A sucker punch to the stomach: When trees turn red

by Allen Best

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.

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