Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Death in Western Forests

This is a post "recycled" from an article I wrote last month for Earthstorys (

I dreamed of flames last night, a forest erupting around me: fogbanks of smoke, a landscape of living flame, come-hither gestures of fiery fingers followed by encircling snares of engulfing orange demons. I awoke trying to run among persistent runnels of fire, smoke filming my eyes and clotting my throat. The root of the dream is no mystery, for the day before we had travelled deep within the smoke of a smoldering forest—the Bull fire in the Gros Ventre Range—a scene made surreal by the dampening effect of an elongated rainstorm, a storm that would prove to save thousands of forest acres no doubt. With the fire suddenly manageable again—for it had grown quite unmanageable, adding more than 1,000 acres every twenty-four hours—the Forest Service hopes to direct the burning back to the mosaic pattern that might be the best hope for preserving the forest’s long term health and its best defense against a burgeoning invasion: the western pine bark beetle.

It is a forest in need of health, a forest, like most in the region and soon throughout the west, sickly with the ravages of the pine bark beetle. Rocky Mountain forests are dying. It is a crisis so severe that it is difficult to describe to those who don’t live in the west or are not frequently visitors over time. Entire landscapes are changing and death is everywhere apparent—mountainsides where brown has replaced green as the dominant color, stands of pine where the death rate can reach greater than 80%. Colorado may have seen the worst ravages thus far, and aerial photographs there reveal National Forests inundated. The standing dead that remains creates a tender-box of fuel in regions that have already suffered year upon year of drought and decades of fire suppression that has created a lethal understory and where often there are twice as many trees as scientists view as healthy.

The current and future devastation is far more than aesthetically unpleasant or visually shocking. Like all radical changes in an ecosystem, this dominant presence by a single species will have caustic effects on most others, and in this case that will ripple all the way up the food chain. For example, the double blow of pine beetle infestations at high altitudes when coupled with the deadly presence of white pine blister rust threatens overwhelming loss of white pines, which means the loss of white pine nuts, a critical staple in grizzly bear diets. Similarly, sudden blow-downs of standing dead wood are not only lethal to the living things in immediate proximity—be they animal or vegetable—the soil disruption will create new erosion hazards, impacting streams, rivers, and their inhabitants alike.

Western forests are in critical condition and there is no clear cure. There are few sure means to kill the beetles. The most effective means is fire, though even then the timing matters, for it needs to occur while the next generation of beetles remains in larval form. One can cut and burn diseased trees at this stage or cut and bury them in an attempt to save those nearby, though this is entirely unrealistic when considering the millions upon millions of acres already in one stage or another of infestation. The traditional environmental control—freezing—where there are -30° temperatures sustained for at least five days, rarely have occurred in recent years. Thus every year the beetles advance further north, though the pundits who deny the existence of global warming refuse a relational view.

If viewed in ecological time, the forests will recover, even if they will be dramatically different forests from the ones we have been familiar with previously. Those who are informed understand the multiple fingers of the human hand that has accelerated conditions where such devastating insects now thrive, including decades upon decades of “management” practices that suppressed fires and encouraged logging techniques detrimental to natural reproductive patterns. Eventually succession will be revealed and western forests will feature more deciduous species and fewer coniferous ones. In my little neck of the woods, this will mean more aspen and more Rocky Mountain maple. Human settlements in wooded western regions probably will fare worse than the forests we have built within, and it is certain our strategies for recovery will prove impoverished by comparison. Coupled with our inability to have the patience for natural transformation, this may well spell intellectual disaster in our relationship with the forest equal to the consequences of catastrophic fires. Indeed the forests will eventually recover, if in ways that we are not accustomed to seeing. The greater question may be whether we will prove capable of learning to change as well, and most particularly change the patterns that aided in the development of the crisis in the first place.

Each morning this week I have awoken to the aroma of smoke, for the Bull fire is but one (and among the smallest) of fires burning in the greater area in a fire season that has proven relatively mild and winds carry far. I suspect we in the west should prepare for a future where the smell of smoke will be the least of our worries and but one lethal element encroaching on our dreams.

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