THE PURSUIT OF WORLDLINESS
A blog by Barry Edelson
The Rockies May Crumble
Absolutely Nothing Is Here to Stay
At first glance, it looks like fall in the Rocky Mountains of central Colorado. The deep-green swathes of pine trees that normally blanket the mountains around Vail and Beaver Creek are everywhere tinged with reddish-brown, in some places taking on the appearance of the mountains of New England in October. But this isn't some picturesque autumn landscape: it is still summer in the mountains and the discolored trees are not deciduous maple, oak or birch undergoing their natural annual transformations. These are dead and dying lodgepole pine, the predominant tree at these higher elevations, and the dramatic alteration of the forests is the result of the devastation of the mountain pine beetle.
The beetle and its related species of bark beetles are not foreign invaders to the Rockies. They are an integral part of the ecosystem, but changes to that environment have allowed the insects to wreak havoc on the pine forests over the last decade or so. The current outbreak began in the equally pristine ranges of Alberta, which were struck by a sudden increase in beetle activity in the 1990s. The voracious beetle, ordinarily kept in check by cycles of temperature and precipitation, have swarmed over Colorado. Forestry officials in that state fully expect the entire population of lodgepole pine to be wiped out over the next few years, leaving vast deforested areas that are not merely unsightly for skiers, hikers and others visitors. The destruction is a potential threat to watersheds and therefore to the many residents of the vast affected areas, and to the industries, including tourism, that sustain them.
Why should there suddenly be a 1500-percent increase in the activity of an insect that has co-existed for many thousands of years with the trees that are its only food supply? Epidemics are ultimately fatal to the parasite as well as to the host, and usually only occur when something in an ecosystem has tipped out of balance. In this case, foresters say that a number of conditions have coincided to make this particular outbreak so catastrophic, mainly a prolonged drought, controlled fires, and warm winters. Drought weakens mature trees and leaves them vulnerable to attack. The questionable practice of burning forests deliberately in order to prevent larger fires has, perversely, seemed to caused even greater devastation when natural fires do occur. In combination with the drought, the fires leave ever larger populations of trees open to the beetle's ravenous appetite.
Drought cycles are certainly not new, and the effects of controlled burns are in dispute. The unusual factor that seems to be the most significant catalyst is the warmer climate. Bitterly cold winters, with temperatures well below zero Fahrenheit for days and weeks at a time, are sufficient to keep the beetle population in check. But there have been few spells of such cold temperatures in the last decade, and increasingly warmer winters is a trend that is unlikely to reverse itself any time soon. The death of millions of pine trees high on the slopes of the Colorado Rockies is, to a large degree, one of the numerous and unimaginable consequences of global warming.
There are those who will be reassured by the long-term recovery of the forests. Aspen and other native species that are not susceptible to the beetle's ravages will ultimately reclaim the areas of the forest left barren of pine trees. Even the lodgepole pine could make a comeback, as their temporary disappearance will leave the beetle without a food supply and thereby kill off the insect population for a time. But while the persistence of nature may obscure the immediate effects of a particular ecological calamity, the consequences of artificially induced imbalances in the ecosystem are not so easily remedied. Forests may ultimately appear to recover and provide other plants and animals with new habitats, but they will not be the forests that nature originally made and a cascade of unforseeable effects will be felt, essentially, forever.
Seen the from the exquisite and breathtaking vistas that visitors to Colorado encounter in countless locations, the enormous Rockies would seem to be impervious to our clambering over them. Tall mountain ranges have long been a symbol of permanence and invincibility. We have learned, rather too late, that the the mountains contain habitats no less delicate and vulnerable than those in any other places, and that we, too, are the victims of wholesale and uncontrollable changes in the environments in which we live. Fires and floods wipe out communities and kill people; droughts kill crops and livestock and threaten our water supply. And there are countless other reminders of our very considerable effect on our own ways of life. Not far from Vail is the ghost town of Gilman (left), its land and water so contaminated by a century of mining that it had to be abandoned in the 1980s. After a massive cleanup effort, millions of tons of mining waste still mar the hills, and it is inconceivable that anyone will be able to live there safely ever again.
It is rather too melodramatic, even hysterical, to claim that we are killing ourselves off by our abuse of the environment. Like many other species, we are adaptable and resourceful. We recover from epidemics and other catastrophes and find a way to survive. No doubt, we will continue to do so for a good long time. But what makes us different from the other animals is our supposed concern for other members of our human family. If we behave indifferently to the individual effects of our collective actions, then we have no claim to moral superiority over our fellow creatures, and may very well suffer a fate no better than that of the seemingly indomitable lodgepole pine.
We may yet wake up in time and turn a momentarily popular green movement into a long-term shift in the way we think about our relationship to the Earth. Our track record is not a good one, however, and we may be witnessing in the demise of Colorado's once awe-inspiring pine forests just one more sign that we are entering the perpetual autumn of our irreplaceable planet.
August 19, 2008
— Madelyn Edelson
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