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.