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Know the West

Missing the subdivisions for the trees


At first it's hard to tell what we're looking at. The tiny plane bumps and bounces through turbulence that warns of an incoming winter storm, repeatedly bucking my too-tall self (despite tight seatbelt) into the low ceiling and knocking the lens of my camera against the window. Beyond the smeared glass, rolling mountains spread eastward from Colorado's Roaring Fork Valley, their trees a filigree of fresh snow. In the valleys between, access-roads and driveways to ritzy subdivisions scrawl in weird loops over the winter-locked landscape.

I brace myself against the seat for a more steady view as Ecoflight pilot Bruce Gordon banks steeply around a nameless wooded ridge, and then I see it: The unmistakable rust of beetle-kill peeking from beneath all that white. The other passengers in the plane -- mostly reporters -- are silent as Gordon exclaims again and again how much closer large-scale infestations of the bug have gotten to the valley, home of the resort towns of Aspen and Snowmass. And indeed they have, helped along by warmer winters and drought -- symptoms of our changing climate -- creeping inexorably westward from hard-hit areas in the northern part of the state and leaving a grand total of 4 million acres of trees dead in Wyoming and Colorado as of last year.


Similarly dire stories resounded later that day at the main event, "Forests at Risk: Climate Change and the future of the American West," a symposium with an all-star list of speakers put on in Aspen by the local nonprofit For the Forest.

Forest Service plant pathologist Jim Worrall was on hand to inform the several-hundred member audience that outbreaks of Sudden Aspen Decline, or SAD, triggered by deep drought at the beginning of the decade have killed off 17 percent of Colorado's aspens to date, and that as climate change progresses, we can expect that at least two thirds of the 16 million acres now suitable for aspen in Colorado and Wyoming will no longer be so by 2060.

University of Montana professor of forest entomology and pathology Diana Six explained how warmer temperatures have allowed bark beetles to shorten their life-cycle from two years to one and go into reproductive overdrive, increasing their lethal spread accordingly. In white bark pines, an important food source for grizzly bears, the bugs move so fast -- three years to the typical seven it takes for them to kill a lodgepole -- that study sites are unrecognizable from one year to the next.

Meanwhile, US Geological Survey research ecologist Phillip van Mantgem delivered the grim news that tree mortality is increasing (and doubling over an 18 year period) in step with increasing temperatures and decreasing moisture in 87 percent of study plots in older forests in the West. And it's not just here, USGS research ecologist Craig Allen informed us, flipping through images of dead and dying trees in Spain, Algeria, Australia and Canada.

The event capped off with an original and stirringly apocalyptic slideshow by Nobel Laureate and former Vice President Al Gore. "If you love the forests and you care about what's happening to them, the number-one connection to what's happening to them is warmer temperatures," he implored the audience as he tabbed through images of the ostensible effects of climate change: beetle-killed forests in British Columbia and the Western states, catastrophic wildfires in Russia and Australia, floods in Brazil and Australia, and then the Grand Ole Opry, knee-deep in water in Nashville, Tenn. "This is a forest issue. It is a political issue. It's an economic issue. It's a national security issue. It's a jobs issue. But at the bottom, it is a moral issue, and we have to be a generation willing to stand up and do the right thing."

As the audience rose in standing ovation, I thought about what that right thing might be. Earlier in the day we'd heard a little bit about an aggressive, collaborative effort to stop the spread of the beetle on Smuggler Mountain, a popular recreation spot just outside of Aspen. The Forest Service, Pitkin County, the City of Aspen and For the Forest have been working together to remove beetle brood trees and treat whole stands with the beetle-repelling pheromone verbenone. And after just two summers, the project is showing some success, with infestations in untreated stands compounding forty-fold, while infection rates in treated stands went down. Aspen's tried to lead in other ways, too -- including through its Canary Initiative, an effort to slice local greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050. Also at the conference, politicians lauded biomass startup initiatives to link clean energy with forest health work. Gore called for some national mechanism for regulating carbon and a revolution in clean energy that will edge out fossil fuel use and revive the U.S.'s manufacturing sector.

But the conversation was lacking in one glaring way -- especially given the event's location within striking distance of the mini-mall-sized houses (which loomed unignorably over my left shoulder through the giant picture windows of the Doerr-Hosier Center) peppering Red Mountain, the private jet-dominated airport which accounts for a sizeable chunk of Aspen's greenhouse gas emissions, the four ski resorts that draw people here from all over the world.

No one pointed the finger back at us -- at our insatiable appetite for energy, be it "dirty" or "clean;" at our use and over-use of resources -- land, water, timber -- regardless of our political affiliations or whether we're global-warming believers. Energy efficiency and conservation got barely a nod. There was no mention of living smaller, closer to home. After the auditorium had cleared and everyone dispersed to a fancy reception with live music and free food, a colleague snarkily dubbed the day's proceedings "Drive For the Forest."

Thoughtful, small-scale, collaborative responses like cutting those trees on Smuggler Mountain are undoubtedly part of the solution. But beetle kill is just a symptom. Later that night, flipping back through the photos I took from the plane, it wasn't the images of dead trees that arrested my attention.

It was the subdivisions.


Sarah Gilman is HCN's associate editor.