By Michelle Werts
“Euro-American settlement and the 20th-century fire suppression practices drastically altered historic fire regimes, leading to excessive fuel accumulation and uncharacteristically severe wildfires in some areas and diminished flammability resulting from shifts to more fire-sensitive forest species in others,” writes retired forester Kevin C. Ryan, et al, in the August online edition of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. The article goes on to describe the drastic ecological consequences of fire exclusion for a variety of U.S. landscapes — from southeastern pine savannas and woodlands to the drier forests of the West. The lack of fire in these landscapes has resulted in species shifts, diminished wildlife habitat and denser forests. In some instances, less wildfire has contributed to a perfect storm of forest threats.
This is the case in the Rocky Mountains. Like much of the rest of the country, the forests of these spectacular mountains were managed throughout much of the 1900s with an eye toward wildfire suppression, creating a forest with more understory than ever before. “What you end up with is densely spaced forest, where the trees are competing for nutrients. And therefore they’re susceptible to disease, they’re susceptible to insects, they’re susceptible to fires,” Saratoga Forest Management owner Clint Georg tells NPR. And these insects are turning out to be a major problem.
Millions of acres of Rocky Mountain forests are dead or dying from an epidemic of mountain pine beetles. A native pest to the region, this insect population has been on the rise and more active in recent years thanks to a warming climate. As the U.S. Forest Service’s Brian Ferebee explains to NPR, “The host beetles have just taken advantage of a combination of climate change, drought and the lack of vegetation treatment across the landscape and have really spread.” Adds the Wyoming State Forestry Division’s Josh Van Vlack, “The mountain pine beetle has attacked the lodgepole pine and the Ponderosa pine at a pretty much landscape scale.” With pine trees dying by the millions, the repercussions for the area’s wildlife, other tree and plant species, recreation and more could be severe.
As a result, forest managers, scientists, researchers, government agencies, nonprofits and others are working tirelessly to try to help this endangered western landscape. Our Endangered Western Forests initiative is protecting and restoring damaged western forests and supporting continued research, while engaging local citizens and promoting strong forest management policies to save the Rocky Mountain pine forests by focusing on the forests of the Greater Yellowstone Area.
One silver lining — if there can be any of this alarming situation in the West — is a boom in jobs through sawmills. As NPR reports, many sawmills in Colorado and Wyoming are reopening after more than a decade of disuse to harvest and process the beetle-killed trees, whose wood is still strong enough to be used as lumber. By clearing out the dead trees, the harvesters are also creating a less dense forest, which could help natural regeneration of the fallen pines.