America’s Forests Feeling the Heat from Beetles and Wildfires

Across America’s western regions, our vast green forests are changing colors, but not the traditional fall colors we celebrate this time of year. Millions of acres of pine forests in the central and northern Rockies are turning red, victimized by beetles that used to die off during cold winter months.

Similarly, vast expanses of forests and rangelands in the Southwest and parts of Texas are blackened in alarming amounts by an increasing number of wildfires.

Climate scientists, ecologists, forest service officials and outdoor enthusiasts alike are troubled by images of these red and black mountain forests. On the one hand, they know that fire and beetles have always been part of the ecology of a healthy forest. On the other, they are troubled by the frequency and intensity of beetle-kill and fires in the last decade, and the predictions by scientists that these extremes can be expected to worsen in the coming decades.  As described so well in a recent article in the New York Times (“With Deaths of Forests, a Loss of Key Climate Protectors”), we can now see the signs of global warming right before our very eyes, as rising average temperatures and deepening drought reduce the margin of adaptability of natural systems to cope with natural stresses driven to unnatural extremes.

As our forests degrade, we are losing a vital defense against climate change. Trees absorb about a quarter of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions – equal to nearly all the carbon dioxide spewing from the world’s cars and trucks. When millions of acres of trees die, they not only lose much of their ability to absorb emissions, they can become net carbon sources – emitting more than they absorb. Keeping forests healthy is a fundamental defense against the consequences of man-made climate change.

But there are limits to what we can accomplish with wiser management.  The root cause of the new hyper-stresses on our forests is not in the forests themselves, but in an energy policy that literally subsidizes the sources of massive destruction.  Current policy subsidizes the consumption of electricity from coal plants, gasoline from oil refineries, and natural gas production from pipelines. The carbon from these polluting sources is dumped into the atmosphere without cost to the polluter, but at great cost to the rest of us and to the forests which protect us.  The beetles take the rap while the polluters take the money and run.

Understanding the real causes does not mean ignoring the effects. Even if all greenhouse gas emissions ceased immediately, the gases already in the atmosphere would continue threatening our environment.  We are learning more every day about what works to keep forests resilient, and work is begging to be done to restore stream buffers, remove invasive species, reforest after intense fire, and decommission unused logging roads so they don’t become highways for erosion.

But there are limits to what can be done in the face of change at the scale and pace of global warming.   We don’t have the resources to match the gathering storm, and often the public demand to “do something” sometimes leads policymakers and land managers to overreact by stripping the land of unsightly beetle damage or aggressively suppressing fire in the back country– actions which interfere with nature’s extraordinary ability to heal itself.

Worse still is the reluctance to speak plainly about the only long-term solution.  The consensus of scientists is that a true catastrophe looms.  It can be blocked, at least partially, if we stop dumping carbon pollution into the air and using clean renewable sources of energy instead.  If we do not, Mother Nature will send us ever stronger, unmistakable, undeniable signals of her own.  They will come in the form of more severe fires in Rick Perry’s Texas, more severe drought in Herman Cain’s Georgia, more severe flooding in Mitt Romney’s New England, and more severe heat waves in Barack Obama’s Chicago.

Our green landscapes have shown a remarkable ability to regenerate again and again, but their capacity to survive repeated cycles from green to red, to black, and back to green is not infinite.  The future survival of these landscapes is now critically dependent on our willingness to speak out and demand policies that reduce the carbon pollution that is forcing unnatural cycles of burn and blight.

Are you interested in The Wilderness Society’s work on climate policy?  Check out these links: