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'Tree Fighters' battle beetles one pine at a time
One man's army of volunteers works to keep killer bugs away


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At one point, despite the group's combative moniker, Fix found herself actually hugging a tree. She gave it a pep talk: "You're pretty. Love you. Keep growing." Then, at a dead tree where Gonzales peeled back bark to reveal tunnels of beetles and larvae, she lectured the insects.

"You're just beetles and you don't know any better," she said. "Stop being so aggressive."

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Gonzales has the look of so many outdoorsy men who have come to this valley: tall with the sinewy torso of one who scales cliffs and skis uphill.

He dug into his own pockets to fund his group's first season last year, putting $7,000 on credit cards to buy Verbenone, which ended up on 600 trees. In a sense, it's an outdoor-recreation expense the same as climbing gear or skis, but he's quick to protest that, unlike some who follow their passions to a resort town, he still has to work - photographing occasional weddings or editing commercial videos.

"I'm no 'trustafarian,' " he said.

This year, the Forest Service donated Verbenone and offered suggestions for places the agency wants cone-bearing trees to survive. It's a way for the feds to increase their reach.

The conservation work is becoming something of a job for Gonzales. By contracting with Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, he has started going back to where it began on that chairlift and taking tourists to the top to learn about the dying whitebark.

Those visitors pay $100 for the ecotourism experience of applying Verbenone, and his share helps him focus more time on the volunteer excursions instead of side jobs. More important, he said, tourists get to reach out and feel an organism that climate change is afflicting.

"When you bring people out here," he said, "you're involving them in the story in a way that you can't involve them with melting ice caps or bleaching corral reefs."

It's a connection he hopes will make a difference in how people use energy, the root of this forest's collapse, he believes. In the demise of an otherwise-invisible alpine forest, Gonzales thinks visitors might foresee what excessive carbon-dioxide emissions could do to all life.


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"It's up to the American consumer to decide whether we want to choke to death on our own farts. That's embarrassing." Gonzales said. "It's up to us to decide we could live proportional lives and not flagrantly use so much more energy than we need."

bloomis@sltrib.com



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