30 Day Writing Challenge — Day 12: Two Words/Phrases That Make You Laugh

The National Parks should be privatized.

Climate change either isn’t real or isn’t caused by humans.

But the laughter brought on by these phrases probably is not the kind of laughter that the writer of the Challenge list meant.

Actually, these two phrases make me want to punch someone. And sadly, both are WAY too complicated to be adequately discussed in one blog post.

But tonight I will present just one or two thoughts on each of those two laughable statements, in the hopes of spurring on my mind towards longer, more detailed blogs about these topics in the future.

First, let’s talk about the National Parks. I don’t remember life before the parks. I remember the big mountains of the west. Rivers and trees. Elk, squirrels and birds.  Fields of wildflowers tussled by the wind. Stories of men and women of indomitable strength and courage, eking out a life in a rugged and unforgiving landscape.

These are the places I want to be and the people that inspired the younger me.

So when someone tells me these sacred places, these places that belong to everyone, should be privatized, I simply ask, “Do you want to visit? Will you be able to afford to visit once it is commercialized beyond recognition?”

When we sell something precious, it becomes only as valuable as the price it will fetch. And yet, those prices, no matter how ridiculous they might seem in terms of property values, are only a tiny fraction of what the resources mean to the formation, function and future of an entire country, much less a continent.

It is only when we realize their ageless value to humankind that we can adequately turn our backs on the embarrassing institution of capitalism and say no. There is a reason we make fun of people like Donald Trump. No matter how much money he has, he is embarrassing to listen to and holds no more value to the majority of people on earth other than entertainment value. He is the king of capitalism and consumerism, and yet, we make fun of him. Perhaps we ought to reconsider the dollar value we place on parks like Yellowstone and Denali, and start realizing that, no matter how much money we save as a nation, we cannot replace the clean air and water, the majestic landscapes that draw people from all over the world to awe and wonder, and the opportunities to connect with the real world that our National Parks offer every day.

We simply cannot pave paradise and put up a parking lot.

Next, I will propose a challenge: prove to me that climate change is NOT caused by humans. Perhaps you will cite such truths as weather comes in cycles.

But I will ask you to consider one (of many examples) that prove we have a hand in changing our climate and world: the last decade (or maybe 15 years?) of die-off of the western pine forests.

You know what I mean. Lodgepole and Ponderosa Pines from the southern Rockies all the way north through Canada and west to the coast. Yes, let’s blame the pine beetles. Dendroctonus ponderosae can be an easy scapegoat, but yet this little endemic species is just like any other species: fighting for survival and taking advantage of favorable conditions.

I have read that, historically, this species might have taken out as much as 10% of any given pine stand along the backbone of the Rockies in any given year. The females lay their eggs between the inner and outer bark, and the larvae overwinter in and eat this inner bark. Complicating this process is the fact that these beetles carry a fungus. So while the beetles themselves are attacking the phloem of the tree, the fungus is busy spreading through the xylem – together these two organisms successfully cut off the water and nutrients upon which the tree depends.

So the beetles are killing our forests? What’s the big deal?

  1. As I said, the beetles might have killed off a small portion of trees every year in this manner. However, I left out a key fact: the tree has to be of sufficient size to provide the right conditions of bark and health for the beetles to infest it. Trees that are young/small enough are not always infected. So this would point that a forest stand with trees of many different ages and, thus, sizes would see less mortality. But guess what? We humans have successfully eliminated most of the natural processes that force forest stands to be multi-aged (and thus, healthier): we eliminated wild fires from our ecosystem. Fires, floods, and huge natural disturbances like these serve to cull the weak from the botanical herd, as it were. If we eliminate these forces, as we have fought for 150 years, the forests grow crowded, with smaller specimens and less nutrients for each member of the community. Crowded forests are wonderful hosts for insects, like the pine beetles, who must move from tree to tree, looking for new housing and nutrients every season.
  2. We have altered the water tables and arteries (rivers) of this continent. It is my firm belief that our natural water system no longer functions as it was designed. For examples, please study the Ogallala aquifer under the great plains and the Colorado River along the backbone of the continent. Our natural water supply is sufficiently messed up, and this is, without a doubt, human-caused. We water our lawns way too much. Industry doesn’t help the situation either. Do we really need some of the stuff we are producing, using up all of this wonderful water? Really?
  3. Our weather patterns are facing a change – even if you believe these are cyclical. With warmer, dryer summers, our trees become drought-stressed. Such stressed trees do not produce as much sap (or resin). This is a key to the tree’s ability to ‘push out’ the burrowing insect and protect itself.

So we have drought-stressed trees that cannot defend themselves and we have forced unnatural crowding upon our forest communities. Why wouldn’t the beetles take advantage? Wouldn’t you?

With the die-off of forests, we have lost a huge mechanism for clean air and clean water – plants absorb things like carbon monoxide and heavy metals and release clean oxygen for us humans. (If you need to, now is a good time to review what carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, and heavy metals ultimately do to us, our localized environments and earth’s atmosphere.)

Seriously, we need to have respect for the life-giving systems that were well in place long before we were born. We need to act as though we desperately need clean air and water – because, of course, we do. This is our fault, and we need to take responsibility.

Otherwise, we might end up like Donald Trump – ridiculously rich with nothing to sustain life.


Greens and Browns

Remember this picture?  I posted it on Facebook a few weeks ago, asking people what this looked like. Or what these colors brought to mind:

20140405_140528Lots of people responded with answers from ‘shamrock’ to ‘Princess Leia’. With apologies to Star Wars, I had something a bit different in mind. The colors reminded me of the meadows and pine trees I’d just walked though earlier that day. Most of Rocky Mountain National Park was still under snow, but I found a lower meadow near the east entrance and just walked through the not-yet-green meadow. While the ground looked somewhat bare this time of year (after the snows had melted but before the shrubs, grasses, and flowers had greened up for the year), there was a lot of green to be seen in the trees.

20140316_110141(Yes, that is Longs Peak in the distance, but the point is the trees.)

Anyway, I saw those colors and knew I could surround myself with that landscape, at least figuratively, whenever I wanted. The result are these:


What do you think?

The Next Generation


Yesterday, a park visitor came into the Kawuneeche Visitor Center and after the customary ‘Hello’ asked about the dead trees in the park. My friend Stu was on desk duty, and with his jovial smile asked the woman, “If a village is made up of only 85-year-old people, what happens when they all die off?”

Stu discussed some of the basic details of the pines and then he shared with her his conclusion: that we need to let the next generation of trees stand up and be counted.

I loved the way he phrased his conclusion. I thought to myself, the forests are just like that.

We have these really old forest stands that are composed of old trees. An epidemic came through about a decade ago that wiped out the old guys.

So what is left?

We could have a funeral for those that died.

Or better yet, we could hike through the stands of grey trees, dead braches drooping, and instead of looking at the old skeletons, we could take a chance and notice the little geen sprouts struggling for their place and time in the sun. We could look with sad eyes at what was, or we could look with hopeful eyes at what will be.

These even-aged stands with most trees of the same species, age and size are not typical of our native ecosystems. All you have to do is take a drive between Mount Rainier and Mount St. Helens in Washington state to see exactly how odd a monoculture forest stand looks. After the logging industry clearcut millions of acres in the Pacific Northwest, the logging industry replanted. But you can see that the crowded stands, shaded and homogenous, just do not match written descrptions in settlers’ journals or early photgraphs of the region.

That is because nature is always in flux. What we see during one visit to a national park is just a snapshot in time. It is one quick glance. But we tend to only notice a blooming flower or a bird flitting between branches, going about his or her daily routine. We don’t really pay attention to the fact that the bird’s nest is in a cavity of a dead tree, devoid of its leaves and branches, still standing right next to the aspen with its white bark and fresh green leaves.

So when we stop and study a stand of trees, all of the same size and shape, (even if it isn’t the first thought that crosses the mind), we should get an inkling that something is off. Or something is about to go wrong.

This is what faced the forests of the Rocky Mountains. One (or, arguably two, if you look at both insects and fungi) species thrived in certain conditions and caused the downfall of a third.

And whether we like it or not, humans played a role in both this thriving and downfall.

First, we had little understanding of natural forest processes, and that which we did know, we manipulated for our ‘good’. Simply put: we did not allow forest fires. We see them as scary and damaging. But in reality, fires are probably the best natural recyclers and agents of cleansing that our natural world has at its disposal. Without this episodic ‘house cleaning’, some pines cones’ resin never melts, seeds are not released, and new generations of trees never come into being. Without fires, minerals trapped in dead plant matter on the forest floor are never released, the soil isn’t replenished, and acres of land become less hospitable to certain species.

While we successfully eliminated fires as a natural ecosytem process, we added things, in the form of greenhouse gases that have warmed our climate a tiny bit. Even a tiny rise in temperature affects plants and animals that have adapted to and lived for centuries under slightly different conditions.

If we refuse to acknowledge and take responsibility for altering our world in these ways, I believe we will never be able to get to the significant roots of our forests’ problems.

You see, it was the perfect storm. We had ‘protected’ forest stands that were all older, very homogenous in composition, and drought stressed, thanks to years of lower rainfall and winter snowfall.

Add to this a series of warmer-than-average winters, and a native species of beetle was able to thrive. Whereas previously cold winters had killed off significant portions of its larval population, the warmer winters were making survival for the larvae inside the trees’s bark much more plausible. So the population of Dendroctonous sp. ballooned.

Fire would have taken care of some of the older trees and thinned some stands a bit. But without fire, these drought-stressed iconic communities were crowded and became the perfect accessible hosts for the pine beetles. The beetles found what they needed and the trees didn’t have the resources to defend themselves.

Thus, we have the vast expanses of dead pine forests along the backbone of our continent.

But all hope is not lost.

There are locations where forest processes are being allowed to continue and the plant communities are standing up and trying to get our attention. If only we will listen.

In the last couple of years, there have been two fires within the boundaries of Rocky Mountain National Park. If you choose to not just look at the blackened, charred pine boles, you will see a thriving community of pine, fir and spruce seedlings, mixed with abundant arnica, wild raspberries and members of the Pea family (which help fix nitrogen inthe soil, creating better soil conditions for even more plant species).

None of these arnica, raspberries, and others were intentionally planted by us humans. Rather, they were right there all along, waiting for the right conditions. Just about six weeks after the Big Meadows fire in 2013, I hiked up the Tonahutu trail, through part of the burn scar, and was joyful to see the forest showing its green carpet. I was not surprised, but I was relieved. We need to point out these often-overlooked steps in forest succession, if we are to come to a more complete understanding of the world in which we live. As a ranger in the park, it is part of my job to not miss these little details and steps – and it is also my priviledge to point out these steps to park visitors.

It is rather remarkable to see the stages of forest succession in my own backyard. Granted, I have visited Yellowstone several times and witnessed what our forests can accomplish in a few short decades. But it is more fascinating, at least to me, to watch the little steps month to month and year to year in a place that I know so well.

Stu was right. We need to let the next generation take their place in the sun. It is an awesome sight.

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.