level
"[Climate change] is difficult to bring down to a level people see and feel and find something to do about it," Cleaves said. But that's his goal.

Since starting the adviser job in March, reaching out to land managers and to the Forest Service's sister agencies takes the lion's share of his time. This spring, for example, Cleaves started sending out monthly newsletters to the agency's 30,000 employees, detailing the latest in climate change science and sketching out how forest managers can shift their response strategies.

Cleaves also spearheaded the administration's recent documents on climate change, rolling out a strategic road map in June for the agency's climate change plans alongside an accompanying "scorecard" designed to hold employees working on each part of the National Forest System accountable. And he is setting the bar high.

"Few if any forests are expected to be in compliance" with the scorecard's goals this year, said the statement accompanying the document. For one of the more than 150 national forests to pass muster as having climate-savvy management, the employees working in it would need to be able to answer "yes" to seven out of 10 questions about employee education on climate change science and related matters.

"If you look at what's in the scorecard, it's asking them to do things that they have never done before," said Greg Aplet, the senior forest scientist with the Wilderness Society. "It's a recognition things need to change," he said.

In the long run, Cleaves said, making U.S. forests more resilient to climbing temperatures means that private landowners -- which hold the deeds for more than half of all U.S. forestlands -- and state foresters must be brought on board.

Getting forest groups to band together at a time when there is division about how to move forward on questions about wildlands conservation and biomass needs will not be an easy task.

"I think Dave is the kind of relationship builder that may be what the Forest Service needed," said David Parsons, who directed the Rocky Mountain Research Station-based Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute until he retired in January. Cleaves directed the station.

Hitting 'roadblocks' with other agencies
While the Forest Service has spent two decades amassing climate change research, the climate change adviser role was created in 2007 by former Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbell, during her first year on the job.

"I wasn't entirely clear what they would be doing," she said in an interview. She needed someone who could keep an eye on all the different climate change research and "look at it and understand what people on the ground were dealing with on changing climatic conditions," she said, stressing such a person would need to know how all the science would play out for changing land management techniques.

But Kimbell, who has worked with Cleaves for some 20 years, also believed that someone should be coordinating full-time with the Department of the Interior, the White House Council on Environmental Quality and U.S. EPA on climate change to "assess how we could complement other things that were going on and places where we needed to lead," she said.

Achieving that latter goal during her tenure was a problem, she said. But she does not put the blame for that on the shoulders of her agency. "Whether it was political constraints or personalities it's really hard to say," she said. "I just know that we kept hitting roadblocks working with the other agencies," she said.

Her pick for the first climate change adviser, Fred Norbury, retired a year after taking the job, and the position remained vacant until Cleaves was named.

Cleaves' resume "quickly rose to the top" because of his experience working on the research and development side of things and within the national forest system -- giving him "innate credibility," explained Ann Bartuska, the deputy chief of research and development for the Forest Service. Bartuska, who was Cleaves' former boss, was part of the small group of senior personnel who helped Chief Tom Tidwell pick Cleaves for the climate change adviser job.

Preparing a century-old agency for change
In November, months before asking Cleaves to come on board in his current role, Tidwell gave Congress a glimpse of how he views his agency's role with global warming. "In the uncertain environment of climate change, risk management will become critical," he said in prepared remarks. "Our approach is to make forests and grasslands more resilient to disturbances under a range of future conditions."

The two men began delving into climate change discussions several years back when Tidwell served as the Missoula, Mont.-based regional forester for the Northern Region of the Forest Service while Cleaves was at the Rocky Mountain station.

While Tidwell was in Montana, he looked at how to bring the education and science communities closer together on land management, according to Jane Cottrell, deputy regional forester in the Northern Region. Tidwell took significant steps putting climate change into the area's risk assessments, she said. "He positioned us to be much better at assessing and aligning with where the current administration would like to see us in our land management practices," she said. "No one had to convince Tom about this," said Cleaves.

Cleaves and Tidwell, part of a small group who handled the interior West's response to climate change stressors, often talked about the issue. "We talked a lot about how to bring an interdisciplinary approach to the issue and bring social scientists, for example, into the discussion," said Cleaves.

Tidwell's boss, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, has also shone a spotlight on Forest Service climate change issues since arriving on the scene. Last year, he delivered the first speech in decades that was solely focused on forest policy, and climate change was part of his vision. "It is time for a change in the way we view and manage America's forestlands with an eye towards the future," he said. Climate change will play a major role, he said (ClimateWire, Aug. 17, 2009).

Ensuring the Forest Service is prepared for that future, according to Cleaves, means it must learn to be nimble and "expect the unexpected so it won't be caught off-guard."

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500