The Trees are dying

All through the Rockies and the Southwest pine beetle infestation is killing Lodge Poles and Ponderosa Pines in huge swaths.

The death of many of our forests, along with the disappearance of high mountain glaciers, is probably the biggest change I have seen in the Rockies in the forty years I have been photographing them.

As a landscape photographer I  spent a fair amount of time in the Rocky Mountain high country.  Over these years I have seen two major changes in the mountains and forests of this great and beautiful land: the trees are dying and the glaciers are melting as temperatures continue to rise.  For me, these observances are not theoretical science or abstract computer projections, it is personal.  I have seen this happening over the years with my own eyes and what I am seeing is not pretty.  And the prospects for future years are not optimistic.

On a long photo-shoot one summer about ten years ago I drove from New Mexico, up through Colorado, across Wyoming, and then up to Northern Montana, right on the Canadian border.  The higher mountains of all of this country are filled with  lodgepole pine, it is pretty much the dominant tree.  And lodgepole pines, like most of the pines, are very vulnerable to the pine beetle.

One of my first stops this summer was in Summit County Colorado, in the area near Breckenridge and Dillon Lake and Silverthorne.  What is happening to the forest in this area is absolutely shocking.  Over the past five years, hundreds of thousands of acres of Lodgepole Pines are being killed by the pine beetle. Miles and miles long swaths of pines are turning red and then finally into bare poles covering the hillsides.

If you drive west on I-70 from Silverthorn to Frisco and on toward Vail, there are not many unaffected trees left.  In some areas the trees are entirely dead, in others they are 80%, 60%, 40% gone.  In other areas there are just a sprinkling of dead, red trees mixed in with the deep greens of the healthy trees.  But the pine beetle trees are everywhere in the area, and once they get a toehold, all the trees eventually die.

If you search google for  “pine beetle”  you will find hundreds of stories of immanent disaster for the forests of the American West.  It is said that a million acres of pines have been destroyed in Colorado in one year.  Apparently 3.9 million acres in CO, MT, WY, OR, ID, WA and UT were destroyed in 2007.  And this is nothing compared to what is predicted for coming years.

Both the Colorado State Forest Service and the Federal National Forest Service are predicting that all the lodgepole pines in Northern Colorado and the Front Range will be wiped out in the next few decades.  This sounds pretty unbelievable but it seems to be what they are saying.

My next stop on my summer shooting trip was at Green River Lakes in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming.  For as long as I have been going to these lakes, about forty years,  there has been a beautiful campground located right on Green River Lake.  When I got to this formerly idyllic spot on last trip, I was horrified to see that the campground was no longer there.  All the pines had been cut down and sawed up into short logs; the whole place was now a barren patch of ground devoid of trees, grass and even brush and scarred with deep, muddy ruts left by logging trucks.

“What in the world happened here?” I asked a US Forest Service ranger who was about to drive off in his little green forest service truck.  The answer was two words long, “Pine Beetles.”

Almost every tree in the campground had been killed by pine beetles, leaving standing dead trees covered with ugly red and brown needles.  According to the ranger, these trees tend to fall and kill people if they are left standing in campgrounds, so Forest Service policy is to cut them all down.  The beautiful 100 site campground was now down to about six scrubby little sites way off to one side of what was once a great campground.

On the 45 mile gravel road leading to the campground I had noticed that the swaths of Pine Beetle killed trees seemed to be much more extensive than I remembered from my previous visits here.  When I looked around now, there seemed to be almost as many dead trees as live ones in the hills that surround the Lakes.  For the first time, the effects of global warming hit me really hard and up-close and personally.  Here was one of my favorite places in the world dying right before my eyes.

As I drove on to two more of my most favorite places in the world, Teton National Park and Glacier National Park, I saw the same thing happening, on an even bigger scale.  In Glacier, the damage was particularly stunning.  The Eastern part of the Park, particularly east of St Mary Lake is now a wasteland of beetle killed and fire killed trees, for mile and mile after mile.  And in the places where the forest is still green and apparently healthy, there are many beetle killed trees mixed in with the live ones.  Sometimes it is just a few and in other places it is an acre or two or even a 100 or more acres of infected trees.

It looks to me as if it is just a matter of time, not too far in the future, when all of the Lodgepole Pines in these two great parks will be gone forever. Some forestry people say the majestic pines will be gone forever to be replaced by various kinds of scrub growth like Scrub Oak.  Others say the pines may regenerate in 50 years or so.  At any rate, it looks to me like huge areas of the Rocky Mountains are going to change completely in the next few years.

And it is not only the Lodge Pole Pines that are dying.  In one stretch of Montana along the Missouri River I drove through quite a few miles of beetle killed Ponderosa Pines.  And as warmer weather is moving into higher and higher altitudes, other types of pines like White Bark Pines and Jack Pines are also dying from Pine Beetle infestation.

The consensus of opinion as to why this huge epidemic of Pine Beetle devastation has occurred is global warming.  Winters are now much warmer than in the past.  Pine Beetle larvae are killed only by long periods of cold in the minus 20 to minus 40 range and this kind of cold is just no longer happening for long enough perioids in the Rocky Mountains.  So, Pine Beetle larvae are now surviving and our pines are dying.

All of this should be a matter of huge concern for all of us.  Not only is the incredible scenic beauty of our forests and parks about to be destroyed forever, but the loss of all these trees will have immense ecological consequences.  Without trees hillsides will erode, without the shade that trees provide all the understory of grasses and flowers and shrubs will wither and die, the trout streams will warm and the trout will die, and wildlife habitat will be no more.  And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

So, if you want to see our Western National Parks pretty much as they once were or if you want to show them to your children or grandchildren, I wouldn’t waste too much time.  In five or ten years they may be vastly different than they are now.

The image at the top of this page is Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.  Most of the trees in this picture are firs, not pines.
Pine beetles kill pines, not firs.

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