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.