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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.

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"If they do," Six said, "our forests are in trouble. And with predictions we have for climate change, we will go there, obviously."

Those predictions by the government's Rocky Mountain Research Station, pegged to what Forest Service scientists say is proving a conservative projection for carbon emissions, find that Salt Lake City's frost-free growing season could soar by 44 percent from 161 days to 232 by 2100.

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But it doesn't take prognostication to translate climate change into forest degradation. Just like at Brighton, Montana's winter lows have risen, on average, by 4 to 6 degrees in the past half century.

"Montana used to be famous for minus-30 and minus-40-degree days," Running said. "That just doesn't happen anymore."

Add the longer growing season, he said, "and this is what we think is really the climate trigger for all these epidemics."


Go north •Foresters are starting to consider planting trees farther north than they previously might have been expected to thrive.

"Populations are adapted to their local climates," said Glenn Howe, associate professor of forest genetics at Oregon State University, "and if those local climates move elsewhere, we can reasonably assume those local populations will not be [well] adapted."

A consensus is emerging to consider climate change in reforestation, he said, though it's slow going because only a tiny fraction of the forest is ever in condition for planting at once.

The fear is that without such help, trees might clear out of their changing homes while never making it to the places that are newly hospitable because climate change is moving faster than they are.

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Thinning and controlling insects will help, Howe said, but "that may only have the desired effect for a certain period of time."

The prospects for an engineered landscape are Frankenstein-scary to Six, the Montana entomologist. Tinkering with nature has created side effects before, she noted, and doing so now "assumes we know what we're doing, which we don't."

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chief Jane Lubchenco agreed that milder weather has worsened beetle outbreaks beyond anything in recorded history. Climate change also has increased swings in weather, putting season-sensing plants on a yo-yo.

"There's a lot more stress," she said.

Lubchenco signed a deal this summer with the Western Governors' Association to provide climate outlooks to states. At the late-June meeting in Idaho, where they approved the cooperation, however, governors were divided about whether climate is killing trees. Instead, a number of Republican governors, including Utah's Gary Herbert, accused the federal government of letting its lands grow too thick.


Thick forests, thin budgets • Thinning the West's forests takes money - conservatively tens of billions of dollars to treat everything the Obama administration says is sick - and the Agriculture Department's Forest Health Protection budget, like many a federal ledger during these lean years, has flat-lined just as the need has crescendoed.

About 80 million acres of national forests need treatment to reduce unusually high fire risks, restore resiliency against insects, create openings for wildlife or sprinkle in younger trees, said Harris Sherman, the department's undersecretary for natural resources and the environment.

The Forest Service would require $300 to $2,000 an acre to treat it all - if that were humanly possible in a fast enough time frame. Cost depends on terrain and whether the forest needs mechanical thinning and chipping, controlled burning, commercial logging or another method. Even if everything could be done for just $300 an acre, the price tag would hit $24 billion.

That's not happening. The agency has about $1 billion this year for forest health projects including fuel reduction, timber sales and wildlife enhancements.

In next year's budget, Sherman said, "There is belt-tightening."

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