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Our dying forests: Beetles gnaw through Utah, West
Warming winters have allowed waves of beetles to gnaw their way through millions of acres of forests in Utah and across the West.
First Published May 21 2012 11:14 am • Last Updated Oct 22 2012 11:35 am

Editor's Note: This story originally appeared in The Salt Lake Tribune on September 25, 2011.

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Bozeman Pass, Mont. -- A gray-whiskered former fly-fishing guide waded through a horse pasture whacking weeds for his neighbor, the rumbling machine in his hands slicing thistles and sparing a robust tangle of grass and wildflowers, while on mountain ridges all around him, the trees silently died.

Beetles.

Here, along the pine-scented exurban glory of Trail Creek, Lester DuChane and his sparse neighbors are the latest Westerners to watch their green valley turn red and fade to gray as swarms of rice-grain-size beetles eat the Rocky Mountain forest. He cannot figure out why the government never launched an aggressive counterattack against an epidemic, which has swept through neighboring ranges almost since he settled here in 1994.

"They say they're working on it," DuChane sneered, remembering his pleas with Gallatin National Forest rangers. "It's the government. It ain't doing anything."

His is a complaint echoed by Western politicians, who think government land managers heaped disaster on the region by letting forests grow so thick that the trees cannot get enough water and sunlight to defend themselves from the pests.

But what if something larger than the federal bureaucracy is at work? What if the real culprit isn't a faltering Uncle Sam but a changing Mother Nature?

A rogue wave of insects riding on a decade of drought and ever-warmer winters is now cresting here, where DuChane believes his perch is threatened: the elk he hunts, the view and the trout that brought him west from Wisconsin, and, in case of fire, even the home he built for himself.

"You won't see this in my lifetime," DuChane said, tilting his cowboy hat at the few patches of green that remain but will fade by next summer. The replacement trees, if they grow, will take a century to mature.


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"It's gone."

America's alpine climate has changed dramatically in recent decades, warming enough for university and government researchers to state flatly that nothing will ever be the same.

Not the widely spaced natural cycle of beetle kills. Not the small fires that routinely thinned and rejuvenated forests. Not the trees themselves, which may shift to new species better adapted to a changing habitat. Across the continent's spine, the forests that defined the Marlboro Man's high West are dead, dying or so choked with combustible life that they inspire more fear than wonder.

High-elevation trees that shade and anchor snowbanks through spring are most susceptible, perhaps leading to earlier runoff, greater flooding and dirtier rivers. A millennium-spanning species whose pine nuts fatten Yellowstone grizzlies is startlingly on the brink, bug-struck and sun-bleached into alpine skeletons of incomprehensible body counts. Mountain pine beetles are flying in new territories previously thought too cold, such as northern British Columbia or just under the thin-air crags of western Wyoming's Tetons. Utah's dominant tree of commercial value, the Engelmann spruce, is under attack and, by Forest Service estimates, may survive only in the High Uintas by century's end.

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Millions of lost acres • Five years ago, Jesse Logan retired to Paradise Valley, a 20-minute drive north of Yellowstone, after leading the Forest Service's bark-beetle studies. He wanted to fish and ski, but he also keeps busy documenting the loss of old trees on nearby mountaintops - the ones he likes to ski between and the ones that regulate water flows and temperatures by holding snow into summer. Without them, the native cutthroat trout he stalks will suffer.

"These forests are enchanting places," Logan said. "[Yellowstone] just captured my imagination and my heart, and it breaks my heart to see what's happening in these high-elevation, old-growth forests."

Part of foresters' diagnosis reflects a cold reckoning of facts known for a generation: A century of Smokey Bear fire suppression and decades of timber-industry decline primed thick forests for giant blazes and for drought stress, which invites tree-killing insects. The other part is new: Warming winters and longer growing seasons have ignited a 14-year beetle explosion like none ever documented.

Brighton Ski Resort southeast of Salt Lake City, topping out at 10,500 feet, has warmed its average nightly winter lows by more than 5 degrees Fahrenheit over four decades, according to the Utah Climate Center at Utah State University. It doesn't feel so different through puffy gloves when you're skiing under the lights, but it represents fewer bug-killing deep freezes.

Mountain pine beetles have sapped acres of the gnarly old limber pine that defined the ridge, "a sad thing because some of those are hundreds of years old," ski area Manager Randy Doyle said. Employees have tacked synthetic anti-beetle pheromones on the remaining 200 or so limber pines.

Spruce beetles spilling over the crest from American Fork Canyon form a second front at Brighton, forcing the resort to selectively cut pockmarked spruce - a couple of hundred last year - in hopes of removing the insects before the next generation emerges. Unlike pine beetles, spruce beetles so far have evaded efforts to produce a synthetic pheromone repellent. Brighton plants and shelters seedlings for the next generation, hoping for a hospitable landscape.

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