The age of disturbance


When my East Coast-based family rented a condo in Breckenridge, Colo. for our family vacation in June this year, my dad couldn't stop exclaiming over the dead trees. Scores of lodgepole pines, killed by the bark beetle epidemic, lined pretty much every road we drove down or bike path we pedaled on.

My father, who attended college on a scholarship for pulp and paper mill technology, wondered why the trees weren't being logged and used. As HCN editor Sarah Gilman has noted, part of the problem lies in Colorado's lack of a timber industry robust enough to process hundreds of thousands of acres of dead trees. But the inability to deal with dead trees is just one more problem in a line of management obstacles facing agencies like the U.S. Forest Service, as they struggle to cope with forest management in the age of disturbance.

A recent report [PDF] issued by the USFS on its response to the bark beetle outbreak in Colorado and southern Wyoming points to deeper problems than a paucity of sawmills. Part of land managers' slow response to beetle kill was based on the Service's lack of funding to do anything about the epidemic when it took hold in the 1990s, the report authors write. Add that to a "lack of public acceptance" of the large-scale logging that managers use to make forests more diverse and resilient, which led to even-aged stands of trees more susceptible to beetle outreaks, and you get a pretty perfect setup for the type of sudden, massive kill  that so shocked my dad.

It's not just in the Rockies that forests are changing at unprecedented speeds. In early November, a study modeling disturbances in Pacific Northwest forests [PDF] noted current shifts in species composition while predicting "large scale disturbances," largely climate-change caused, by 2080. As summers are drier and winters less cold and snowy, the authors write, lower elevation species will invade the alpine, and tree-killing diseases and insects will likely gain an advantage -- something we've noted in these pages, too. In places like Central California, which lie on the edges of forest belts, researchers expect more than half the tree species to die off; a 2008 paper predicted two thirds of California's endemic species will have their range reduced by greater than 80 percent.

Yet in the face of a rapidly changing Western forest landscape, public land managers have yet to show they're ready for this brave new world of disturbance forestry. In 2008, an HCN cover story, Unnatural Preservation, detailed agencies' lack of readiness. As M. Martin Smith and Fiona Gow wrote,

An emerging scientific consensus says that unless the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, state fish and game departments and private environmental organizations re-direct their missions to deal with climate change, they'll oversee the advance of nationwide environmental catastrophe. The character of public wildlands will be drastically -- and permanently -- altered.

That's already happening. Senator Mark Udall, D-Colo., who commissioned that Forest Service report on its management of the pine bark beetle epidemic, is working on legislation that will aid officials in managing forests impacted by the beetle. But if it's not the beetle, it will be the fungus, or the drought, or the intensified spring runoff, or the sudden decline or death of more aspens, live oaks, or other tree species. And what will public lands managers do then?

As social scientists from Max Weber on have noted, adapting to rapid change is a major weakness of bureaucracies. Underfunded, politically polarized ones are probably even more likely to fail to adjust. When I reported last year on new developments in genetic sequencing of evergreen trees that could help foresters conduct restoration using trees better adapted to future climatic conditions, many of the USFS managers I talked with were wary about their ability to implement that science; changing management plans can take years, maybe decades, they warned.

And even when bureaucracies are quick to act, as forest managers have been in British Columbia in response to beetle kill, it's unclear their actions meet management goals. A recent investigative piece in the Vancouver Sun points out that in British Columbia, where Canadian forests responded to beetle kill by allowing significant amounts of salvage logging, "the collective impact of such large-scale harvesting of a landscape hit by pine beetles is unknown."

Commenters on that piece pointed out the reporter may be reacting more to the shock of seeing clear cuts than to science showing negative environmental impacts on logging. But that's just the problem; when active forest management involves large scale logging, there is a visceral negative public reaction. And in that slows foresters' ability to adaptively manage even more.

Much like the inexorable increase in global temperatures caused by rising CO2 levels, the science on major landscape-level change caused by those increases keeps marching forward. As researchers document one shift after another, each with their cascade of impacts to the wildlife and lands many of us turn to for inspiration, peace, and meaning, we're left with a system of forest management -- bureaucracy -- invented in the 1920s, being applied by an agency over a century old. Back then, atmospheric CO2 levels were about 280 parts per million. Now, they're 390. Maybe our brave new planet needs a brave new form of management.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn is the online editor at High Country News.

Image of beetle killed trees in Colorado courtesy Flickr user Richard Saxon.

CO2 concentrations graph courtesy NOAA.

Andrew V Sipocz
Andrew V Sipocz
Dec 05, 2011 10:49 AM
More science is needed. What if the build up of bark beetles and other tree pathogens causes a build up of beetle, fungi and other pathogenic predators, parasites and other organisms that would feed on or otherwise kill them? Perhaps salvage logging would only prolong the transition to a more resilient forest rather than facilitate it?

We'd best figure out this new brave form of forest management quickly.

Are the staff of HCN aware of research into this that could perhaps be reported on in future issues?
Stephanie Paige Ogburn
Stephanie Paige Ogburn Subscriber
Dec 05, 2011 01:22 PM
Hi Andrew,

A couple similar spheres of research in this area are the fields of Reconciliation Ecology and Conciliation Biology. UC Davis has an Institute for Contemporary Evolution, and Scott Carroll, based there, has published some interesting work on this topic. Their website is:

There's a CSU Fresno ecologist, too, that writes and thinks a lot about reconciliation ecology. His blog is here:


Stephanie Paige Ogburn, online editor
Tim Baker
Tim Baker Subscriber
Dec 05, 2011 01:39 PM
One thing that struck me about this blog was how it dovetails with another report I saw recently about declining membership in the Society of American Foresters (the professional organization of forestry) and declining enrollment in the nation's forestry schools. What if part of the problem is that we are beginning to experience a real lack of people who are trained in forest management issues within the agencies as the Baby Boomer retirement wave takes hold?

This isn't just unique to the U.S., if that's indeed part of the problem. I spoke with folks from New Zealand 5 or 6 years ago who said they had too few people graduating from forestry programs to fill the necessary jobs and were trying to figure out how to attract more of their residents to the field. Perhaps decades of strife over how to manage our public forests has resulted in fewer people actually interested in pursuing this as a profession.

Andrew V Sipocz
Andrew V Sipocz
Dec 05, 2011 02:19 PM
I'll probably tick some colleagues off with this comment, but when I graduated from Forestry school in 1985 the profession was rapidly changing into one where knowledge of and experience with silvaculture and subsequently forest ecology is not as important as business management and crop production science. We've largely turned production forests into nothing more than slower growing corn fields. Isn't the purpose of the forest products industry nothing more than to make the growing of forests (and all their attendent species) versus trees unnecessary?

Meanwhile the number of full-time federally and state employed foresters and biologists whose duty is maintaining the health of the forests and the better understanding their ecology and use has declined. In my opinion, government employees have largely been turned into contracting officers.

I read some of the Conciliatory Biology blog that Ms. Ogburn linked to and a quote from George Schaller struck me. He basically stated that we have to recognize that conservation is based on moral principles rather than economic. That reflects my view of U.S. citizen opinion in general in regards to conservation of biodiversity or of all living things. That the knowledge and further study of forestry and forest ecology (and the other organismal sciences) is a nice thing to have when times were good but is now viewed as an unnecessary expense. Remember in the 1800's biology and much of science was conducted by wealthy gentlemen as a hobby of sorts. It appears that's where we're heading to.

I disagree with this notion and instead think as Aldo Leopold had it right when he stated that if the land is good as a whole, then all parts of it are good. That one who asks of a plant or animal, "What good is it?" is exhibiting ignorance of how the world works and its inherent worth; which is incalculable.
Charlie Hohn
Charlie Hohn
Dec 05, 2011 05:24 PM
In some ways it makes sense to log off dead trees, if there's a market and are available mills. In truth though, there is a huge problem: roads. In many cases logging roads cause more long-term damage to a forest than even large scale clear-cuts would, as the roads cause massive erosion, divert surface flow of water, add to the spread of invasive plants, disturb tree roots, damage wetlands and watersheds, and generally just slice the forest to bits. It is possible to make roads that do a lot less damage, but it is expensive.

I'm not sure if there is a solution to the problem. Steampunk-style zeppelin logging comes to mind, but of course is not actually feasible. Helicopters are expensive and dangerous and use large amounts of fossil fuels. In some cold areas you can use snowmobiles or snow cats to move trees when the ground is frozen, but in most areas this is iffy.

The other issue? Forestry in its current form was developed in the eastern US, largely Hubbard Brook of New Hampshire. There are probably ways of sustainably harvesting timber from most of the west coast forests, but people tend to try to use east coast methods. Here in New England, they work great, and I think there is room for a lot more sustainable forestry than we practice now, even. But, the same methods don't work in the drier, steeper, emptier west. Patches of trees of a single species and even single age are not necessarily unnatural or problematic out west, even though here in Vermont they would be cause of great concern. Habitat diversity in the West seems to be sometimes less per acre than the eastern deciduous forests, but much higher in some cases when you expand your view over thousands of acres (especially so in CA). Patchy forests with highly different vegetation communities differentiated by moisture and temperature need very different management from the East Coast forests which are influenced by forces more subtle on a spacial basis (though it's hard to imagine a subtle ice storm or hurricane.

So, we don't understand the past or present West, and it is changing quite rapidly to boot. Quite a challenge.
Barbara Moritsch
Barbara Moritsch
Dec 05, 2011 07:54 PM
I was surprised you did not mention fire suppression/exclusion at all in this article. I know its old news, but the lack of large-scale logging is not the only reason our forests are in such poor condition now--I think we have to keep this in mind as we move forward.
Stephanie Paige Ogburn
Stephanie Paige Ogburn Subscriber
Dec 06, 2011 09:09 AM
Thanks, Barbara, for your comment. The main reason I did not address fire suppression is that the piece was first and foremost about the impacts climate change is having on Western forests. The USFS report that Udall commissioned on the response to beetle kill as an example does discuss fire suppression as a problem, but since that is such a well-known issue AND wasn't one of the primary focuses of the report or my blog post, I did not address it. The other major scientific paper on climate change impacts in the Pacific Northwest, by Waring et. al, that I reference actually discounts fire suppression as a major disturbance causal factor when compared to climate change. So, while fire suppression is commonly viewed as a problem relating to current forest health, the Waring paper actually viewed it as a much smaller piece of the overall problem when compared to the impacts climate change is going to have on forests. So, I chose to focus more on climate change and the effects of a lack of logging activity, which I found interesting.

Thanks a lot,

Stephanie Paige Ogburn, online editor.
Seth A Mangini
Seth A Mangini Subscriber
Dec 06, 2011 10:13 AM
Its a shame we live in a country (and perhaps world) that is governed by rigid political ideologies rather than science. Hopefully we can learn to do better.
Daniel Watts
Daniel Watts Subscriber
Dec 30, 2011 05:25 AM
Seth, I imagine you are the Seth Mangini I know from Philmont. Quite a surprise to see your name in the comments. Good to see you're a fellow subscriber.
Seth A Mangini
Seth A Mangini Subscriber
Jan 05, 2012 07:52 PM
Daniel Watts! Fancy meeting you here!