[Preliminary note: I took plenty of pictures along the way but am having difficulty uploading them to a site I can point to. When I get that taken care of, this post will include them.]
I attended “In Case You Missed It: America is in the Middle of a Drilling Boom and Energy Prices are Still High”, a talk given by a Wilderness Society economist yesterday in the Alliance Center, next to the Big Tent at the DNC in Denver, CO. I got plenty of good information from the talk, some of which I plan on blogging about in the future. I picked up a number of scientific papers issued by the Society that I will also use and distill in future posts. But this post will be about an opportunity that arose from my attendance at the talk.
Last night, I was approached by Suzanne Jones, Regional Director for the Wilderness Society, about the potential for a flight today over some roadless areas as well as areas that have been affected by the mountain pine beetle. The flight was provided by EcoFlight’s Bruce Gordon. EcoFlight is a non-profit organization that takes elected officials, media and concerned citizens in the air to get a different vantage point of important environmental issues. Accompanying us were Something The Dog Said, Ian Welsh from firedoglake, and a KGNU cameraman. I’ll see if I can locate his video later.
This flight, and the discussion we had before it, changed my perception of the problem slightly. I, like many in the Western states, have held the view that the extent of the problem is out of control and we must do something about at least some of the dead trees. I still view the problem as out of control. It’s likely more out of control than it probably should be, due to human’s climate forcing. However, I don’t thing we should necessarily do much in terms of dealing with the dead trees now. More on that later.
I’ve covered some of the details on this problem before. I’ve covered some of the reactions that folks have proposed or have begun. A short summary: last year, over 500,000 additional acres of lodgepole pine forest fell to the beetles’ spread, bringing Colorado’s total to over 1.5 million acres of affected forest. Responses have been initiated at the local, state and federal levels. Local efforts have been the first to start, for many reasons. The federal effort is still lagging, mainly due to Republican obstructionism in the Senate as well as subpar maneuvering by Democrats in both houses.
The view from the air is quite different from on the ground. That comes off as an obvious statement, and I even knew it would be so before we took off. Once over the affected regions however, the magnitude of the problem was astonishing. The CSU/Forest Service map of affected areas I’ve pointed to before succinctly presents the problem and most closely resembles what I saw from the air today.
We took off from Jeffco Airport and headed northwest towards the Estes Park area. In doing so, we flew over a number of areas that were at least partially developed as well as large tracts of land that were pristine. The roadless areas were well worth looking at from the air. I can better appreciate why those areas should remain roadless. Whenever a small amount of development is allowed to occur, habitats are broken up, making them more susceptible to weakening and destruction. Tiny splotches of beetle activity could be seen up to this point. A handful of trees here or there were colored differently than the forest that surrounded them.
I believe we flew next to an area southwest of Estes Park, past the first range of the tree-free peaks of the Rocky Mountains. It was here that the devastating effects of uncontrolled beetle activity came to light. From roads passing through the region, you can tell where the beetles have been in recent years. From the air, their range is truly staggering. Not only entire mountains, but mountain after mountain shows evidence of the beetles. Mountains as far as you can see have turned from “ever green” to rust red.
Which is where my viewpoint was changed in the past day. Previously, I was looking for more action to “deal with” all those red trees. I love my mountains, and that had been based on the green carpet over them. But science is important to me, and I had to have it pointed out to me by Suzanne that the forest has its own cycle and we’re witnessing the death part of it. That’s as good for the forest as the naturally occurring fires that should have taken care of some of these trees already. Once the needles fall from the trees, they will turn silver and new lodgepoles will begin growing in between the dead stands. Silver and green is nice. I’ve seen hills that have those on them and they’re quite nice to look at. Eventually, the new trees will be more apparent than the dead trees. That might not happen within my lifetime, but it will happen.
So it’s important to keep balance in mind when thinking about responses to the beetles. Areas around people should of course be protected, but the vast forests should be left more or less alone at this point. Again, inserting infrastructure weakens the overall ecology’s health. But I do think humans have a role to take in the large-scale. We know we’re forcing the climate. We know we should stop that forcing and work towards mitigation by reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases. An unforced climate will allow the forests to regain their balance. Trees will grow and die, beetles will spread by varying degrees and fires will burn, just as they all should.