The Death of Rocky’s Pine Forests: An Analogy for Modern America

Each of us on the staff here has a different set of park resources that fascinates us, that we have studied in depth. Off the top of my head, I can think of individual rangers, each of whom specializes in a different resource within the park: bears, Colorado History, water rights and the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, invertebrates, hummingbirds, moose, wildflowers, wolverines, geology, Grand County History. Just to name a few.

A topic near to my heart is the current issue of the Mountain Pine Beetle and the resulting dead-standing Pine trees.

First of all, it is a fascinating process that we are watching. So much more complicated than some folks might admit. Park visitors, every single day, ask me why this is happening. What has caused this? What is being done about it?

Well, the deaths of millions of pine trees across western North America seems to be boiled down to one culprit: the Mountain Pine Beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae).

That’s the easy answer. That’s the buzz phrase of the decade.

But in reality, we need to look at a few other things.

  1. We need to look at the forest stand conditions pre-epidemic. Here in the Kawuneeche Valley of Colorado, we had very thick stands of Lodgepole Pines. And with few exceptions, these stands were representative of many forest stands throughout the western U.S. Very dense and compact, most of the trees were large – the same age and size. This happened because the last big natural disturbance that came through these stands were over 100 years ago, and the stands had aged. Why? Because we’ve repressed disturbance (a.k.a. “fire”) regimes in our forests. Wildfires would have been very healthy for our lands. (Incidentally, from what I’ve read, many tribes of Native Americans knew this fact, but we white folk refused to listen, thinking we knew better.)
  2. The climate is changing. Don’t give me the line that we can’t prove the climate is changing, or that it’s just a cycle and NOT human-induced. I don’t give a flip how you might phrase it or what you believe the causes of the changes are (believe me, my dad has given me every line in the Republican Handbook). The simple truth is that we are no longer having sufficiently cold winters. You see, this pine beetle is a native species. And yes, there are some birds that prey upon this insect. But historically, cold winters killed off some of the larvae each year. This was one natural means of population control. Without such control in place, and with great habitat and food source (the perfect sized trees), the beetle population flourished.
  3. Along with the warmer winters, we experienced another weather-related phenomenon that has enabled the beetles: drought. Drought-stressed trees have less sap in them. The trees use their sap, in part, to help defend themselves. Without such a defense, the trees face the proverbial uphill battle against any attack.
  4. So what about this fungus? The Blue Stain Fungus is the final straw. The beetles carry the fungus (supposedly in their mouths) and spread it as they chew into the trees. The mycelium of the fungus then grows and spreads, essentially blocking the tree’s phloem, helping to starve a tree that has already been somewhat girdled by beetles.

Ok, so the epidemic is complex and we might not have a complete understanding of every single factor. Add to this complexity one other factor.

The Human Factor.

People are attached to this place. Many of Rocky’s visitors have been here before – often coming to experience the park every summer, if not every season. And it hurts to see a place we love die. It looks like a lot of death and destruction out there on those mountain slopes. It hurts us to watch this, and we want to do something.

But really, at least in part (in this writer’s opinion) we are responsible for this epidemic. We made unhealthy choices for our natural resources. We repressed natural systems. We had unreasonable expectations. We must let this play out. Our forest stands are regenerating themselves, slowly but surely, with no help from humans. Go figure. We need to heed the natural world just a bit more. We need to learn from our experiences.

So there we have it. A very complex issue. A very emotionally-charged issue. An issue of which everyone has an opinion and a solution.

Sound familiar?

In this political season, every issue ought to be treated as such. We need to look beyond our own little scope of knowledge and be willing to listen to all sides. We need to be informed and not just listen to mainstream media stereotypes.

In the last week, I have had to come to a realization. We need to let things play out, just like in our forests. We need to let people make bad choices, so hopefully they will learn from their mistakes. No matter which side of the aisle wins in November, I’m willing to bet it won’t really make an ounce of change in the country if the citizens themselves don’t change.

And we’ll talk about that next.