John Bennett: Guest opinion
The top scientists and policy makers who gathered at our Forests At Risk symposium on Feb. 18 represented a remarkable acknowledgment that climate change is profoundly affecting our home – the Rocky Mountain West. For those of us living in Colorado, the destruction of millions of acres of pine forests by the mountain pine beetle, and hundreds of thousands of acres of aspen, spruce and fir from other parasites and infestations, is not news. What’s new is the emerging scientific consensus that climate change lies behind many of these forest threats and that our environment, quality of life and local economies hang in the balance. Consider the following: • According to the study led by scientist Phil van Mantgem of the U.S. Geological Survey, the death rate of the West’s old-growth forests has more than doubled over the last two decades. • Werner Kurz of the Canadian Forest Service and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change calculates that the 41 million acres of beetle-killed forests in British Columbia are adding roughly a billion tons of CO2 to our atmosphere. (And that’s minor compared to what will happen if the permafrost continues to melt and release its vast store of carbon.)• Dr. Thomas Swetnam of the University of Arizona points out that the annual wildfire season in the West is already 78 days longer than just 20 years ago. Since the ’70s, the Rocky Mountains have witnessed a 60 percent increase in large fires. If warming trends continue, Swetnam and others predict we could lose half the forests of the West during this century.• According to Diana Six at the University of Montana, the whitebark pine, a keystone species in high elevation zones of the Northern Rockies, is dying across most of its range. This could precipitate the loss or reduction of many plant and animal species, including the endangered grizzly bear.These are startling trends. If the forests of the West are our canary in the coal mine, the canary is not doing so well (and maybe it’s time to shift away from coal).The Feb. 18 symposium – FORESTS AT RISK: Climate Change & the Future of the American West – was an opportunity to engage in thoughtful discussion and focus on serious challenges. It also highlighted the opportunity that arises when people – and their leaders – recognize challenges and are motivated to act.We’ve arrived at a critical time and place in history. The landscape of the West is undergoing a profound and complex transformation. Four million acres of Colorado pine forests killed by the mountain pine beetle are now decaying, releasing their carbon into the atmosphere. The old-world view that “forests always renew themselves, let nature take its course” is clearly obsolete. Forests require up to a century to recapture all of the carbon released in a beetle epidemic, wildfire or other die-back, and climate scientists are virtually unanimous about the fact that we don’t have that long. Put simply, if the great forests of the West continue turning from carbon sinks into carbon sources, we’re all in deep trouble.We’re going to win or lose the great carbon battle in the here and now, in our short lifetimes, so what can we do? Two answers come to mind: forest stewardship and clean energy.At a regional level, we can employ enlightened forest stewardship over large landscapes that are home to myriad types of flora and fauna. Outside of protected wilderness areas, good stewardship practice could begin to make up for past fire suppression policies that helped create unnaturally dense, mono-culture forests that were detrimental to forest health and wildlife. Locally, we can support the efforts of the White River National Forest to restore critical wildlife habitat with prescribed burns and thinning. We can support the efforts of Aspen and Pitkin County to protect the forest and community recreation values of Smuggler Mountain. Likewise, the efforts of the Aspen Skiing Company, Starwood homeowners and other private landowners to protect (at their own expense) forests in the wild/urban interface should be applauded.Most important, we can develop sane energy policies at the local, state and national levels to break our addiction to fossil fuels. We could generate biomass energy from beetle-killed trees, develop uses for biochar in restoring our environment, and expand the use of wind, solar and appropriate hydropower. While reducing atmospheric CO2, these steps would also stimulate our clean energy economy, create millions of new jobs and allow us to compete internationally with countries like China.Our choices are clear. As individuals we can act to reduce our impact on the environment. As a society, we can enact policies that promote forest health and develop green energy alternatives that are both environmentally and economically smart. Aren’t the forests and quality of life of the American West worth the effort?
John Bennett is executive director of For The Forest.
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