Most of us have seen the disturbing impacts from pine-beetle infestations around the West while driving along I-70. Small spruce beetle infestations and other forest pests are present in our backyard: beetle outbreaks on the south side of the canyon on the way down valley, spruce bud worm feeding on Valley Floor trees, caterpillar infestations in Ophir, and aspens dying on the Uncompahgre Plateau. While forests in the northern San Juans have not been hit by the epidemic proportions seen on the Front Range and in the Rio Grande National Forest south of Telluride, we are not necessarily immune to the shocking increase in mortality hitting our forests. Dryer conditions, warmer temperatures and the increased severity of storms—climate change—is impacting all of our natural resources. And the condition of Colorado’s forests offer a daily visual reminder. Scientists conducting research in our region tell us that the diversity of our forests and the benefits of high-elevation snowmelt and wind patterns have kept the beetles at bay…for now.
Talk of “forest health” tends to judge current conditions, but history teaches us that forests experience periods of stability and disturbance, adjusting and evolving to become more resilient. Many of our forest management practices turn out to be counter productive, such as decades of fire suppression resulting in dangerously fueled and stressed forests highly susceptible to disease, insects and fire. Land managers and ecologists learned the hard way, unfortunately, after well-intended efforts to stop the beetle outbreaks in the northern Rockies only exacerbated the die off. As Andrew Nikiforuk states in his book Empire of the Beetle, “By 2010, the insect had girdled and killed more than 30 billion lodgepole, pinyon, ponderosa, and whitebark pines as well as white spruce and Englemen spruce. Human loggers destroyed almost as many trees in a vain attempt to stop the invasion.” He goes on to state that “Although climate change triggered the completely unprecedented event, human ignorance and arrogance set the stage for the second largest outbreak in North American history.” Science now tells us that the natural processes are important, and through drought, beetle attacks and wildfire, forests are actually becoming more resilient and are adjusting to climate change. Forests that might look dead now contain seeds that will birth new saplings.
Nevertheless, we must balance the long-term needs of forests with the more immediate concerns for human safety and protection of critical infrastructure. Sheep Mountain Alliance partnered with the U.S. Forest Service and Colorado State Forest Service last summer to host a forest health workshop aimed at educating the community and encouraging homeowners in the “wildland-urban interface” to mitigate wildfire proactively. Homeowners in Mountain Village, Ski Ranches and other communities that border national forests were encouraged to establish species diversity and “firewise” their property. (Look for the “defensible space” recommendations at www.firewise.org). Scientists informed participants that wildfire danger is not increasing because of dead trees; it’s the warmer, dryer conditions and increasing severity of storms that are to blame. Brown forests may invoke fear, but if we look at the entire cycle, we might find a process of defense that will generate younger, healthier, more diverse forests for the next generation. While land management agencies feel increasing pressure to address wildfire danger and beetle infestations, it’s actually the homeowners who live in the “wildland-urban interface” who need to take action. It’s too expensive, ecologically damaging and, ultimately, ineffective to reduce these threats in the backcountry.
Currently, the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forest is responding to both an immediate fear of wildfires and the timber industry’s desire to reinvigorate the Montrose mill by designing a 10-year program called “Spruce Beetle Epidemic Aspen Decline Management Response” (SBEADMR). Until recently the public process of drafting the environmental impact statement has lacked transparency and been based on outdated science. Sheep Mountain Alliance, along with other regional conservation groups, rallied to pressure U.S. Forest Service staff to slow down and allow up-to-date forest ecology and management science to inform the process. We are not trying to stop this program. We believe that with management guided by current science, the program can address threats to life, communities and infrastructure effectively and help the regional economy, both recreation and small forest products businesses, while achieving long-term ecological benefits.
To this end, we convinced the U.S. Forest Service to organize a forest ecology and management science workshop, which will take place in Montrose on August 19. (For details, go to sheepmountainalliance.org.) We encourage you to attend what we hope will be a policy-shaping discussion led by scientists who we hope will be allowed to revamp the outdated management practices with smarter and more effective long-term solutions to both protect communities and allow forests to adapt to changing conditions.