Mountain pine beetles are killing Colorado’s forests little by little, ravaging mountainsides, increasing the risk of wildfires and destroying the ecosystem. That’s what the people want to hear, but is it true? Not quite.
According to University of Colorado forestry researcher Tom Veblen, this catastrophe has simply not happened. Mountain pine beetles are a native species that play a crucial role in supporting the natural ecosystem in many forests. Woodpeckers, elk and decomposer beetles thrive off of dead trees and the decomposition of affected trees allows for more nutritious herbaceous growth. The larger problem at hand is getting the public to understand exactly what they should be worried about: our rapidly changing climate.
Veblen and other researchers published a report challenging the conventional wisdom that bark beetles are a destructive concern to forest ecosystems and on the day the report came out, regional forester Rick Cables told the press he disagreed with Veblen’s findings.
“They said they are tired of being lectured to by professors and that if we wanted to have a greater impact with the management community we had to have a greater involvement with the forest service scientists and managers,” Veblen said.
Around a year after the initial report was published, Veblen and a group of separate authors sat down for a workshop to discuss the issue at hand with scientists and the forest service. Two years after that meeting, a new report by Merrill Kaufmann was issued with the same conclusion. So what is the problem?
“It’s not that we like to just cause trouble, but it’s our job as academics, as tenured faculty members, to question the conventional wisdom and not feel any sort of pressure from management,” Veblen said.
There are political attempts every day around the world to shut down environmental monitoring. Society puts so much attention on pinpointing a specific problem that their eyes are taken off the main event.
“The climate is changing and we can do anything we want to try to minimize the interactions between beetle outbreaks and fires…but in a continually changing climate that is going to have less and less and less of an outcome on actually keeping these forest ecosystems around in the way that we know and like them,” said forest ecologist Brian Harvey.
Beetle outbreaks and wildfires are coincident from southeastern Alaska all the way down to northern Mexico through the Rockies. While researchers, scientists and the public like to hypothesize on the situation, the only common trait in all the regions is climate change.
According to Brian Harvey, our society is so stuck in a way of thinking that fires are something we can control and tame, but in the end they are good for the ecosystem and we should let nature run its course.
“For most of us when we get a fire or beetle outbreak, when we’re not thinking about the poor people who had a tree fall over and land on them…that’s a good thing! That’s really doing what the forest managers would like to do, but for free,” said Veblen.
“Every story needs to end with a statement,” Veblen said. “It’s fossil fuels, and until we have some major major political, societal changes we’re not going to be doing anything about it unfortunately.”