The trees are dying all over the West

The pines in the above image are as they once were: vigorous, healthy, and beautiful.

All through the northern rockies pine beetle infestation is killing pine trees in hugh swaths.

The death of many of our forests, along with the dissappearance of high mountain glaciers, is the biggest change I have seen in the Rockies in the forty years I have been photographing them. Below is a map of pine beetle damage from Mother Jones.

Here is a map of pine beetle damage in the western US from Mother Jones. Pictures taken in the Canadian Rockies are far worse.

As a landscape photographer I have spent a fair amount of time in the Rocky Mountain high country in the last forty years.  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. 

Large patches of dead and dying trees are seen in the Sierra Nevada mountains from a helicopter tour Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015. Mostly ponderosa and sugar pine trees are dying off in large numbers around Bass Lake and throughout the Sierra Nevada due to a bark beetle infestation brought about by four years of extreme drought in California. Photo: Craig Kohlruss
Here is a picture of severe Pine Beetle damage in the Sierra Nevada

Several summers ago I drove from NM, 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. 

This is a picture of beetle killed pines just north of Breckenridge, CO

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 have been killed by the pine beetle. 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 Silverthorne 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 will eventually die. 

Two similar views of Rocky Mountain National Park showing the inroads made by pine beetles from 2005 to 2009.

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 the past year alone.  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 almost all the lodgepole pines in Northern Colorado and the Front Range will be wiped out in the next five years.  This sounds pretty unbelievable but it seems to be what they are saying. 

My next stop on this trip was at Green River Lakes in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming.  

For as long as I have been going to these lakes, there has been a beautiful campground located on the western shore of this lake.  When I got to this formerly idyllic spot, 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. 

Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park. The beetle kill here isn’t bad as rangers spray this area intensively. However just west of the park, you can drive through mile after mile of dead trees.

“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.

This is what pine forests in the Breckenridge area used to look like.

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’s 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. 

Forty years ago pine forests in the Wind Rivers used to look pretty good. This area is heavily damaged today.

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. 

Without healthy pines like those in this picture, the Rockies will be a much different place.

Here is a picture of Sprague lake in Rocky Mountain National Park. This forest is just slightly touched with beetle kill, but it still isn’t good. If you look closely there are a lot of dying pine in this image.