A sucker punch to the stomach: When trees turn red


Colorado's bark beetle epidemic is unlike anything in the state's still-brief recorded history. Foresters say 95 percent of our lodgepole pines will be dead within just a few more years, with beetles likely to burrow next into the ponderosa pine along the urbanized Front Range corridor.

To some people, this has been like a sucker punch to the stomach. Driving on Interstate 70 west from Denver, you see whole hillsides of trees red as rust, as if they'd had a bad hair-dye job. Other stands have lost their needles altogether. Imagine never showing up for a high school reunion until your 50th.

Forests were once seen as friendly places in Colorado; now they produce anxiety. Just as whitening hair tends to remind us of mortality, dying and dead trees provoke thoughts of fire. Colorado is not alone in this. Other epidemics in the making exist in the North American West. But few other places have so many people living amid the forests as Colorado does.

This bark beetle epidemic is forcing us to redefine our relationship with nature –- again. In the first wave of European-based settlement, in the 19th century, the miners, loggers and railroaders saw the forests as a treasure house of wood. It was a free-for-all, with predictable results. That led to creation of the U.S. Forest Service, which moderated the extraction and, at its extreme, tried to micro-manage nature.

Then, after World War II, concurrent with the arrival of the recreation-based economy in Colorado and elsewhere, attitudes shifted again. I saw the apex of this change 15 years ago in ski towns where there was an almost knee-jerk reaction against all timber sales, and, by extension, the Forest Service.  "I've read about those guys in Sports Illustrated and what they're doing on the Tongass Forest in Alaska," said one of Vail's more strident speakers at a meeting in 1988.

All trees were beautiful, and by extension, all timber sales were ugly. I remember another incident, from 1996, when the Forest Service proposed to burn the bushes and some trees along Vail's periphery. A distressed homeowner, a transplant from California, said she had moved to Colorado to be next to trees and wanted no part of this controlled fire. A forest, for her and many others, was forever.

The beetle epidemic has provoked new attitudes. Several delegations from ski towns have gone to Washington, D.C., in recent years, only this time they plead for federal money to manage the forest edges. You might call these below-cost timber sales.

Yet the federal government cannot possibly become what amounts to a gardener, tending to the vast stands of forests that are the backyard and backdrop in our new settlement of Colorado, a settlement based on esthetics and not extraction. At best it can try to do so in selective areas. This bark beetle epidemic, which seems to be exacerbated by man-made warming laid on top of natural climatic variability, only proves the enormous power of natural cycles.

We need new terms of settlement, a better integration into this landscape. Forests can, as they once did, provide wood for local housing and heating. Municipalities and fire districts have begun demanding defensible spaces around homes and other buildings. Stylish but fire-friendly wood-shake shingles are getting replaced.

The lesson here is not that we face a new calamity, but rather that we require a new adjustment. We have always lived in places where fire occurs. Newer research led by bio-geographer Tom Veblen finds a correlation between forest fires in the West and sea-surface temperatures in the North Atlantic. He's found that drought and heat remain the primary predictor of forest fires.

Veblen and forest ecologist W.H. Romme also say that red needles should not be seen as something gone horribly wrong: "From a purely ecological standpoint, dead and drying trees do not necessarily represent poor 'forest health.' They may instead reflect a natural process of forest renewal."

Renewal is evident In the Williams Fork Valley, the epicenter of Colorado's beetle epidemic. Green saplings have emerged amid the gray tree trunks. And on mountainsides glowing in the light of late day with the dirty red of dead needles, I see something akin to the phenomenon called alpenglow. These dying trees, I think to myself, might they be a beautiful sight?

Allen Best is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He covers forests, resort towns and natural-resource issues from his home in Arvada, Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

Pine Beetle
Aug 18, 2009 10:13 AM
Finally, a level voice weighing in on the beetle scare. Well done.
Fallen trees will broaden our horizon
Michael Kirkpatrick
Michael Kirkpatrick
Aug 18, 2009 11:49 PM
I appreciate Allen Best's conclusion, that our 'red tree' predicament requires a new aesthetic and a new ethic. Our forests have been resident much longer than we have, and they have undergone changes of much greater magnitude than we have seen. 95% of lodgepoles dying in unison is indeed a watershed moment in our history, but no more than a blip in the history of the landscape. This same land (more or less) has passed through ice ages and meteor clouds, and what has emerged, up until very recently, has been our beloved Colorado. Nature has a way of coming out ahead, and it will move beyond this challenge too, whether we get in the way of it or not. In the meantime maybe we'll cultivate a valuation of the process of nature as much as we do the static image.
the early beetle effort
Dan Chisholm
Dan Chisholm
Aug 24, 2009 12:19 AM
    There was an epidemic of this proportion (relatively) which attacked only the Ponderosa Pine, specially along the front range, about 35 to 40 years ago. Distressed homeowners living in that beautiful transition zone, took up private and expensive tasks; each one having the responsibility to cut down infected trees; slice them up and pile them up and spray them, and cover them with visquene. The next year there would be a few more trees infected, but less and less, by their efforts. Around their homes, they created safe zones (considering wildfires), but their real concern was aesthetic, and the inadvertent effect was aesthetically appreciable: A Japanese garden, tended appeal. Fortunately, favorable conditions; abundant moisture and frigid temperatures, followed.
    Now I notice that the saved, giant Ponderosas are again under attack, but the new growth is unscathed. Also, I think that the infestation has spread to spruce and fir as evidenced in the North Park to Williams Fork forests where the devastation is 95% of the total, not just the lodgepole.
    I want to continue to comment with a host of suggestions, but this comment is already too long and out of place.
    Nice article, Mr. Best, and I adhere to the notion that there might be beauty in the rust.

Great article, but GW will kick our butts
Carol Ann
Carol Ann
Aug 25, 2009 04:38 PM
I fail to see how pumping massive amounts of GHGs into the atmosphere by combustinig fossil fuels adds to the "natural variability." If it weren't for the massive burning of fossil fuels, we wouldn't be in this mess.

If tree death was the only symptom of global climate change, we'd be fine. But it's clearly not. When all the trees die, how will the watersheds work? What about all the detritus that will flow into our reservoirs? And what about increasingly hot summers and more and hotter forest fires?

These are not trivial issues obviously. But I am afraid that Mr. Best attempts to placate the "global warming isn't so bad" crowd by downplaying what is really going on.

Do we need a new aesthetic? With a financial system on the brink, peak oil around the corner,,global warming cutting into our food supply, massive starvation and climate refugees, figuring out whether red trees are aesthetically pleasing will be the least of our worries.
Orange Isn't Bad
Tim Gaines
Tim Gaines
Aug 26, 2009 08:53 AM
My marketing brain says that the orange tint in the forest from the lodgepoles should be likened to the yellowing of aspen! Some of the alpenglow pictures of middle-distance hillsides and candles we have taken in North Park are beautiful. The lodgepole renew every 100 - 300 years, the aspen do it every year - ho hum! We are lucky to live in this period to get to see it... and perhaps learn from it.
john w. seidel
john w. seidel
Aug 25, 2009 05:13 PM
Hi Alan,
Good overall coverage, a goof follow up would be to cite recent history of Montana and British Columbia. Beetles have been doing their thing up there for over 10 years. They have infected several species of lower level pines (white pine) that they thought would be exempt. Millions of acres were 100 percent killed. Kelowna in the Okanagan Highlands suffered a devastating fire in 2003 when over 200 homes were lost. In July of this year after a cold front went through in July they had over 350 fires started by lightning.
Lots of biologists are trying to determine what will take the forests place. More Aspen? More shrubs? Lodgepole pines require a fire to start over. They should do well. Its just a long drawn out cycle and we are just around to only see a part of it.
There are known unkowns...
Aug 26, 2009 02:26 PM
A problem here, as suggested by the article, is that we really don't know jack. Of course, this is a concern in many other natural resource issues as well. It boils down partly to the fact that natural cycles happen on much longer intervals than we can readily perceive.

That said, one should not dismiss out of hand that we have done something (climate change?) to exacerbate the beetle problem. What about the potentially devastating spread of Pine Beetles to elevations--and thus species--that have previously been just a bit too harsh to support them?

To ignore our role is irresponsible as it is the sort of attitude that absolves us of any responsibility for our actions.