The Next Generation

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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 standsĀ 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 andĀ 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.

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Stand Tall and Enjoy the View

Over the last decade or so, I have had the priviledge of watching a big change.

Believe me, change is never easy. It took me a couple of years to realize and accept this experience as a ‘priviledge’.

I know this sounds like I underwent some big transformation. Or my life took some unexpected turn. But really, I was mostly an observer. Sure, I went through the stages of grief and denial for this thing I loved so dearly. (‘This really isn’t going to be that big of a deal, right?’)

Wrong.

It turned out to be a very big deal. And one that also affected some of my friends. But in the summer of 2012, my thoughts were already changing, and one afternoon it just hit me:

You are never going to be this tall again.

I was at work in the Colorado River District of Rocky Mountain National Park. I was setting up for a Junior Ranger program which I was assigned to lead later that afternoon. So I was walking up the hill behind the Kawuneeche Visitor Center, setting out things for a game I would play with the Junior Rangers. Anyway, I sort of got lost in my own thoughts as I put my props in their places. I just sort of wandered around the hill, looking at the wildflowers blooming in the dappled sunlight on the forest floor.

As I walked, I knew it was a bit unusual to see that much sunlight reaching the forest floor, especially on the western slopes of these peaks, where the forests are a bit thick. But sunlight shining on the carpet of pine needles and Kinnikinnick was becoming more common. The Mountain Pine Beetle had really done a number on our magnificent pine forests, and it saddened me to think of all of the grey, needle-less trees on the slopes around me.

I knew the science behind the pine beetle epidemic; I explained it to park visitors every day. Understanding the process should make it a bit easier to take. I tried to keep myself away from the mindset I often heard visitors express, “Why are the trees all dead? Can’t the park do anything about it? It’s so ugly!”

But you see, it was easy to slip back into their mindset, focusing solely on the dead trees. Rocky Mountain National Park was my favorite place growing up, and still is today. And it hurt to see the widespread death. It just hurt. It was personal.

I’m not sure what shook me back to the present moment that afternoon. Perhaps it was the chattering of a squirrel. Or maybe some park visitors talking nearby (in a ranger uniform, you are rarely alone for very long, especially around the visitor centers). I took another glance over the slope and saw something amazing. Sure there were lots of dead trees towering over me.

But they were the past.

The future was all around me. All over that hillside, there were new members of that forest community standing tall, taking their place in the sun. Spruce and pine seedlings were popping up everywhere. Most of them were just small enough that some people might have disregarded their importance. I decided then and there to NOT be one of those people.

For once in my life, I was taller than the living forest.

Imagine that. At 5’2″, I am rarely taller than anything, except maybe some of those Junior Rangers. But here was this massive ecosystem renewing itself right at my feet. It’s hard to not be impressed when you get to see such an extensive changing of the guard, right before your eyes.

It made me appreciate the national park even more. This place is special because here we can experience things far bigger and more complex than our own existence. We can get a glimpse of our place in this system and the far-reaching effects we can force upon it.

I suppose I will put pen to paper again and talk about all of those forces another time. But for now, I have a bunch of friends all descending upon Rocky in the coming weeks for our annual snowshoeing get-together. I just hope everyone pauses to realize how tall we all are for this brief moment in the forest’s history.

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.