SUMMIT DAILY - 3/5/11 Missing the Subdivision for the Trees

Mar 5, 2012







At first it's hard to tell what we're looking at. The tiny plane bumps and bounces through turbulence that warns of a winter storm. Beyond the window, rolling mountains spread east from Colorado's Roaring Fork Valley, their trees flocked in fresh snow. In the valleys, subdivisions scrawl in weird loops over the winter-locked landscape.

And then I see it: The unmistakable rust of beetle-kill peeking from beneath all that white. The other passengers in the plane — mostly reporters — are silent as Ecoflight pilot Bruce Gordon tells how much closer large-scale infestations of the bug have gotten to the valley, home of the resort towns of Aspen and Snowmass. And indeed they have. Helped along by warmer winters and drought, they've crept ever westward from hard-hit areas in the northern part of the state and left a grand total of 4 million acres of trees dead in Wyoming and Colorado as of last year.

Similarly dire stories resounded later that day at the main event, “Forests at Risk: Climate Change and the future of the American West,” a symposium with an all-star list of speakers put on in Aspen by For the Forest, a local nonprofit.

Forest Service plant pathologist Jim Worrall informed the audience of several hundred people that outbreaks of Sudden Aspen Decline, or SAD, triggered by deep drought at the beginning of the decade, have killed off 17 percent of Colorado's aspens to date, and that as climate change progresses, we can expect that at least two thirds of the 16 million acres now suitable for aspen in Colorado and Wyoming will no longer be so by 2060.

University of Montana professor of forest entomology and pathology Diana Six explained how warmer temperatures have allowed bark beetles to shorten their life-cycle from two years to one and go into reproductive overdrive, increasing their lethal spread accordingly. In white bark pines, an important food source for grizzly bears, the bugs move so fast — three years to the typical seven it takes for them to kill a lodgepole — that study sites are unrecognizable from one year to the next.

Meanwhile, US Geological Survey research ecologist Phillip van Mantgem delivered the grim news that tree mortality is increasing — and doubling over an 18-year period — in step with increasing temperatures and decreasing moisture in 87 percent of surveyed older forests in the West. And it's not just in this country, said USGS research ecologist Craig Allen, as he showed images of dead and dying trees in Spain, Algeria, Australia and Canada.

Capping the conference was Nobel Laureate and former Vice President Al Gore; not surprisingly, his message was apocalyptic: “This is a forest issue. It is a political issue. It's an economic issue. It's a national security issue. It's a jobs issue. But at the bottom, it is a moral issue, and we have to be a generation willing to stand up and do the right thing.”