We oft hear from those who doubt the climate is changing or the world is older than a mere six thousand years that it is arrogant to presume that we mere humans could possibly have an affect upon our planet. It is, after all, a big place that has experienced many changes down through the eons, and the thought that we could “destroy” it, or make uninhabitable to humans, is generally unfathomable. Fathom this, climate change and pine bark beetles…
For the past (at least) twenty-five thousand years the High Desert forest lands of Southern Cascadia, the Great Basin and pine-clad slopes of the Rocky Mountains have regenerated themselves through a cyclical series of weeds, bugs and fire. Fire is necessary to open the seed cones of the predominant species here, the Ponderosa Pine (Pinus ponderosa), and the fuels for those necessary fires are predominantly Lodgepole Pine (Pinus contorta). Lodgepole pines – named for the teepee ‘lodgepoles’ First Americans used them for – are a weed tree of no commercial value and invariably the first species to recover from a fire or volcanic eruption. After a fire or volcanic eruption they rapidly over-run the terrain, growing in stands thick enough that these stands become resource ‘stressed’, leaving them open to attack by the voracious Western (or Mountain) Pine Bark Beetles (Dendroctonus ponderosae). The pine bark beetles kill off the weaken and older trees, which then burn and release seeds for the next generation.
There are 750,000 squares miles (an area greater than the state of Washington) of dead standing Lodgepole pine across what is known as The Pacific Northwest. A firestorm waiting to happen, a fire that could burn from Mount Shasta (California) to Southern Alaska.
How did this happen? Man. Or more accurately, White Man. White Man put out the naturally occurring lightning fires or those the First Americans who groomed these hills for thousands of years started. And kept putting the fires out. And the Lodgepole thrived. Until now.
Now reaching the end of their 80-100 year lifespans, a report earlier this month out of Oregon State University predicts that due to climate change – whomever or whatever is responsible – that due to the two degree increase in ambient temperatures across Cascadia the Lodgepole pine are not going to come back. Richard Waring, professor emeritus of tree physiology, and co-author of the study, said that “warmer temperatures are eliminating the spring frost that keep other trees from competing with the Lodgepole, thereby creating more welcome conditions for the beetles.” The study estimates that by 2080 the Lodgepole pine will remain on less than 6,000 square miles, about seventeen percent of today’s range, and most of that in British Colombia. We, Man, broke the fire cycle necessary to the regeneration of the High Desert Ponderosa forests. If the Lodgepole pine doesn’t come back, neither will the Ponderosa.
But wait, it gets better… Having exhausted the food supply here on the lower elevations (3 – 4,000 feet above sea level), and so thoroughly enjoying the milder climate their breeding cycle has gone from every two years to twice a year, the Mountain Pine Bark Beetle is moving to the higher elevations and attacking a species unique to Cascadia, unique to The Pacific Northwest – the Whitebark Pine (Pinus albicaulis).
Don’t tell me it is arrogant to presume that we mere humans could have an affect upon our planet. I’ve watched it happen.
Join the discussion Please be relevant and respectful.
Having read this I thought it was extremely informative.
I appreciate you spending some time and effort to put this information
together. I once again find myself personally spending a significant amount of time both
reading and posting comments. But so what, it was still worth it!
This is about the most feeble minded thing I have ever read. When fires were being put out instead of burning 600,000 acres at a time, the Forest Service actually had people planting Ponderosa Pine trees and Douglas fir trees where fires had burned. I have done this kind of work myself. The reason why they planted these trees was because they were valuable trees for the lumber industry, and they kept burned areas from coming back to the trash trees that are so popular today.
With regard to bark beetles, infested trees used to be cut for lumber, and beetle infestations were kept to a minimum. Now you see entire mountain tops of dead pine trees because the people in charge of trees reserved for these huge forest fires believe that bark beetles are a part of nature that needs to be protected.
When I was just out of high school, I worked for the Forest Service fighting fires. We actually put fires out back in those days. instead of standing around watching them burn while airplanes and helicopters dump fire retardant. The factor that is missing now is logging crews in the woods, who were the first line of defense against forest fires. They were often fighting fires before the Forest Service even got there. The guys who came out of World War II were the best fire fighters we ever had because they were not afraid to try to put fires out. Also, they were using bulldozers in the woods, which were worth about a thousand men each when it came to making fire lines.
These people who live in cities and go out into the trees once in a while to count bugs do not know a thing about it.
Every year I always have the fear of a massive fire about to break out in California because of how much dry land I see, after living in a very high risk fire area for years and having to evacuate. If controlled fires were to prevent disastrous future ones from happening I would be for it although my only concern would be if wildlife would be hurt from it.
Great article. The huge wildfires we had in 2004 and 2007 here in southern California were so devastating because there was so much to burn. Why doesn't CDF or the National Park Service realize this and do something about it. My guess is that they're not doing as many controlled burns as they should to prevent a wildfire getting out of control. A great book that details a lot of the National Park Service's incompetence is "A Walk in the Woods" by Bill Bryson.
From every two years to twice a year? I thought previously it was thought to be one generation per year, so is it a change in the beetles or in the scientists' understanding? And does this mean pest control is ineffective or nonexistant?
Thomas, Welcome to IVN! It's great to have a contributor writing from Oregon! I've never really studied the affects climate change has had on pine trees, so this question may be misguided, but are you saying it's better to let wildfires burn than to put them out? Knowing about all the harm that fires have caused in California, it seems contradictory to try to save the environment by letting it burn. Again, I'm not well-read on this topic, so I'm interested in hearing your response!
My preference would be to find some commercial value in them - for example a bio-fuel - and create both jobs and some transitory contribution to ending our dependence on fossil fuels as we 'groom' as much as possible but yes, that's the natural thing for them to do. That's what the 'natives' did, no doubt learning it from generations of observing the results of the naturally occurring lightening strike fires.
At this point the overall (High Desert) forest itself is so stressed that an unfortunate combination - an exceptionally dry winter leaving no moisture buildup in the soils, unique geography and a lightening strike - that a firestorm could burn over not isolated stands or even regional 'district' forests but the entire region. I use 'Mount Shasta to Southern Alaska' metaphorically as fire knows no direction, but stepping back and viewing as perhaps from space or a good map of North 'America" the region rests between - is bounded east and west - by high mountains ranges demonstrates the unique geography where a firestorm could move 'up - north - or 'down' through somewhat of a 'wind-tunnel'. Closer in - within the mountains ranges themselves, the 'draws' and canyon tend to a north/south oreintation. The perfect conditions for a conflagration, aggravated by our interference with the fire cycles leaving what was once food for the bugs food for fire.
Though much of the region is unpopulated, and it would probably be best to let these 'wilderness' areas burn through. The more heavily populated areas have done a pretty good job of clearing the dead stuff closer in so that a fire might 'go around' the town, but the smaller towns are at exceptional risk - last summer the town of Warm Springs was evacuated for about a week.
If you'll follow through on the link (I trust it's live) and see the map through to 2008 it will detail what is standing dead in just Oregon and Washington alone.
Mike Davis wrote a classic essay on this, The Case For Letting Malibu Burn. One big reason that southern California wildfires are so ferocious is small burns, which the Indians deliberately set, kept the undergrowth and bush growth down. That doesn't happen any more. So the undergrowth can be above your head and tinder dry, a firestorm waiting to happen. I've hiked in Topanga State Park when the "undergrowth" was eight feet tall and dry as kindling.
Ditto for Oregeon, where as Thomas points out, the natural cycle of fire has been stopped with the disastrous consequence that the Ponderosa may not survive.