This really should not be about trees. Nor about beetles. I should write about Rockies tundra extending above 11000ft (3500m). Because tundra at this latitude is unique. And trees are everywhere. At least for now.
Normally it takes some effort to get to the tundra layer. You have to either hike for a couple of hours or travel way up north. But not in Rocky Mountain park. There is a road that will take you up there. And then you can take a paved trail to have an even closer look. The trail is not steep but you will run out of breath. Only 2/3 of oxygen that your body is used to is now entering your lungs. So to compensate you breathe harder and more often. Even if you are otherwise in a pretty good shape. It’s hard to believe that anything can live here. But it does. And it’s colorful and fragile and very alien. It’s September but the cold wind tries to knock you down and slam your car doors. Chances are you are not dressed properly. After all you just drove up in comfort of a car from a warm autumn town below.
But once you get to the vantage point and look around the view is amazing. You see sharp peaks, glacial circuses, alpine meadows and evergreen boreal forest punctuated by yellowing aspen groves below. Except the forest is not green. More like reddish green. So you naturally think of leaves changing colors and trees preparing for the winter. But of course evergreens don’t do that. They are not losing pines when seasons change. What you see is the forest dying.
The coniferous trees of Western US and Canada are infested with mountain pine beetle. It carries blue stain fungus which blocks tree response of increased resin production and suffocates the trees. Dead trees are no longer green hence the reddish color of the forest.
There are couple of reasons behind the latest, unprecedented infestation. Warmer than usual winters allow more beetles to survive, prolonged drought weakens the trees and suppressing fires results in a denser, weaker forests. And there is no simple solution. Insecticide used on such scale would affect environment more than the beetles do. Controlled burns would be an option if not for the numerous houses, towns and ski resorts that are too close to the forests. We cannot make winter colder. And we don’t want to divert water from the fields to alleviate the drought even if we could. So the current forest is doomed. All we can do is to remove the affected trees and warn the hikers about the danger. For the first but probably not last time in my life I see beware of the falling trees warning at a trailhead.
One would think the beetles have natural predators that would keep their population in check. Where are the woodpeckers to help when we need them? It may be we inadvertently reduced their numbers by prevailing forest management practices: clear-cutting, harvesting immature forests, and removal of all snags (standing dead trees). Once again environment turns out to be too complex of a system to be effectively managed by planning.
US Forest Service seems to be cautiously optimistic. They claim that once the old forest dies it’ll get replaced by a more diverse, healthier forest. Hopefully before the soil is blown away. Before the planet gets too warm and too dry for any forest to grow. And assuming we let at least some fires burn as some conifers won’t sprout without. We may get wiser next time. If we have another chance.
For now though we ignore the doomed trees and concentrate on tundra. Since it looks like it can outlast anything. Even humans.