An eco flight for the forest battles beetles | AspenTimes.com
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An eco flight for the forest battles beetles

John Colson
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, Colorado
Jordan Curet/The Aspen Times
ALL | The Aspen Times

ASPEN ” The single-engine, six-seater plane was banking toward Mount Sopris after a smooth takeoff from the Pitkin County Airport, when the experts on board pointed to the first indication of the mountain pine beetle infestation that is rapidly obliterating Colorado’s lodgepole pine forests.

We had taken to the air under the sponsorship of For The Forest, a new non-profit (www.fortheforest.org) that intends to study the beetle-kill phenomenon and educate the public about it. Then, organizers say, the group will look for ways to deal with the devastation that officials say is all but unavoidable in much of the state and across the nation and the world.

As pilot Bruce Gordon of EcoFlight aimed for the peaks of Sopris, a line of trees, perched along the edge of a deep defile on the flanks of the eastern peak, appeared to be just slightly ruddy in color compared to the verdant trees further away from the gulch.

But that, the experts said, is the way it works.

The trees look green for a while, then start to turn red as the beetles destroy the tree’s ability to nourish itself, by interfering with the transmission mechanisms that carry water and nutrients up from the roots.

A year after the first beetle bores in to the trunk of a lodgepole pine, the needles start to die off and turn red. Within two years, the whole tree will be red and the needles will begin to drop off, leaving an almost-bare trunk sticking up from the ground, amongst innumerable adjacent and equally denuded trunks. So stands of logdepoles that may look green and healthy, actually are not.

“In other words,” said former Aspen Mayor John Bennett, “It’s worse than it looks.”

Along with Gordon in his EcoFlight plane were Bennett, executive director of For The Forest; a scientist and the group’s scientific program director, Dr. William Murray of California; a videographer and photographer known for working on environmental causes, Greg Poschman; and two reporters.

For the next hour or so, the group flew low and slow over the valleys and peaks to the north and east of Aspen, passing over Reudi Reservoir and the Hunter Fryingpan Wilderness, the Sawatch Range and the Holy Cross Wilderness and the southern edge of the Gore Range.

Soaring over sharp-edge granite peaks that seemed close enough to scrape a wing, descending to get a closer look to red-tinged stands of conifers, staring in wonder at remote clearings and the mansions in the middle. These homes are surrounded by what hotshot fire fighters like to call “an immense fuel load” of dying and dead trees that could go up in flames at any time.

And then, there they were ” the Williams Fork Mountains, looming over what Bennett called “the heart of the beetle infestation in Colorado,” the Williams Fork Valley. Entire mountainsides are covered by trees that range from a sickly red to the starkly gray, needle-like prominence of the standing dead, offering stunningly bleak vistas and posing a steadily increasing danger of forest fires.

It is here, said Poschman, that the infestation first became apparent in Colorado. It apparently had been noticed first in British Columbia, Canada, where an estimated 35 million acres of forest have been infested.

Next to go was Montana, where Gordon has been working all summer flying scientists and anyone else who was interested to observe the beetle-kill threat to the white bark pine, which happens to be a critical food source for the region’s grizzly bear population, thus presenting a double extinction potentiality.

As the plane skims over the ridges and up the valleys, there appear occasional patches of a brighter green, sites of clear-cuts by loggers from decades ago. The younger trees seen here, maybe 12 feet tall and only six-inches around, can fend off the attacking beetles.

“That’s the one thing that could keep this forest healthy, maybe, that age diversity,” muses Murray, explaining that decades of fire-suppression policies by the U.S. Forest Service and others have left behind a remarkably homogeneous, age-similar forest.

And, he said, it is trees that are nearing the end of their life cycle, at a century or so, that are particularly susceptible to the beetles. He feels the beetle-kill drama is testimony, in part, to the need to let fires burn in the forest when they start whenever possible.

Talk turned to the long-term effects of the beetle-kill phenomenon, which first Gordon and then Bennett said is likely being worsened by global warming.

Bennett spoke of a “cascading effect” that starts when beetles kill off a forest that once would absorb vast amounts of carbon dioxide, the principal “greenhouse gas” that is credited with having the greatest warming effect.

As the trees die, the cease to absorb the gas, and when they fall and begin to decompose, they actually start giving off carbon dioxide in vast amounts. The effect already has been confirmed in Canada.

“So this is a feedback loop, in effect,” Bennett said ” as global warming contributes to the population explosion of the beetles, their attack on the trees in turn contributes to increased carbon dioxide in the air, which in turn contributes to greater warming of the atmosphere, which may encourage a greater beetle-kill rate, and so on.

“Eventually, of course ” there’s a hundred- or however many-years cycle ” eventually new trees will grow and will absorb carbon again,” Bennett predicted. “But the scary part is, climate scientists may not agree on sort of how many years we have to turn the corner [as far as reversing global warming’s effects] but it’s not a hundred years. We’re not going to see new Canadian trees absorbing that carbon in the amount of time we have left to turn around global warming.”

Among the more encouraging notes sounded on the flight was advice to landowners with lodgepoles on their property. The trees should be checked often for signs of infestation, infested trees should be felled and removed and healthy trees should be treated with hormones known to ward off beetle attacks, the experts say.

While it is acknowledged that such efforts can only be effective in small patches, every little patch of healthy, young trees is a spot of regeneration of the forest, the experts believe.

Do nothing, noted Poschman, and “some people have said all the lodgepole pines in our state could be dead within five years.”

jcolson@aspentimes.com


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